Most businesses have already mastered the basics of glass, paper and plastic. Now, companies are looking for other ways to turn waste into a resource.

This spring, a group of green-minded business leaders met for lunch at Otterbein University to share waste-reduction strategies and learn about innovative sustainability initiatives under way in Central Ohio.

The Business Roundtable, presented by the Solid Waste Authority of Central Ohio (SWACO), attracts industries of all varieties and sizes. Between 35 and 45 local businesses are expected at the June forum. The purpose of the quarterly networking and information-sharing event is twofold, says event organizer Bonni Trice, SWACO's grants and management planner.

"We want to bring companies information on recycling and sustainability issues, and to provide a forum for them to exchange information about their own situations with their businesses--challenges they've faced, challenges they're currently facing and how they handle them," Trice says.

"The move away from the basics is the biggest thing that's happening now," says Trice. "[Businesses] feel as though they've conquered the office paper, bottles and cans." Now, with the help of SWACO as well as waste-hauling contractors and partners within the business community, environmentally conscious companies are implementing more sophisticated recycling programs.

Once a costly and time-consuming initiative, commercial recycling has become a less burdensome venture that has the potential to benefit a company's bottom line as much as it helps the environment. Many Columbus businesses are realizing that their waste streams are a latent economic resource. Thinking environmentally is thinking economically.

"This industry over the last few years has been moving in the direction of looking at recycling as a resource," says Ron Mills, SWACO's executive director. SWACO, one of 52 solid waste districts created in 1989 by the Ohio General Assembly, seeks to reduce landfill use, in part by providing the support businesses need to implement cost-effective waste-reduction programs.

"We need to look at this a different way. We hear the term ‘environmental sustainability' a lot, but it's not good enough to be environmentally stable," says Mills. "You can have a great environmental idea, but if it doesn't make good economic sense, in most cases it doesn't stick around very long."

Turning environmental responsibility into an economic reality is central to the success of SWACO's waste-reduction goals. The majority of SWACO landfill contents come from businesses, and the organization estimates 60 percent of the waste it receives is recyclable.

"We have a legislative mandate from the state to plan and put into effect programs designed to reduce reliance on landfilling as a primary waste management technique in favor of recycling and waste recovery programs," Mills says.

Green Is Good Business

The first step businesses should take when beginning a recycling program is to conduct a waste audit to evaluate what they're throwing away and how much of it can be recycled.

SWACO offers a walk-through service as well as a "do-it-yourself" audit on its website, which also has online programs to help companies track hauling and recycling costs. An audit can help businesses find a waste-hauling contract best suited to their needs.

Rumpke Recycling, which processes 8,000 tons of material per month at its Columbus recovery facility, has free waste audits for business customers of all sizes. "One of the first things we offer is a summary, a report about different items being placed in the trash. Whether they're throwing away cardboard boxes, plastic bottles from a lunchroom, from a waste audit we can offer some customized recycling programs for that business," says Rumpke spokesman Jonathan Kissell.

"We realize that businesses and companies need to see an economic benefit to recycling in addition to the environmental benefit," Kissell says. "We can accommodate any size business, from a location with two or three employees to a business with more than 1,000 employees. Each program will look different depending on the individual needs of the business.

"If we notice a lot of shrink-wrap, we can offer a program for that material. If they have large volumes of a material, we can find a way to recycle it and help reduce the cost of the trash collection," Kissell says.

A growing number of waste haulers sort recyclables for their commercial clients. Instead of separating soda cans, paper products and glass and plastic bottles into separate bins, businesses commingle recyclables and Rumpke sorts them at its facility, saving customers both time and storage space.

SWACO announced in March that it will waive all fees for source-separated recyclable materials. That amounts to a savings of $9 per ton in fees for waste haulers that separate these items from trash before hauling them to the landfill. The move is expected to bolster local recycling efforts and save businesses money.

‘We Want to Make a Difference'

Recycling is part of the business plan at Boehringer Ingelheim Roxane Inc. (BIRI). The pharmaceutical company's Columbus manufacturing arm employs 900 people. BIRI has had a recycling program since 1995, though it really took off around 2000, says Mark Slaiman, BIRI's environmental health and safety specialist.

"We recycle a million pounds a year of materials: cardboard, plastics, metal drums, aluminum cans, scrap steel, fiber drums. Sometimes we can even recycle fluorescent light bulbs, universal waste and computers," Slaiman says.

BIRI is a member of the city of Columbus's "Green Spot" recognition program, and its representatives sit on the SWACO board and participate in Business Roundtable forums. The company contracts with three companies for recyclables hauling, recycling 72 percent of its total waste output. The cost savings? "Easily $50,000 to $75,000 annually," Slaiman says.

"Not only do BIRI employees make a difference by making good drug products, we want to make a difference in our communities by recycling. It's really a business plan more than a cost plan," he says.

Of course, not all recycling programs generate an immediate savings. BIRI's programs took years to develop. "We're at the point now, the savings are not always there, but it's the right thing to do, so we will recycle [materials] instead of sending them to the landfill," says Jim Murphy, BIRI's associate director of environmental health and safety.

The company uses an in-house scorecard to audit its waste stream. The goal is to increase recycling on a year-over-year basis. BIRI's biggest challenge has been developing a successful recycling program while meeting U.S. Food and Drug Administration standards for pharmaceutical waste disposal.

BIRI worked with SWACO's Mills to develop some custom solutions, including a pilot program for recycling the large amount of plastic shrink-wrap that was being thrown away.

Slaiman offers pointers to other businesses looking to start recycling programs: "Look at starting with an audit of your materials. See what you're throwing in the Dumpster," he advises. "Once we started tracking things, we were surprised at how much we could recycle and how much we weren't doing."

Data Disposal

In addition to capitalizing on new waste-reduction opportunities, businesses must also keep up with the challenges of recycling in the digital age.

Financial institutions, law offices and medical practices rely heavily on digital technology to store their customers' personal information, which presents a unique recycling challenge. Computers, CDs and DVDs, smartphones and even copy machines all need to have their data wiped clean before they're sent to an electronics recycler.

"The best clients, they already get it, but for every one of them there are 50,000 who don't get it," says Donald Tillman, owner and operator of Safe Data Destruction, which offers onsite data destruction at customers' offices. Shredding hard drives or simply dumping computers in trash bins (which is illegal in most municipalities) can expose companies to data breaches. Such moves are not only bad for the environment, but also a potential legal liability.

"The first tier is that [improper disposal] doesn't meet any legal standards, so you're ready to be sued," says Tillman. "It only gets worse from there. When you shred hard discs, they're harder to recycle."

When the aluminum and other metals in computer drives are shredded together--Tillman calls it a "Play-Doh scenario"--it becomes nearly impossible for recycling companies to reuse the materials. A better solution, Tillman says, is to ensure that all data is erased (his company uses methods utilized by the U.S. Department of Defense) and then recycle the entire computer.

From the Ground Up

Often, a business's commitment to recycling begins with its workforce. "Companies have employees who are involved. A lot of the time, their employees create the green teams, they implement the programs," says SWACO's Trice.

Much of the growth in sustainable business practices over the past decade has been pushed by environmentally conscious employees. Trice credits workers with advancing employers' waste-reduction policies "beyond recycling paper and cans to looking at, ‘How can we be better stewards of the environment?' "

Columbus restaurateur and entrepreneur Elizabeth Lessner agrees. "It was really our staff that pushed us toward recycling," says the founder of the Betty's Family of Restaurants, which includes Dirty Frank's Hot Dog Palace, the Jury Room, Tip Top Kitchen & Cocktails, Surly Girl Saloon and Betty's Fine Food & Spirits.

"If you work in a restaurant on a typical busy night and you see the amount of bottles that you throw away, or if you're a prep cook [and are aware of] the amount of cans it takes ... people who work on the front lines, who bartend, who cook, are really in touch with it," says Lessner.

Despite increasing environmental awareness, in most bars and restaurants a large portion of recyclables still go uncollected. Compostable food scraps make up the bulk of the waste that restaurants send to landfills.

"It's obscene," Lessner says. "We shouldn't be throwing away that much. Our company mission is to leave our neighborhood and community better than we found them. When you see that trash that comes out of your business and goes to a landfill, that's really not being good to your community, your neighborhood or your environment."

Lessner channeled that frustration into Eartha Limited, a startup recycling company and waste hauler she co-founded with Mike Minnix that targets the specific needs of Columbus restaurants. "Restaurants need [their recyclables] picked up that night or that morning because you can't have food scraps sitting around," she says.

Eartha's fleet of pickup-sized trucks can access the tight alleys in German Village and the Short North, where restaurant dock areas are unreachable by larger vehicles. "If you have a restaurant in the deepest, weirdest corner in German Village, we can get your recyclables. The importance of Eartha is getting those trucks to show up every day," Lessner says.

Eartha's hauling trucks themselves turn business waste into a business resource. The fleet is fueled by used fryer grease. Dirty Frank's, the smallest restaurant in the Betty's chain, puts out 132 gallons of grease a week. Lessner used to pay to have the grease recycled--now it goes into Eartha's biodiesel processor and is turned into fuel for the trucks. "They smell like french fries as they drive by," she says.

In addition to food waste pickup, Eartha offers recycling consultations, restaurant waste audits and image-based training materials. The company has also developed a line of restaurant bioproducts, including compostable flatware and trash bags and to-go containers made from 100 percent corn-based products. "We're getting close to Styrofoam costs. We're working with economies of scale, so we'll get there soon," Lessner says.

As Eartha and other Central Ohio companies have shown, even the most ambitious goals are within reach with cooperation between local businesses and the recycling industry. Mills says the overall goal of SWACO's municipal and state recycling efforts in 2011 and beyond is to promote Central Ohio as a place to conduct economically and environmentally sustainable business. Ideally, he says, recycling will present opportunities to utilize the waste stream to create jobs and stimulate Ohio's economy. Already, SWACO's disposal rate is 35 percent lower than other landfills in the region.

"Because we take this approach, we have the lowest cost landfill disposal rate in Central Ohio. What we have here is actually a resource [which] should be very attractive to companies looking to start up or relocate," Mills says. "We are providing an economic incentive for business to relocate here because we are keeping their cost of business low."

Kitty McConnell is a freelance writer.

Reprinted from the June 2011 issue of Columbus C.E.O. Copyright © Columbus C.E.O.