By John Garvey

We’re going to be real candid here. Most things marketed as “sustainability” efforts are more accurately “waste reduction” initiatives.

What’s wrong with waste reduction, you ask? Nothing whatsoever—it’s great! What follows are some proven insights on how to reduce waste, adopt more sustainable business practices, boost your bottom line and win customers. While progress towards sustainability and cost savings may seem at odds, there are plenty of win-wins. Some of the following tips apply mainly to retailers, others to restaurant managers, but many are flex options that apply to various industries.

1) Adopt a paperless documentation system

M&E painting in Fort Collins recently rolled out a paperless documentation system. While this saves hundreds of pounds of paper, the more impressive benefit is saved time.

Off the cuff, M&E Founder Matt Shoup estimates that M&E’s new paperless documentation system saves each team member a couple hours a week. While the new system was challenging to implement, he expects it to pay for itself many times over.

“It’s been received really well,” notes Shoup.

“The other thing that it did was it freed up a lot of physical space in our office where we were storing paper and filing cabinets,” he adds.

Stack of paper cups in a coffee shop2) Default to waste reduction options with day-to-day customer service

When was the last time you ordered a drink at a coffee shop, fully intending to enjoy it there, and were given a to-go cup complete with a plastic lid and sleeve? Yesterday? Last week? Conversely, when was the last time you came home with carry-out and said, “Great! I don’t have to borrow silverware from my neighbor because they put plastic utensils in my to-go bag!”

You get the picture. Giving out single-use, throw away items usually isn’t the best practice to default to from a business perspective. Changing that default is a quick win, saving money and reducing waste without compromising your customers’ experience.

Additionally, compostable utensils, cups, napkins and to-go boxes are now affordable for most businesses, thanks to industry leader Eco-Products and other companies.

3) Identify low-hanging fruits for energy savings

LED lighting and other commercially-available, affordable technologies cut utilities bills substantially. LED bulbs cost more than conventional bulbs, but they pay for themselves several times over in the form of lower utilities bills and much longer life cycles. If your frame of reference on pricing or quality isn’t current, take a fresh look: The Department of Energy reports that the price of LED bulbs fell 85 percent from 2008 to 2013, and is still dropping. Their light quality and longevity have improved over the same period. Yay LEDs!
Various light bulbs hanging
Still not sure? Check out this resource: Philips LED savings calculator to help make informed decisions on building upgrades.

If you own the building you conduct business out of, or if you’re responsible for utilities on a long-term lease, consider an energy audit and retrofit. With a deep energy retrofit, a company such as Efficiency Matters, here in Fort Collins, first takes a thorough look at your building to identify the most cost-effective ways to improve its efficiency. They then retrofit the building, strategically insulating key portions of it, sealing leaky areas, changing out incandescent light bulbs and, in some cases, replacing windows.

These deep energy retrofits may have a long financial payment period in terms of utilities savings, but they have an immediate payback in terms of comfort. Perhaps more enticing to a landlord or property manager, studies show that energy-efficient buildings have lower vacancy rates and less frequent turnover than conventional buildings.

If you have an open-minded landlord, he may be willing to assume the cost of these upgrades. The building owner is really the long-term beneficiary here because buildings that have low operating costs, good indoor air quality, minimal ambient noise and minimal temperature fluctuations attract better tenants. That’s property management 101.

Red bike parked in front of an office4) Incentivize alternative transportation

If you’re in a multi-tenant building you may be able to renegotiate your lease to unbundle on-site parking. Encouraging employees to bike, carpool or use public transportation is easy in places like Colorado’s Front Range, but admittedly not everywhere. That said, if you can save a couple hundred dollars a month by freeing up a couple parking spaces, why not try?

You wouldn’t be the first to do this. Every lease at Boulder Commons, a Net Zero Energy office building in Boulder, has parking and office space unbundled. The fewer parking spots your employees take up, the more your business saves.

Installing bike racks in front of your store is another way to encourage biking to work that can also attract clients. This is both because of the signal it sends and because of the convenience.

Orange tire hung on brick wall as planter5) Use drought-resistant landscaping

Next time you’re giving your landscaping a face lift, using indigenous plants can cut back on water bills. If your business has minimal or incomplete landscaping this is also a good investment. Why? Views of nature increase productivity and reduce sick days, studies show. Potted plants or, if you’re really ambitious, a living wall may also improve indoor air quality, which improves mental focus, self-reported happiness and employee health.

6) Purchase renewable energy credits to offset energy use

Many businesses that don’t have the wherewithal to generate all their own energy with renewables opt to buy renewable energy credits (RECs) to offset their energy use. The Rio, New Belgium, Odell Brewing and dozens of businesses in Northern Colorado do this. Buying wind energy or supporting a solar energy cooperative costs somewhat more than conventionally-sourced electricity, but whether an end in itself or a means of attracting eco-conscious customers it can be an affordable and sound decision.

7) “Gamify” your waste reduction efforts

You can’t manage what you don’t measure. Challenging your team to reduce waste by measuring and charting how much you’re hauling makes waste reduction efforts tangible. This can also be done with energy consumed, total commuting miles by car and anything else that will galvanize employees without seeming overbearing. With a little flair, tracking waste reduction can be fun and morale-boosting.

8) Restaurateurs: Compost when feasible

Hands holding dirtCase in point: Happy Lucky’s Teahouse

Happy Lucky’s Teahouse, one of our partners in Fort Collins, quickly became a downtown staple after opening in 2009. In fact, my first visit to Happy Lucky’s completely changed my conception of what tea is supposed to taste like. I’ve been back many times.

“Our biggest waste reduction, started when Happy Lucky’s Teahouse opened in 2009, is composting our used tea leaves,” notes owner and “Chief Leafster” George Grossman. “Through the years different customers have brought in five gallon buckets which we fill with our spent tea leaves.

“Composting tea leaves happens fairly quickly even in our relatively dry Colorado climate. My worms in the basement love them too. Composted tea leaves smell great and can help any garden.”

Depending on they kind of organic waste your business disposes of, different composting methods (basic composting or commercial/industrial composting) may be used. Industrial composting “is financially advantageous over landfill-bound waste hauling in areas where a compost facility is within 50 miles,” notes CBRE Sustainability Manager Emily Willson, writing for GreenBiz.com.

One man’s waste is another (cow’s) treasure

If you’re in, or near, an agrarian community, livestock can take a lot of food waste off your hands, saving you hauling fees and eliminating a major source of atmospheric pollution. To touch on that second point: food breaking down in landfills it produces methane, which has over 25 times the greenhouse effect as CO2. You may even get a modest additional source of revenue if you’re a brewery or cidery because leftover apple pomace mash and spent brewers grains are nutrient-rich (and livestock love them). Here in Fort Collins, Summit Hard Cider, New Belgium, Horse and Dragon Brewery and several other beverage makers do this. It’s a win-win.

That said, food waste is a bear. Different composting processes are required for different types of food waste. If not contained and hauled promptly it can also become an odor hazard. Companies like A-1 Organics that specialize in industrial food waste composting may be able to serve you affordably if your business isn’t far away. The U.S. Composting Council website is a great resource for restauranteurs interested in implementing a composting program.

Case in point: Rio Grande Mexican Restaurant

“With compost in particular, there’ve been issues with finding people to haul it,” discloses Erich Whisenhunt, the Director of Food and Beverage for Rio Grande Mexican Restaurant (“The Rio”).

Whisenhunt lives on a small farm and gives food waste from the kitchen prep line (vegetable trimmings and the like) to his pigs.

“For restaurants on a small scale, that’s a pretty good solution,” he states.

During Whisenhunt’s tenure as Kitchen Manager, he oversaw various waste diversion efforts including glass-to-glass recycling, food waste composting and vegetable oil recycling for biofuels.

9) Finally, make sure you take rebates into account if you’re looking into ROI

Rebates vary by state and locality, but they can often nudge a waste reduction effort from a “no-go” to a “go” by shortening the payback period of certain sustainability initiatives. If you’re on the fence about a lighting retrofit or food waste composting plan, double-check with the relevant local, state and federal offices. Yes, some rebates distort incentives, steering people to the less beneficial of two initiatives, but we’re here to help you run a business, not critique policy.

While some sustainability investments are a values call, many have a decent bottom-line justification. In other words, environmental stewardship and sound business judgement are often one and the same.

Going back to the point we opened with, however, make sure you’re walking the talk. You don’t have to obsess over sustainability to run a good, admirable business, but if your behavior is out of sync with your public voice it’s likely to be labeled as “greenwashing.”

We’d love to hear from you if you choose to implement any of these ideas, wish to add to the discussion or even disagree with anything.

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