Sustainable Procurement: Where to Start?

When it comes to running a sustainable business and attracting environmentally-minded Millennials to your brand, there are a few well-known wins that companies can enact, especially when it comes to sustainable procurement and waste minimization.

Avoid Styrofoam packaging. No plastic film shopping bags. Ensure recycling bins are beside every waste bin, especially in your front-of-house. Perhaps add a compost bin to address the growing problem of food waste. None of these are tips you haven’t heard before, and for the most part, these are somewhat easy wins. But they alone will not make your company truly ‘sustainable’ or enable your organization to achieve Zero Waste.

In fact, the shift gets hard when changes begin to impact business operations and product mix. Sustainable procurement and Zero Waste often go hand-in-hand, so whether it’s trying to build your external brand or embark on a full zero waste journey, here are some heavier hitting tips to truly get you started.

Big wins. You have some big wins in your trash – every business does.  Is it packaging materials, to-go containers, food waste or cardboard boxes (OCC)? You probably have a general idea of the main culprits, but if not, you can use the Rubicon Snap tool, which uses machine learning to generate a quick assessment of your waste stream. We find that OCC is one of the most common issues, for businesses both large and small, and it’s one of the biggest wins.

Depending on the size and scale of your business and operations, having OCC pile up in your dumpster, roll-off containers or compactors could be costing you anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars extra on your waste bill each month. However, setting up a recycling program with your waste provider could lower your waste bill and in the best case scenarios, recoup some additional income from OCC rebates (depending on your quantity of OCC). Who knew something as simple as a cardboard box could make such a difference?

Data. So you’ve assessed your waste composition and you’ve made some adjustments to gain some big wins. Now what? What if I told you sustainable procurement can actually save you money? And there is data in your waste that can help you make more sustainable procurement decisions.

Take Styrofoam for example. It’s almost impossible to make a financial case for switching out Styrofoam cups, containers, packaging peanuts, etc. for a different material on purchase price alone, because it is by far the cheapest priced option. But what if you had data over a 6 or 12-month period that showed Styrofoam was filling up your dumpster, roll-off container or compactor to the tune of 3-5 trash pickups per week? Waste haulers charge by two things: number of pickups, and tonnage. While Styrofoam is light, its density causes unnecessary waste hauls. Because Styrofoam isn’t a common recyclable like OCC, you can’t just switch it over to a recycling/rebate program. But you can swap out Styrofoam for a more sustainable option that would result in your trash pickups dropping each week, bringing in savings to the total cost of disposal and offsetting any increase in procurement. All of a sudden, it makes business sense to ditch the Styrofoam.

Get creative. So what happens when you achieve 86% toward Zero Waste, you’ve made the big wins and you’ve used data to justify more sustainable procurement practices, but you’ve hit a roadblock? There’s always some pesky thing for which you’ll have trouble finding a solution – maybe it’s uniforms, signature packaging, something that your brand absolutely cannot part with despite the environmental impact. If you cannot change procurement and you cannot change the material’s ‘end of life’ destination, rethink the solution in terms of ‘next use’. Rubicon has helped a number of its customers get creative with these types of downstream challenges.

For example, our customers have rerouted 1,500 pounds of granite countertop to Habitat for Humanity; baled and shredded 35 tons of employee uniforms for automotive soundproofing; diverted 40 tons (8 truckloads) of seafood vessels from landfill; sent 1,500 tons of organic material to an anaerobic digester, which uses energy and byproducts to fuel and fertilize its farm. These are just a handful of individual examples, but there are many, many more. Not only do these creative solutions build sustainable brands, but also they save the businesses money on waste costs.

So whether you’re trying to simply (or not so simply) make the case for nixing Styrofoam to-go containers, or you’re setting out on a full on Zero Waste journey, remember that a few big wins, mixed with some data and creativity will get you well on your way, and likely save you some cash at the same time.

David Rachelson presents more on this topic at the Sustainable Purchasing Leadership Council 2017 Summit in Denver on May 10th.

Rubicon is a founding member of the U.S. Zero Waste Business Council.

David Rachelson