Friday, November 9, 2012

Green Businesses: Redefining the Bottom Line

 2013 Chevy Volt      (photo/

 General Motors has set a different kind of bottom line for car companies, reducing and reusing waste material to zero at more than half of its manufacturing plants around the world.

PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay is taking similar action in food manufacturing, building what it calls a “netzero” plant in Arizona designed to operate on recycled water, solar-panel energy, biomass fuel and cutting edge waste reduction.

“This is an investment in our future. This is an investment in environmental sustainability,” Al Halvorsen, a Frito-Lay executive, said during a panel discussion at the Society of Environmental Journalists annual conference recently. “For businesses to succeed, societies must succeed as well,” he added in a rare discussion with a roomful of journalists about corporate moves to reduce their impact on the natural environment.

GM showcased its “green business” stance by displaying its newest Chevy Volt hybrid-electric car at the Society of Environmental Journalists conference in Lubbock, Texas in October. While many conference participants were drawn to test-drive the Volt, my attention was hooked by large posters highlighting GM’s “landfill free” actions at scores of facilities. The posters flanked a literature table headed by the company’s environment and energy communications manager, Sharon K. Basel. 

"If you put a bag of trash on the curb each week," Basel told the Detroit News in April, "you're putting more trash on the curb than our 99 (landfill-free) facilities combined."

This is an astounding development, given the massive flow of industrial debris dumped by auto manufacturers over decades that created toxic waste sites across the US. How did GM do this? Creative step by step, the Detroit News reported. “For example, engineers converted Chevrolet Volt battery-pack covers that were scrapped during the development process into wood-duck nesting boxes at the Wildlife Habitat Council-certified grounds of GM's Customer Care & Aftersales Center in Grand Blanc.

"’A lot of the stuff we've incorporated has come from employee ideas,’ Basel said. For GM, recycling means dollars, too. The company has recorded about $2.5 billion in revenue since 2007 by selling recycled materials.”

This is a business-oriented environmental story I don’t recall seeing reported previously. It gets more interesting the further I dug into it when I got home from the conference.    

“In a sustainability report published last January … GM said its number of landfill-free facilities rose from 0 in 2000 and 1 in 2005 to 76 in 2010, and in that year its facilities recycled 92 percent of the waste they generated. In the report, GM committed to achieve 25 more landfill-free sites and reduce total waste by an additional 10 percent by 2020,” Environmental Leader website reported in June.

Among GM’s innovative actions, the environmental and energy management news site noted, are these: “The company has been re-purposing a wide variety of material. In conjunction with its suppliers, GM recycles scrap cardboard from various plants into a sound absorber on the Buick Lacrosse and Verano interior roof. Air deflectors on the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickup trucks are made with used tires from the automaker’s proving ground.”

In a business culture that traditionally emphasizes trade secrets, GM executives decided to tell other companies how they managed these improvements. “GM is sharing the lessons it's learned with other corporations, such as PepsiCo's Frito-Lay,” The Detroit News reported. "’That is a big focus for us, to help mentor and train and share our best practices with other companies,’ Basel said.”

GM created a blueprint for landfill-free waste reduction and posted it on its website. “In the blueprint, GM gives nine steps on how to make plants and facilities landfill free such as tracking waste data, defining zero waste, prioritizing waste-reduction activities, engaging employees and building a sustainability culture, strengthening supplier partnerships, and resolving regulatory challenges,” Waste & Recycling News reported last month.

Why are big corporations like GM and Frito-Lay acting like environmental activists?

“Sustainability really isn’t a choice any more,” Sharlene Leurig, senior manager of water and insurance programs at Ceres, said during the SEJ panel discussion on “Green Businesses.”  Ceres is a coalition focused on sustainable business practices.  What got business executives’ attention, she said, is “the scale of disruptions” in doing business because of water shortages in drought areas and “extreme weather events” erupting around the world.

“The climate is changing,” Leurig said. “Companies are noticing.”

 Halvorsen, the Frito-Lay executive, said multinational companies take supply disruptions from weather-related disasters very seriously—such as floods in Thailand that closed manufacturing supply plants. Many businesses now work with conservation groups on issues such as deforestation that contribute to more severe floods, for instance.

“We are active with about 400 corporations to try to improve sustainability in the world,” he said.

Halvorsen said his company and others are looking to change what goes on in agricultural and other practices in their supply chain that impact the environment. “There’s some dramatic things we can do,” he said. 

For more information:

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Election Day USA

Voters in Rockaway, NY     (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The young woman walked up to the closed, dark community center and burst into tears. “Where can I vote?” she said to an older woman standing in the virtually empty parking lot. “This is my first time.”

And so began a conversation among strangers that led to my being asked to drive the young woman to an elementary school across town where the voting districts that usually set up in the community center had been moved in the wake of Hurricane Sandy’s swath of destruction across New Jersey. When she came out of the elementary school, the young woman, a high school senior juggling a job at a fast food restaurant and unsure what she wants to do in life, burst into a big smile. “I feel empowered,” she said of her vote.

Hours later, a forlorn figure came striding across the dark parking lot to two people standing by a car. “Where can I vote?” said the well-dressed woman toting a large bag. “I just got off the bus from work.” I dropped her off in front of the school in a far corner of Teaneck, NJ with ten minutes to spare before the polls closed.

Earlier in the day, I gave a ride to two older men speaking Russian and a woman with a Caribbean accent. The neighborhood around the community center is a sometimes uneasy mixture of middle class African-Americans, conservative Orthodox Jews and liberal Manhattan transplants. The most divisive selection on the ballot was perhaps the local school board race, certainly right up there with the contest for president of the US.  

Residents of this suburban neighborhood anxiously coped with the frustrations of leaving a home without electricity—or which had only recently gotten it back after a week without power—to find their polling place closed by the storm. They coped by cooperating with strangers offering directions or a ride to an unfamiliar part of town.

Some who stopped by looking to vote came back from the polls and joined the tiny band of volunteers. “This is the best thing I could do today,” said a tall, distinguished-looking hospital administrator. A former youth league basketball coach, he connected with many of the confused voters by recalling coaching their kids.

The woman with a Caribbean accent returned in her husband’s pickup truck with a magic marker. She was upset that when she had walked over to vote, a sign directed voters to go to Hawthorne Elementary School. “I’m not going to drive to Hawthorne, NJ!” she said angrily. She hand-wrote under the name of the school: “Teaneck.”

And then she settled in to spend the rest of the day helping reassure voters anxious about gasoline supplies that they didn’t have to drive to a polling place in a distant town in the next county. Hour after hour, she greeted confused drivers and walkers, handing out copies of Google map directions and organizing car pools to the school. “I’m a state supervisor,” she said, referring to her job as a medical supervisor at a state retirement home for military veterans. “I feel this is what I should be doing today.”

Meanwhile, my partner alternated greeting lost voters and calling election and municipal officials on her cell phone for assistance. She pressed the municipal manager to provide copies of map directions and an emergency light for the parking lot when evening approached. A DPW worker stopped by, assessed the situation and said he’d see what could be done. Two National Guard trucks arrived and their crews unloaded boxes of emergency shelter beds. “That’s for the next storm,” someone said, referring to the Nor’easter predicted to whip in off the ocean on top of the hurricane damage.

Shortly before sunset, the municipal manager strode out of the building and announced that the lights had been restored. Then the municipal workers and the National Guard drove off.

The parking lot grew dark and lonely, even with the newly restored lights. A woman who had stopped by earlier in the day drove in and parked. “I’m back to help,” she said. As they waited for voters to swing in and abruptly stop, stunned to see the community center closed, the latest volunteer and my partner suddenly started whooping. They discovered they had both been at the same New York City public school years ago, as a teacher and student in another class.    

A car drove in. The driver was a college student still wearing his cooking uniform from a culinary institute up the Hudson River. “Hurry up,” my partner said, giving directions to the school. “You can still make it to vote.” 


Saturday, November 3, 2012

Stormy Weather

Hurricane Sandy, Cape May, NJ  (AP photo/Mel Evans)
Nobody was prepared for the force of Hurricane Sandy when it smacked into the Jersey shore on Monday: Not the barrier island towns turned into miles-long piles of mangled houses, buried cars and burning gas lines, and their dazed, defiant old-timers who’d weathered previous storms, but had to be rescued by police and National Guard units.
Not the state of New Jersey, whose Obama-bashing Republican governor was reduced to asking the Democratic president for massive federal aid, as lines of desperate drivers snaked along roads across the state seeking some gasoline from the few service stations that had electricity, and millions of residents shivered in homes with no lights or heat.

Not the city of New York, where the storm surge swamped subway tunnels and car tunnels, flooded power stations that shorted out electric power to large swathes of the city, as winds gusting to 100 miles per hour closed bridges, airports and fanned flames that burned out an entire seaside community.

And not the federal government, which scrambled to mobilize military units to fly in utility crews from other states to help untangle broken power lines and fallen trees, fix or replace exploded transformers and flooded substations; FEMA and other federal agency aid teams faced with millions of increasingly restive people without electricity and heat and running out of food; and logistics teams to organize the movement of gasoline supplies to the region’s thousands of largely darkened service stations.        

In our little corner of Teaneck, NJ, power returned after four days, thanks to a crew of utility workers from Florida who worked long hours to replace a transformer down the street that burst into flames during the hellacious winds that whipped through here on Monday, toppling trees across the region. We celebrated with friends with a potluck supper that was all that remained of a poetry reading we’d planned to hold at a local arts center. Beyond our few, happy blocks of light, most of our town and as far as one could see across Bergen County was still dark Friday night.

Meanwhile, long lines of cars, vans and trucks formed near the few service stations that were open. A long line of people on foot with gas cans waited at a gas station in a neighboring town, hoping to get some fuel for generators or to drive to work even after the station ran out and closed the pumps. The gasoline crisis prompted New Jersey Governor Christie to order odd/even rationing based on the last numeral on one's license plate and the date of the month. Even so, a service station near our home closed this morning after it quickly sold out its supply to a flash-mob of drivers and walkers with gas cans. A worker at the station said he didn’t know when they would get resupplied.