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Posted: June 01, 2008

When less is more

From less-to zero-waste philosophies, Colorado companies go beyond recycling

Grace Hood

Here’s what you may notice upon entering Boulder Outlook Hotel & Suites. Its sky-lit entryway ushers guests to a wood-paneled reception desk. A waterfall at the nearby pool echoes in the building’s spacious interior. Guests linger comfortably in a nearby seating area.

Right next to the reception desk is something you might not see. A handwritten message on a dry-erase board reads: Outlook Hotel is a zero-waste hotel. So far we have saved 734 trees, kept 679 cubic yards of trash out of the landfill, saved 300,000 gallons of water, 281,000 kwh of electricity, 2,700 pounds of air pollutants, 6,900 cubic feet of methane gas.

The Outlook is one of a growing number of Colorado businesses to embrace a zero-waste philosophy, which aims to reduce waste by composting, recycling and diminishing consumption of natural resources. For these businesses, a commitment to the environment goes beyond the daily recycling of paper and plastics.

Adopting a zero-waste plan was not cheap for Outlook Hotel Owner and Manager Dan King, who estimates it cost thousands in upfront capital and hours of employee training. But two years into his new waste-management plan, King says that it has saved the hotel money, improved employee retention and attracted thousands of dollars of new revenue every month.

"It’s been the best investment we’ve ever made," he says.

Two years ago, words like "zero waste," "compost" and "carbon footprint" weren’t commonly uttered in business settings. Now, due to increased energy costs and a growing environmental ethic, companies are looking more closely at less- and zero-waste philosophies, modeling themselves after King and others.

In Colorado, interest has reached new heights due to the influence of the Democratic National Convention, which is being touted as the greenest political convention ever. But as more businesses jump on the green bandwagon, industries are increasingly struggling with what it means to be environmentally friendly.

Andrea Robinson, director of sustainability and greening for the Democratic National Convention Committee, says that businesses are waking up to the fact that a reduced carbon footprint can green both the environment and the bottom line. For Robinson, one thing is clear: Businesses that change with the tide will build significant momentum in the coming years. "The businesses that don’t will be left in the dust," she says.

An environmental ethic
Denver may be the epicenter of greening efforts this summer, but it is the city’s neighbor to the north, Boulder, that has seen Colorado’s highest concentration of businesses adopting reduced- and zero-waste philosophies in recent years. The shift is no coincidence. Both the city and county of Boulder have zero-waste resolutions, which identify the philosophy as a way to divert significant waste from the landfill.

"Companies in our community understand that to be part of (it), they need to have an environmental ethic — that’s expected," says Marti Matsch, communications director for Eco-Cycle, a nonprofit Boulder recycling center that worked with the city and county to adopt the resolutions.

"Voluntarily, these businesses have taken it upon themselves to do the right thing."

Matsch and Eco-Cycle work with businesses to achieve zero- and less-waste goals. Regardless of whether it’s a manufacturer, retailer or business office, the first step always involves changing the infrastructure of the company’s collection system, diverting traditional trash into compost, recycling and resource recovery.

For King and Boulder Outlook, this translated into adding four different receptacles (co-mingled containers, paper/cardboard, compost and trash) where traditional garbage cans stood — revamping a total of 180 waste collection points throughout the hotel.

For paper recycling receptacles, King purchased and reused white boxes from a Denver warehouse. To kick off his company’s new program, he threw a party for hotel staff and their families, who painted the boxes with recycled house paint. King says this was one of the most important steps in the process.

"It was very important to get staff involved early," King says. "There was a three-month period where we kept tweaking how this worked on a daily basis. The staff stepped up and became involved in this process."

King then looked at reducing the carbon footprint of the hotel, switching to energy-efficient lighting, a laundry service and toilets that utilized less water. The hotel restaurant began composting and donating its fryer grease for biodiesel production, in addition to swapping out Styrofoam cups and to-go containers for compostable ones. The Outlook also replaced cleaning products and the chlorine from the pool with eco-friendly alternatives.

Months into the greening process, Boulder Outlook saw an unanticipated spike in business. Other environmentally conscious businesses identified Boulder Outlook as a green partner, reserving rooms for traveling guests at the hotel. King estimates this added about $10,000 to the hotel’s monthly revenue stream.

"Ten thousand dollars is a low number," King says. "We know that on top of that there are individual customers (who) are harder to track."

Today, Boulder Outlook diverts about 80 percent of its waste from the landfill. The hotel’s operations are far from perfect. About 60 percent of hotel guests self-sort their garbage, leaving the Outlook’s housekeeping staff to take care of as much of the rest as they can. Sometimes glass from broken bottles mixed in with the trash make it unsafe for workers to sort.

King finds the reactions to his hotel overwhelmingly positive, and he’s proud to have an "educational institution" on zero waste for hotel visitors.

"We have a chance to show them some of the things that are out there," King says.

King has also become an educational ambassador for other hotels looking to become zero-waste. At a meeting for greening DNC hotels, King presented his hotel’s best business practices. Despite the fact that zero waste is the Outlook’s competitive advantage in the Boulder lodging community, King says he also works with local hotels to embrace the zero-waste philosophy. He says he does this because he believes that very soon, perceptions about what it means to be green will shift. What Boulder Outlook does will become mainstream, he says, and businesses will be expected to follow suit.

"There is going to be a point where you have to do this," he says. "It will reach a critical mass where it will snowball."

The market advantage
Zero- and less-waste business practices may be a nascent movement, but their principles have become familiar to many Denver businesses this year. According to those associated with the Democratic National Convention, everything is turning green, from business inside the Pepsi Center, to the operating principles of hotels and restaurants in the surrounding areas, which will absorb some of the estimated $150 million to $200 million generated by the convention.

"Before, the focus was on the event," says Robinson of the DNCC. "This time it’s the year leading up to it, the four days (of the convention) and the restoration process after."

While she’s reluctant to use the phrase "zero waste" to describe the convention’s outcome, Robinson has set a goal of diverting at least 85 percent of the waste generated during the four-day convention inside the Pepsi Center and Colorado Convention Center from the landfill.

Most of the changes to accomplish this goal will happen behind the scenes. Food venders will purchase more local provisions, compostable cups, plates and other food ware. Construction companies outfitting the Pepsi Center with the vast convention infrastructure will select sustainable materials.

All companies working with Robinson are strongly encouraged to calculate their carbon footprint, which estimates greenhouse gas emissions produced by company-related activities during a given time. Robinson and her team will use the data to calculate a variety of reports that will estimate the full impact of the convention before and after the DNC’s greening efforts.

"Nothing matters unless you measure it," Robinson says.

Perhaps the most visible reminder of the convention’s green mission will be hundreds of resource recovery stations inside the Pepsi Center, which will separate trash into recycling, composting and wastewater. Robinson estimates that it will take about 900 "green team" volunteers to man the stations and educate convention goers on how to dispose of their trash.

Outside the Pepsi Center, Janna Six, coordinator for the Colorado Alliance for Sustainable Business Associations, is targeting hotels, caterers, restaurants and printers with green training for the event. Six works with interested businesses to calculate their carbon footprints, coming up with a baseline that she hopes she can encourage businesses to reduce.

"Right now there are huge incentives to save energy because you save money," she says. "People are already starting to see that transportation costs are high, so anything that will save transportation will save money."

One business greening up its practices before the convention is the Denver printing franchise AlphaGraphics. Dave Mooney, co-owner of three AlphaGraphics franchises in the Denver area, says printing is an industry the public doesn’t readily associate with sustainable practices. But he thinks it is possible to shift this belief among his customers, some of whom have asked about AlphaGraphics’ printing practices.

"We know there’s a market advantage to it, but we also know that it’s the right thing to do," he says.

In addition to obtaining a Forest Stewardship Council certification, which identifies AlphaGraphics as an environmentally conscious printer, Mooney paid to have the carbon footprint of his company calculated and is looking for ways to green up his printing process. Mooney hopes to offer customers environmental report cards for their print jobs, which would score their impact on the environment. He also plans to introduce a carbon-offset charge to invoices, which customers could pay to make their printing carbon neutral.

"For those that want to be environmentally friendly but aren’t quite sure how to do it, we can help them do that — and take good care of them," Mooney says.

The Colorado Hotel and Lodging Association has set voluntary green standards for the 90 Denver hotels working directly with convention goers. Measures include using recycling bins in common hotel areas to reduce trash. Many hotels have agreed to use TV and telephones to communicate welcome messaging to convention visitors.

Ilene Kamsler, president of the Colorado Hotel and Lodging Association, says the convention’s greening goals have motivated hotels to become environmentally conscious at a faster pace. However, there are particular challenges in this industry for businesses that want to move quickly.

"There is a complex layer of who makes financial decisions in a hotel," she says.

That’s why Kamsler and the association are directing hotels toward realistic small measures that hotels can accomplish without a huge outlay of cash.

"They have to do that on a scheduled basis when the money becomes available," she says. "There are things that they can do that aren’t costly."

Setting standards
In discussing the legacy of the 2008 Democratic convention, Denver Director of Greening Parry Burnap points to the increased green ethic among businesses. One lasting reminder of the convention’s environmental initiatives will be the green directory of businesses, which will be available during the convention (www.denverconvention2008.com) and afterwards.

"That’s huge," Burnap says. "We (will) have this living directory and resource of green businesses that customers can use to increase market pressure for greening."

Burnap envisions restaurant goers consulting the directory before dining or future Denver visitors looking for green hotels. In many ways the directory will reward those businesses that commit to sustainable green practices, which, when done correctly, aren’t necessarily an easy commitment. However, entry into the directory is based on self-certification; there is no outside agency certifying businesses as "green."

When there are millions to be made during the convention, and no penalties for stretching the truth, who’s to say that companies won’t exaggerate their commitment to the environment?

"Because there is no single green certification system that fits all types of businesses, we’re relying on businesses to voluntarily and honestly self-document their green activities," Six says. "We’re urging potential customers to use reasonable scrutiny and judgment of business’ claims to be green."

Six says the directory offers a two-tier system. Those businesses that don’t have certification but identify as green will have one leaf next to their name, while businesses that do have documentation will receive two leaves. All documents will be available on the Colorado Alliance for Sustainable Business Associations website, www.casba.info.

Mooney says he’s not putting much weight on the green directory because there will be businesses that say they’re environmentally friendly, but they’re not. He cites the example of a customer who requests recycled paper for a print job but wants the paper to be bright white. Some "green" printers might complete the job without educating their client about its environmental impact, Mooney says.

"The fiber is recycled, but the amount of chlorine added makes the paper far worse," he says. "Irresponsible printers will be happy to sell them the paper and not have that conversation, or they don’t know to have it."

The larger issue at play is the lack of industry-wide standards for greening, King says. The American Hotel and Lodging Association is currently investigating criteria for what constitutes a "green hotel." However, there are no standards in today’s marketplace.

"There need to be some standards set, and then you can argue about what the standards are," he says. "In my mind we should set the standards and then raise the bar."

But something else is missing, says Matsch of Eco-Cycle. Both state and local governments in Colorado need to regulate what homes and businesses throw into the trash, as well as other steps toward greening.

"Anywhere outside of Boulder County, an ordinance is the only way to get significant change," Matsch says. "For 30 years, Eco-Cycle has been in favor of voluntary action. We are getting to a state where we are running out of time."

Tony Gagliardi, Colorado state director for the National Federation of Independent Business, isn’t so sure about government regulation, which passes costs directly to businesses. He sees another route toward greening the business sector.

"Small-business owners are not oblivious to the fact that we need to become more environmentally aware," he says. "If you want change in policy or change in the way business is conducted, you provide incentives instead of penalties."

Like Mooney, King encounters many customers who want to do the right thing but don’t know how to evaluate the environmental standards of businesses.

"I don’t like saying that we’re a green hotel because I don’t know what that means," he says.

When customers ask King about his "green hotel," he takes a deep breath and replies, "I can tell you what we’re trying to do."

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