The Successes Possible from a Jigsaw Puzzle Theory of Recycling

It's pretty obvious by its name which sector Donco Recycling Solutions plays in. But what may be less obvious is how Donco also acts like a matchmaker, pairing one company's waste stream with another's raw material needs.

Donco President David Mendelson takes a different view, preferring to compare the recycling industry to a giant jigsaw puzzle.

"Sometimes the pieces come from different boxes and it's your job to think about how you can take your piece -- your byproduct -- and fill the hole in an another industry's puzzle," Mendelson said Thursday. "You'd be surprised at how this simple process can not only improve your environmental footprint, but also improve your bottom line."

At the State of Green Business Forum in Minneapolis yesterday, Mendelson assumed the spotlight in a segment dubbed "One Great Idea." Or in Donco's case, four great ideas.

To meet its basic business goals -- lower costs and raising revenue, without investing capital -- Donco looks to turn byproducts into assets. Here's how Donco has played matchmaker to meet these goals:

• A Donco supplier manufactures generic gummy bears; the scrap candy can be used in animal feed due to the high caloric value, density and ease of shipping. A Donco customer and bear trap manufacturer enters the picture; the ingredient the company had been using as bear bait lost its appeal, so the gummy bear material was substituted.

"With slight modification in the way the gummy bear material was handled, it works beautifully as bear bait," Mendelson said. "So for our supplier, we got a better market for their byproduct -- their raw material -- and they get a better rate of return. For our customer, they get a better raw material at a lower cost and solved a quality control problem. You've got two separate industries coming together and becoming green, and making more green as well."

• A Donco supplier manufactures an industrial fiber, which is made using multiple plastics and can't be traditionally recycled, thus ending up in landfills. Meanwhile, a Donco customer that manufacturers caskets had a quality control problem: The stuffing used in the casket pillows was dusty and worked its way through the fabric to give the impression that the deceased also had a dandruff problem.

"With a slight modification in the way the industrial fiber was handled, it works beautifully in casket stuffing," Mendelson said. "So for our supplier, they've taken a cost center and turned it into a profit center. They're now generating revenue. For our customer, they've got a better raw material at a lower cost, and by the way, they solved a very large quality control problem."

• A Donco supplier contacts the company because they've got a new paper process and byproduct consisting of virgin fiber, clay and a water retention agent, which was going to landfill at a cost of about $600,000 a year. Donco introduces the company to one of its customers, a manufacturer of equestrian arena footing.

"With a slight modification in the way this product is handled, it works beautifully as an ingredient in arena footing," Mendelson said. "So for our supplier, we've taken a $600,000 cost and dropped it to a $200,000 cost, with no extra expenditures, etc. For our customer, they have a new raw material that gives their product a strategic advantage, that they can show to their marketplace. Two unrelated industries brought together."

• A Domco supplier manufactures lids for use in self-stable meal packaging. The manufacturer begins with rolls of the stuff and cuts out the lids, leaving behind trim scraps that was being sent to landfills. Donco matched the raw material with one of its customers in the energy business; the two worked together to develop a new product made from the unique lid scrap.

"Our supplier took a cost center and turned it into a profit center," Mendelson said. "Our customer got itself a new raw material for a new finished product to present to their marketplace. Two entirely unrelated industries brought together."

Sound familiar?

Too often, we throw away anything and everything because it's the easiest thing to do. But taking the straight and narrow path won't solve our most pressing challenges, least of all those involving our ever-growing mountains of waste.

"My point is we've got to become more creative," Mendelson said. "Perhaps we can say it this way: Many of us adults are throwing away potentially valuable resources simply because we have not looked at these assets in a more creative way. Perhaps we can be like kids and green our world by putting pieces of the puzzle together one piece at a time."

Underlying wood chips image via Shutterstock.