Alcoa and BluSkye: Pushing green firms to the next level

Into my inbox every day come press releases about this company putting solar panels on a roof or that one making its fleet more efficient. These incremental steps are laudable but also (1) boring (2) old hat and, most importantly, (3) unlikely to get us the environmental change we need.

Transformational change, by contrast, usually requires entire industries or groups of industries to work together, often with NGOs, sometimes with government. That's been going on for years -- Unilever and WWF organized fisheries, NGOs and companies to form the Marine Stewardship Council back in 1997 to promote sustainable fishing practices -- but lately, there seem to me more of these cooperative but complicated efforts. That's reason for optimism.

Last fall, for example, I attended a Starbucks "cup summit" at the MIT Media Lab where the company, with the help of business guru Peter Senge, brought together paper companies, NGOs, government officials and rivals like Green Mountain coffee to figure out how to design a system to eliminate waste from coffee cups. [See The Starbucks Cup Dilemma in Fast Company.] Now Alcoa, with the help of sustainability consultant BluSkye, leading a broad and even more ambitious effort to drive up recycling rates across the US.

To learn about the Alcoa initiative, I met last week in San Francisco with Jib Ellison, the founder of BluSkye, and talked by phone with Kevin Anton, Alcoa's chief sustainability officer.

The problem, as they both described it, is simple: Between $1 billion and $2 billion worth of aluminum cans end up in landfills each year.

Now that's waste!

In 2008, Alcoa, which is the world's biggest aluminum company, said it would try to lift the recycling rate for aluminum cans from about 52 percent to 75 percent by 2015. It has inched up to about 58 percent since then, but Kevin's not impressed.

"We're moving in the right direction, but if you contrast that with the rest of the world, we're definitely lagging behind," he told me. Globally, aluminum recycling rates average about 73 percent; they exceed 90 percent in Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Germany, Japan, Sweden, and Switzerland, partly for cultural reasons, partly because those countries have better recycling infrastructures.