Alcoa and BluSkye: Pushing green firms to the next level

Cans that end up in trash are not just a waste of money, but an entirely unnecessary environmental problem. Aluminum is "the perfect recycled material," Kevin says. Cans made from recycled aluminum require 95 percent less energy and generate 95 percent less emissions that aluminum made from bauxite, and aluminum is almost infinitely recyclable. According to Alcoa, 75 percent of aluminum ever produced since 1888 is still in use. Who knew?

Alcoa promotes recycling and it has, until recently, pushed for bottle bills -- they drive up recycling rates -- but, as Jib told me: "That's not going to happen for a bunch of reasons, mostly political." The company's customers -- Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and the big beer companies -- strenuously oppose bottle bills through their trade group, the American Beverage Association. The soft-drink and beer industry favor a more systemic and inclusive approach to the trash problem is required.

That's what Alcoa and BluSkye are seeking, using a technique they call getting "the system in a room." Last month, nearly 80 business, government and environmental leaders met for two days in Dallas to see if they could figure out ways to push recycling rates higher.

Participating companies included Waste Management and Owens-Illinois, along with folks representing "more than 70 percent of the soft drink industry, 90 percent of the glass container market and all of the aluminum cansheet industry," according to the trade magazine Resource Recycling. (Neither BluSkye nor Alcoa would say who attended.)

To help drive consensus, legislative approaches including extended producer responsibility (EPR) and container deposit systems were ruled out from the start. But all other options were on the table.

"It's a bit chaotic, at times, but it's about rapid-cycle prototyping, feedback, presenting, sorting out the actual work streams.," Jib says. "Our role is to drive, drive, drive and keep the pressure on."

It's too soon to say what will come of this first meeting, but the plan is to break the problem down into pieces that will then be attacked by groups of companies, governments and NGOs.

Waste haulers and municipalities, for example, will look for ways to drive up rates of curbside recycling, by offer positive incentives like the rewards at RecycleBank or negative ones like charging homeowners for what they throw away. "You can put five gallons or 95 gallons of waste out there and pay the same," Kevin notes. Dumb.

Others will focus on office-based recycling, or focus on public places like sports arenas, college and corporate campuses. The packaging industry will be asked to streamline the confusing array of plastic containers. Social marketing will surely come into play.

Jib and his colleagues at BluSkye have becomes masters at this kind of change-making. They're best known for their work at Walmart, which put together "sustainable value networks" of suppliers and NGOs to help shape its green initiatives.

More recently, BluSkye has worked with the battery industry and the dairy industry to lower their footprints, and it played a key role in putting together the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, a group of companies that together will measure and report on the footprint of clothing and footwear.

The idea is to push beyond the limits of what any one company can do. "Most companies have changed the lightbulbs by now," he says. Of the work with Alcoa, he says: "This is not an incremental project. We're looking for a breakthrough."

Driving dramatic changes in recycling rates won't be easy. Others have tried before. But the economics make sense -- almost no one benefits from waste. A robust recycling industry will save money, create jobs and reduce costs. What's not to like?