One company's garbage is another's gold. That's what Burt's Bees discovered when workers there donned hazmat suits and jumped into their trash to have a look at what they were throwing away.

Employees waded through two weeks of garbage and found recycling opportunities that cut the company's waste in half while generating $25,000 in estimated annual savings, says John Replogle, president and CEO of the natural ingredient body products manufacturer.

"We found money in the dumpster," he declares. "We've turned our waste stream from a cost center into a profit center."

Burt's Bees is one example of how companies across the U.S. are taking a close look at what's in their garbage bins to make big changes in reducing waste in the workplace. With many corporations setting sustainability goals of curbing trash and improving recycling, the dumpster dive is an instructive way of guiding them to hit those targets.

Businesses are also finding new revenue streams in their garbage by taking items that were hauled away to the landfill in the past and instead selling them to someone else for cash -- a boon in a slow economy. In addition, many companies seeking LEED certification are sifting through their trash as part of waste stream audits to earn credits toward that seal of approval from the U.S. Green Building Council.

Dumpster diving helped move Burt's Bees closer to its goal of sending zero waste to landfills by 2020. Set 18 months ago, the company quickly made great strides at reaching that target and went from producing 40 tons of waste per month down to an impressive 10 tons per month by aggressively recycling and introducing composting at its Durham, N.C., corporate office and manufacturing plant, says Replogle.

"Then we were stuck and needed to reinvigorate the effort again," he recalls.

So the company's green team devised a plan last summer to stockpile all garbage for two weeks, then dump it in the parking lot and enlist a group of employees to pick through it and see what they could divert from the heap. On a steamy summer day, the group sorted the hefty mound of trash into three piles: items they already recycle that shouldn't have been in the trash; things they could recycle if they had an outlet to send them to (such as plastic buckets); and stuff that was truly garbage and couldn't be recycled for sanitary reasons (including latex gloves and hair nets).

"Once you've seen your garbage up close, it's hard to ignore it," jokes Shira E. Norman, a research consultant in the Chicago office of YRG Sustainability, a consulting firm that works with companies applying for LEED certification.

Seeing is Believing

While there may be a certain "yuck" factor to picking through your company's garbage, experts insist the exercise makes a strong impression on employees that can inspire behavior change with far greater impact than any written report or e-mail alert, Norman says.

Burt's Bees' Replogle agrees. He says they used their dumpster diving effort as a teachable moment and urged its 300-plus workers that day to inspect what they were throwing away. The exercise was so visually compelling that the company recorded the event and posted it as a video link on its website's sustainability report. For awhile, the video was drawing rave reviews on YouTube.

"That walk through the parking lot and seeing all that trash translated into a collective 'aha moment' and we all realized we could do a better job at recycling," says Replogle. After that experience, the company quickly jumped from 80 percent compliance in recycling to 98 percent, he says. "Now we have a shared ethos of taking responsibility," he adds.

Even companies with robust recycling programs can find room for improvement in a vigorous search through their garbage, asserts Todd Sutton, who derives his business, WasteSleuth.com, from helping corporations and public agencies analyze their trash and find smart ways to reduce it. He says many people think they're already doing the most with their garbage if they have a recycling bin in the office.