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Create a viral grassroots sustainability program in 7 steps

Sponsored article: The passions of our employees can be your greatest asset when launching a major sustainability effort. Here's a case study from CH2M.

This article is sponsored by CH2M.

Treatment plants don’t have to be smelly, industrial concrete jungles.

When I first arrived at the Paul R. Noland Wastewater Treatment Plant in Fayetteville, Arkansas in 2007 to manage operations, invasive vegetation had choked out native flora and reduced biodiversity on the site. 

Now nature lovers flock to the site, and we’ve built on our successes in Fayetteville by expanding the program to nearly 200 water and wastewater treatment facilities that our Operations Management (OM) Services group operates, maintains and manages for our clients.

Here’s how we did it.

Harness employees' passion

We tapped into employee interests in composting, gardening, water conservation, and clean energy to revitalize 13.3 acres into a wildlife habitat and create a 1-acre xeriscape garden, which uses treated wastewater and minimizes the need for mowing.

By encouraging employees to apply personal passions to their work, we’ve decreased emissions, reduced fossil fuel use, diminished waste and cut annual operating costs. Staff transport materials by bicycles, tricycles or electrical golf carts; use load-shedding generators to ease electrical grid stress; implemented a more efficient dissolved oxygen system; and designed an innovative biosolids drying program, giving the city a cost recovery revenue stream. 

Focus on engaged organizations that want to improve their sustainability record

As the first city in Arkansas to hire a sustainability director and establish a sustainability team, Fayetteville recognized the need to transform the way we approach wastewater treatment before sustainability was cool. In 2007 the city added me to their sustainability team and still includes one of our employees. While operating and maintaining Fayetteville’s two wastewater facilities, we’ve been advancing the city’s dream of becoming a national sustainability leader.

Together, we transformed the grounds into the first city-owned property to be a certified Community Wildlife Habitat. In 2008, the project was a finalist for the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality’s Environmental Stewardship Award.

Identify and train sustainability champions for each project or facility

This volunteer position attracts employees with a passion in sustainability, resulting in a diverse group of champions with varying backgrounds and disciplines. Sustainability champions receive training in applying triple-bottom-line principles, using our environmental management system, working with clients to set and implement goals, and measuring impacts. This employee-driven, site-specific program brings positive economic, environmental and social outcomes to our clients and the communities we serve.

"I feel fortunate to be in a role that immerses personal values into work," said one of our sustainability champions, Mark Copley. "At the core of what we do is to protect the river. I identify with that, and it motivates me to excel in my role."

Set goals, report progress and celebrate success

Empowering employees and recognizing early achievements builds momentum and creates the foundation for a robust sustainability program with vast potential. Focusing on continuous improvement, each site team sets two sustainability goals each year and monitors progress. At year-end, the champions compile a progress report and celebrate achievements.

We’ve found it helpful to start small with low-hanging fruit and build on successes. The goals evolve from mostly qualitative to quantitative and measurable. We emphasize reducing, reusing and recycling in eight major areas: chemicals; ecosystems; water; waste & emissions; fuel; stewardship; non-treatment related energy; and treatment process optimization. 

Test the waters by implementing a pilot program across other sites

After we saw positive results in Fayetteville, we implemented a pilot at 45 facilities where we perform services. The pilot captured employees’ passion and ingenuity to implement sustainability improvements through repeatable, recordable processes. Those initial programs became our flagship projects.

Offering flexibility to achieve meaningful, site-specific progress, the program helps our clients achieve their goals. In that first year, we saved $1.2 million, reduced electrical use by 1.4 million kilowatt-hours, reused 2.1 billion gallons of effluent, diverted 5,600 tons of waste, saved 12,000 gallons of chemicals and won the 2011 National Association of Water Companies Management Innovation Award. 

Show support from the top-down and bottom-up

After the initial successes in Fayetteville, CH2M’s OM Services business named its first sustainability director, Lindsay Ritter. She drew on the Fayetteville team’s expertise and passion to implement the pilot program. Our employees felt empowered by support from then-OM president Elisa Speranza, who believes sustainability is the key to success in business.

Her successor, Steve Meininger, and top leaders throughout the company have continued to support and grow the program. Employees are more willing to think outside the box and come forward with innovative ideas when leaders listen and encourage.

In Fayetteville, employees went beyond wastewater treatment to enhance the surrounding environment — then these initial successes grew into ambitious projects such as biosolids reuse, nutrient reduction through lake dredging, removal of emerging contaminants through innovative disinfection technology, and watershed protection. By combining the passion and commitment of leaders with employees working in the sites, partnering with our clients, we built a program that couldn’t fail.

Go big or go home

After the outstanding pilot results, we implemented the program in nearly 200 facilities across North America by engaging CH2M sustainability champions and teams at each facility, along with regional sustainability champions who oversee geographic areas.

The sustainability champions meet to set and monitor goals, share successes and inspire innovation. This employee-driven program brings positive economic, environmental and social outcomes to our clients and communities we serve. Now in its sixth year, our sustainability program has:

  • Saved $9.9 million
  • Reduced or avoided electrical use by 59 million kilowatt-hours
  • Reused 55 billion gallons of beneficial effluent
  • Diverted 31,000 tons of waste, including biosolids reuse and recycling materials
  • Saved 111,000 gallons of fuel
  • Contributed more than 13,400 community volunteer hours

While the total impact of our sustainability program is substantial, the impact our efforts make on each site tells a greater story. For example, our sustainability teams in New Mexico are working to build a healthy future for their communities by protecting the state’s water supplies.

One way they do this is by volunteering time and expertise at the Rio Rancho Children’s Water Festival. After attending, children educate their families about how to conserve water, which has resulted in the city’s residential water use decreasing by 32 percent. As a reward for their efforts, the CH2M team won the Rocky Mountain Water Environment Association Award for sustainability in 2014.

The lessons we learned with our client in Fayetteville have blossomed across the country and are transforming the face of facilities through the grassroots passion of our teams. Although not all clients embrace the term sustainability, they all love the program’s benefits and community recognition.

These lessons can be applied in any type of site, in the public or private sector. We invite you to join us — harness the passion of your employees and have fun.

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