The upside of trash

This article is sponsored by Cox Enterprises.

For companies that strive to minimize their environmental footprint, waste management is usually a key area of focus, particularly for those with a significant product stream. It also can present a frustrating challenge, especially in the United States, where the recycling infrastructure is less developed than in other major world markets. Cox Enterprises, an Atlanta-based conglomerate and leading media, communications and automotive services company, is working to find the upside of trash, increasingly repurposing waste materials toward productive uses.

Cox Enterprises’ initiatives include:

  • Breaking down tires to their original components for use in new products
  • Providing e-waste recycling at its retails stores
  • Engaging employees through on-the-clock shoreline cleanups
  • Selling materials to recyclers and donating the proceeds to nonprofits

Save paradise

This year marks the 10th anniversary of Cox Conserves, the company’s national sustainability program. In reflecting on how Cox initially set out to become a more sustainable organization, Elizabeth Olmstead, Cox’s spokesperson, explained that it all can be tied to Joni Mitchell. Jim Kennedy, Cox’s chairman, felt Mitchell’s song "Big Yellow Taxi" described so much of what he’d observed around him growing up in Hawaii. The chorus reflects the song’s broader message about environmental degradation:

Don’t it always seem to go 
That you don’t know what you've got 
Till it’s gone 
They paved paradise 
And put up a parking lot

Kennedy wanted to do something about this dynamic, and from that desire Cox’s sustainability work emerged. A decade later, Cox views itself as a committed leader in this space, and seeks to share its best practices with other companies and, in turn, to learn from other companies’ experiences.

Olmstead noted that as a privately held company, Cox is in a position to take a longer view when it comes to sustainability and profits, and thus to implement innovative programs that have a real impact. In the long run, Cox has found that many of its efforts are good not only for the environment, but also for the company’s bottom line. For instance, its fuel efficiency successes have yielded lower fuel costs for its fleet of 13,000 vehicles. Additionally, Cox has found that its sustainability program is good for employee engagement and morale, as its employees take pride in the company’s efforts and the role they play in protecting the environment.

Zero waste to landfill

Cox has made a commitment to send no waste to landfills by 2024, and the company is pursuing a variety of mechanisms by which to achieve this goal. One of these is its tire recycling program, the first application of this technology in the United States, according to Olmstead.

While tremendous progress has been made in recent years in diverting used tires from landfills, tire waste still presents a significant problem. They take up excessive space in landfills due to their shape, do not biodegrade, can harbor disease-carrying mosquitoes and are susceptible to fires that produce toxic emissions. Fortunately, they are completely recyclable, and Cox’s new Golden Isles Conservation Center is a part of the solution. Cox’s partner, Liberty Tires, collects used tires from across Georgia and shreds them, and Cox then processes the shredded material into useful components.

The center employs an Italian pyrolysis technology, an eco-friendly process whereby organic materials such as wood chips are burned to generate heat, which breaks tires down into their original components and produces synthesis oil, carbon black, synthesis gas and steel. These can then be used to make paint, new tires, rubber hoses, mascara and a variety of other products. By repurposing these materials, the center has the capacity to remove the equivalent of five tons of tires daily from landfills and waterways.

While the center initially will focus on tires, it also will serve as a research and development facility that will explore the possibility of repurposing additional waste stream products in the future.

Another aspect of Cox’s zero waste-to-landfill goal involves more effective management of electronic waste ("e-waste"). As the electronics industry produces ever-cheaper devices with new models every few years, the quantity of discarded electronics also has exploded. While many of these devices can be refurbished or recycled, a large proportion of them still end up in landfills, along with the toxic substances they typically contain.

Cox’s e-waste recycling program uses several strategies to keep electronics out of landfills. The company redeploys electronics with enduring value within its own organization, thereby reducing new procurement. It holds e-waste collections in some of its locations where employees and customers can recycle their electronics, thereby recycling 250 tons of e-waste to date. Cumulatively, Cox’s programs divert more than 1.8 tons of e-waste from landfills every year.

Cleaning up the oceans

Marine debris has become a serious environmental problem around the world. Vast quantities of waste floating in our oceans and rivers lead to habitat damage, wildlife injury and death, vessel damage and economic loss.

Cox Conserves has been a supporter of American Rivers’ National River Cleanup program since 2010. Cox employees volunteer at cleanup sites across the country. Chief Operating Officer Alex Taylor served on American Rivers’ board of directors from 2006 to 2014 and as its chairman of the board from 2014 to 2017. Olmstead said the cleanup days help to mitigate environmental damage while engaging company employees.

Cox has a similar partnership with Ocean Conservancy, wherein it participates in the same sort of cleanup events described above. Overall, the cleanup events have collected more than 26 tons of materials. Cox also became a member of Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas Alliance in June, in celebration of World Oceans Day. The Alliance "provides a constructive forum focused on identifying opportunities for cross-sector solutions that drive action and foster innovation."

Ultimately, the company is eager to share its learnings, and to learn from the success of others. In the long run, these efforts are not only good for the environment, but also for the company’s bottom line, its employees’ satisfaction and its customers’ appreciation of its brand. 

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