How Sabre Holdings more than doubled its waste diversion rate
How Sabre Holdings more than doubled its waste diversion rate
The day I stood elbow deep in garbage, donning plastic gloves and sorting types of waste, two things came to my mind: I have to send a picture of this to my Mom with the title “career highlights” and … you really learn a lot about when people when you sort through their trash!
Our “tale of three trash bins” is as much a story about sustainability, (or waste reduction and diversion), as it is a story about systems thinking and behavioral change. And what made all of this rewarding for me was seeing that, as a company, as individuals and as communities, we can make a positive impact toward solving big problems simply by understanding our systems better.
We started our “Less to landfill” challenge at 36 percent waste diversion, with a goal of taking that to 80 percent -- and we made it, but not without challenges, ongoing analysis and constant fine-tuning of our systems. The full case study was documented by the uniquely talented team of faculty and students at Presidio Graduate School, with a systems thinking perspective in mind. In fact, they will be sharing this as part of a learning curriculum with their students.
My hope is to provide some real “hands on” (or “hands in,” if you will!) examples for other sustainability professionals working on business transformation initiatives -- and hopefully some inspiration. Here are a few of our key insights:
1. People first
People are at the core of business systems, and change cannot happen without people. Systems are made up of interacting and interdependent components -- and each person relates and interacts with non-living systems very differently. Focusing on people first as the primary “users” of our systems was vital to the success of our initiative.
Our CEO was one of the most important “people” in the system. He made the decision to set the goal to 80 percent (our team had recommended 60 percent) based upon the benchmarking we shared with him, and he announced the challenge to the campus. He remained an active communicator and influencer throughout the process by providing updates to leaders and employees and by providing recognition to the teams’ efforts and success. Our Southlake Eco Team leaders and members were also primary influencers and change ambassadors -- we dubbed them ”Trash Ambassadors.” They devised games such as a “which bin does it go in” relay race to make the challenge fun, they collected precious feedback for continuous improvement, and they provided education for employees on campus. And finally, each time we got stuck, our facility management and housekeeping teams helped ensure fixes and improvements along the way.
2. Listen to the music
"Culture" is the background music of a system; it’s one of the most vague yet prevalent words you hear when people explain the success (or failure) of any business initiative. It is hard to explain, to quantify, to assign merit or blame. It’s like background music -- sometimes you hear it, sometimes you don’t -- but it’s always there. It can be a distraction, making everything feel out of sync or overpowered, or it can bring people together in a harmonized and collaborative environment.
Our music was to the tune of “we” -- WE can succeed, WE will meet our goal. The most striking example was hearing our facilities management company (Jones Lang LaSalle) and our housekeeping company, continually use the words “we” during every meeting. They felt the challenge to succeed as much as our employees did, and were equally committed to meeting the goal.
3. Tune in to feedback
Effective feedback systems are essential for the successful implementation of any initiative. Systems and people are dynamic and can change in response to feedback, so it’s important to allow for flexibility in a plan to incorporate changes along the way. Feedback mechanisms help us gain new insights, gather new ideas, and communicate a sense of possibility towards achieving our goal.
Part of our communications plan included posting a thermometer at the entrance of each of our two buildings to show monthly progress. Back to culture -- we have a culture of achieving our goals -- and being able to see each month where we were on progress was important to stimulating people to do more, and to ensure we met our goal.
Just recently we’ve posted progress by floor -- which has stimulated some healthy competition between floors and is of course a very visible way of demonstrating performance towards the goal, which almost immediately drives behavior change.
4. More than 20/20 vision
Framing a business initiative within the perspective of systems thinking means taking a holistic approach to change, analyzing not just the immediate department, area or process, but all of the dependencies and connections as well. This doesn’t mean changing everything; it means understanding what other systems are impacted by the proposed change and then defining a goal with a better chance of successful achievement.
Our waste challenge touched many of our other systems; food systems are probably the best example of this. We promoted our card punch incentive program which offers discounts on meals after 10 punches for eating in our on-campus cafeteria. By encouraging employees to “eat in,” using washable plates and utensils, we could save volumes of compostable take-away containers, and avoid off-campus waste, which almost inevitably ends up in landfill. Furthermore, campus catering, pizza parties and the like became a part of this discussion since the materials provided by these external vendors typically end up in landfill only. This meant engaging not just our cafeteria vendor, but also administrative assistants across the company who tend to be the people placing catering orders, or organizing food for parties.
5. Systems never rest
Just when you think you’ve discovered every last cog in the system, you will discover a new one. This could be a new group of employees who have not had the benefit of the original education, or a new compostable material that hasn’t been tested yet -- or any unintended consequences that could hinder or improve progress.
Just this summer we launched a new “Less to landfill” challenge since our diversion rates had dropped slightly. During that challenge we discovered that the bags we use to gather our compostable washroom towels are not compostable or recyclable. Once we empty the paper towels into our composting system, we take the big black bags to landfill. We are now sourcing compostable bags for all of our washrooms, not to mention all of our other compost bins across the campus to avoid creating additional landfill waste.
Last year by hitting our 80% goal, we diverted 122 tons of waste from landfill and 55 percent of that went to compost. This meant savings in hauling for the company, and served as a great example of what one company can do in a community to significantly reduce waste to landfill. Imagine the impact when all of corporate America gets to these kinds of results. So, I might not have my hands in the bins as much these days, but our tale of 3 bins continues to evolve, improve and hopefully inspire others to join us in the challenge.
Image of waste bins courtesy of Shi Yali via Shutterstock.