It’s 2022… If it’s not recyclable, why does it exist?

As published by CEOWorld Magazine Jan 2, 2022

Later in life but before he died at age 87 famed French explorer, naturalist, and oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, a man not known to mix metaphors in public once said, “Water and air, the two essential fluids on which all life depends, have become global garbage cans.” He died twenty-five years ago in 1997. If only he could see us today.

By 2030 earthlings are on course to double the amounts of air, water and land pollution. In that same time humans will have added a whopping 53 trillion tons of plastics to our environment. And, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Americans alone are now dumping more than 150 million tons of solid waste into our landfills each year. 

Getting away from it all on a recent bike ride down along the Los Angeles River after a strong winter rainstorm I couldn’t help notice the piles of discarded trash and debris covering the once grassy embankments like mounds of dirty snow plowed up along the edges of narrow wintery road. 

I stopped up ahead at the site of a large debris pile crammed under a bridge overcrossing. It was a huge half-dried mud-wall of twisted metal, mangled tree limbs, shredded clothing, plastic bottles, bags and toys, and an endless list of random discarded waste products – It looked like the aftermath of a tornado. But it wasn’t the end of the line as each piece of the pile like a spring salmon was still trying desperately if lifelessly to make its watery way down river, and out to the open ocean. 

A father and his young daughter on bikes stopped to look. “Quite a mess” I said. He nodded. “People don’t recycle,” he said. I looked over at him and then back to the pile, “I saw a documentary that said 80% of all marine turtles, and a lot of fish we eat have ocean plastics inside them.” He sighed. What else could he do. We both glared at the twisted pile for a minute like two guilt-ridden conspirators fearful we might recognize any particular empty bottle or plastic bag as our own among the wreckage. 

Then his daughter, maybe 12 or 13 years old perplexed at the mass asked her dad with an urgent quizzical tone, 

“Dad, if it’s not recyclable, why does it exist?” 

I remember my eyes grew wide at the thought as her dad looked over, “…don’t know.” Either way for that moment with little to say both young and old just stared in silence as if waiting for this sickening self-implicating reflection of unsympathetic recyclables to go away. But it didn’t. So we just rode off.

Two years earlier, and just before the Covid debacle struck the world there were repeated attempts to get after the causes of this waste pile in a broad sense at the World Economic Forum (WEF) held in Davos, Switzerland back in January 2020. There and then a repeated theme was again in key focus, the topic was ESG, the acronym for Environmental, Social and Governance. ESG is a corporate signatory program for larger global companies like those of the Business Roundtable to adopt, engage and commit to changing the world’s trajectory and attitudes toward sustainable resources and their impact on global climate change by putting ESG into action. (See my article E.S.G. 2020 has Arrived at CEO World Magazine). 

The loudest voice at the Forum then was another young woman you may have heard from before, 17 year old Greta Thunberg, a Swedish environmental activist raising the alarm front and center stage, scolding the hundreds of adult CEOs in the room looking down at their shiny shoes, for not acting urgently, or meaningfully enough. Talk is cheap she chastised. 

“The bigger your platform – the bigger your responsibility… I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.” – Greta Thunberg

Yes, as a CEO and business leader your plate is already piled high with urgent issues to attend to. No one saw Covid coming or was prepared for it. And adding further to the dismal milieu as shaped by the pandemic and topping the list of deep concerns for business leaders is the labor shortage, the increased commodity/price inflation and the persistent supply chain bottlenecks. But at the same time thinking back on the pile of bags and bottles along the river banks we didn’t see coming, how many more speeches and warning “piles” do we need to ride away from before the message gets through? 

Clearly for 2022 while it’s still an all Covid-Covid-Covid world, if we don’t stop and pay closer attention to the amounts of waste we produce everywhere every day it will surely hit us like a sudden wall of mud and debris, but forever leave behind a tragically altered and polluted world for our children who know only of what we teach them.

Setting the better example

Despite the urgent promises made each year at the WEF in Davos the message younger investors are sending to Wall Street today is clear. It’s time we put our money where our mouth is. And while Covid is distracting the public’s attention from the river “pile,” ESG investors are quietly taking another whack at moving the needle. This time not at CEOs, but rather at their publicly traded stock and concerned shareholders. 

In the last 24 months, more Wall Street ESG-focused investment funds were created than at any other time before. In 2021 alone, more than $600 billion was allocated to these funds which have one voice and mission in mind, and that is to specifically identify and to only invest in companies that have a measurable commitment to ESG and in particular reducing their carbon footprint permanently. 

But what about smaller companies? Is there a version of ESG for smaller businesses to embrace and act upon now?

Yes. And it’s all about the “E” in ESG. A big impact can be made when smaller companies act as one. And because most humans work for smaller companies who can all together not only help save the environment en-masse, but can also learn and spread the good word by setting a good example for their suppliers, employees and customers to follow. This way we can all together take a larger leap beyond the “big blue recycle bins” and go the extra mile faster. 

The good news is there are surprisingly many atypical things your company and workers can do now to help save the big “E” and that are often overlooked. 

Enter the folks at Green Business Bureau (GBB)

GBB is a new online environmental advisory group founded by former tech industry executive and now CEO Tom Permatteo, a long time Green-industry advisor to the small business community. And what better place is there to get things started or to brush up on more abundantly practical ways to become a more environmentally friendly company? In a recent article, GBB ambassador Dylan West authored a best practice summary list of sustainable actions that I think any company can start working on asap! And some suggestions, like how to choose a “green” supplier may surprise you. Have a look.

20 Sustainable Business Practices for Your Workplace and Office – The Green Business Bureau

Worthy of the attention from my research GBB goes beyond the typical list of old-school energy-saving light bulbs and recycling of paper and ink cartridges. It also includes a deeper sense and passion to think bigger and to strive for a net ZERO waste goal, as in an all-renewable, all-sustainable resource company, the top 1%.

The key to get there is to establish, measure and track your progress each month using software and guidance to enable you to start slow and then grow to higher and higher levels of green certification, enough to become a Platinum Green Business Certified Company! They argue that with their green symbol insignia a small company can go a long way to communicate an honest commitment to saving the planet. And with all the public praise and recognition that comes with it a welcomed hiring edge in 2022 as well.

According to GBB, 80% of new-hires want their new employers to be environmentally responsible citizens, and as many as 90% of younger employees and customers prefer to join and buy from a company committed to helping the environment get back on its feet before the 2030 deadline. They say “‘greening’ helps attract, recruit, retain and build goodwill with employees…” and that helps ring the bell — we’re in it to win it!

But to win it you have to take a strong leadership role

Good habits start at the top so learn for yourself how you can specifically change operating practices and behaviors at your company, and then train every worker to determine how best a product will be used, then disposed of and recycled BEFORE it’s purchased.  

When I worked at the consulting firm Accenture back in the day, we were trained to help each client develop a framework for success that started with establishing a baseline and performance benchmarks to measure after a new system is implemented and make adjustments as needed for maximum results. The same step by step process applies here to help go-greener companies reduce their contribution to the “pile.” 

It’s been 25 years since the famous Jacques Cousteau called us out as wasteful garbage polluters, and he was right, and we still are. But I think he underestimated our resolve when it comes to a real crisis. Covid-19 taught us that. Am I being too optimistic? Maybe. But I also think there’s still a real chance we can beat this – push back climate change, clear the air, the rivers, the lands and oceans of waste and recycle it! 

To help you get started there are many affordable consultants like GBB online to search from. Here’s a directory of environmental advisors in your area. Call them, ask them, and let them help you. Baby steps do matter. So, let’s go baby!

They say older people can’t learn much from younger ones. Does the same go for leaders? While Greta Thunberg may be a world-rounded voice for global climate change, I wish I asked my fellow young biker friend along the LA River her name. Because it was her simple yet profound curiosity that said it all for me and still does: 

“If it’s not recyclable, why does it exist?”

Rick Andrade