Embracing the Evolution of ‘Going Green’

by Katie Lee

— By Scott Attman —

The future of sustainability programs is more important and beneficial than ever.

Sustainability and green programs in retail and commercial businesses are no longer fly-by-night industry trends. The call for sustainable and eco-friendly programs has grown louder over the past decade and many facility managers, owners and retail operators are heeding the call to reduce environmental impact and foster a culture of responsibility. By embracing green initiatives, facility managers can lower energy consumption, reduce waste and minimize carbon footprints.  Even beyond the environmental impacts are additional benefits such as creating a healthier work environment for staff as well as customers. Developing and implementing sustainability programs not only benefits the environment but also aligns with corporate values and is proving to be a strategic move toward cost and waste reduction and an enhanced eco-conscious reputation.

Setting Clear Sustainability Goals – Where to Begin

The original definition of “green” was doing something better for the environment compared to your current programs and product selections. The green movement has evolved and expanded over the past 20 years, prompting the adoption of more socially responsible programs on a broader scale. During this timeframe, our team has developed a green product analysis, providing a clear picture of a business’s goals, culture, corporate values and directives around sustainability. This analysis begins with a comparison of products and procedures currently in place. Recommendations are then made for alternative solutions that can not only reduce the organization’s carbon footprint but also improve and meet sustainability goals, providing a roadmap for implementing sustainability programs over time while understanding all of the impact on cost.

A Move Toward Sustainable Packaging

In the restaurant space specifically, disposable single-use plastic packaging and carry-out containers and cutlery, for example, are huge contributors to the waste stream. By reassessing the types of materials being utilized for these products, we can make appropriate and cost-effective recommendations for more sustainable packaging. Single-use plastic is derived from raw materials drawn from the earth with no regenerative or reusable properties beyond possible recycling. However, many consumers are still unaware of which products can be recycled versus sent to landfill. While some single-use plastic materials have a recycle number or sign on them, whether they can be recycled varies by jurisdiction. 

In comparison, compostable packaging, often plant based, can be made from materials such as cornstarch, sugarcane, paper or bamboo. By definition, compostable products break down naturally in less than 90 days. The end product is a nitrogen rich and biologically active soil-like product.

What About the Cost?

Just how cost-effective, or cost-prohibitive, are sustainable packaging products? The answer may surprise even the most skeptical operators. Part of the green product analysis examines costs, return on investment, and the long term financial impact of sustainable programs and products. Historically, moving to a fully compostable program may have been a more expensive path for many businesses. However, over the last decade, innovation has continued to drive new products, innovation and opportunities to embed alternative solutions — often at a lower overall cost. In some cases, compostable sugarcane packaging is less expensive than the current single-use plastic containers, for example. It’s beneficial to be looking at new products and sustainable, compostable solutions that have a positive impact on the bottom line. Innovations in compostable materials are coming online every year, helping to level set costs further.

Green Cleaning and Its Place in a Sustainability Program

In addition to compostable and sustainable packaging options, a green product analysis also looks at the chemicals being utilized for cleaning. There are a variety of green options for dishwashing and surface cleaning in the restaurant space with products that are certified as Green Seal as well as USDA Bio Preferred.

Warewashing, for example, is prime for implementing a green cleaning process. The most costly part of warewashing is the use of energy and water. Many of the systems available now use environmentally friendly cleaning solutions that are designed to work in high-efficiency dishwashing machines to draw less water and energy, saving money and the environment at the same time. Dilution control systems for concentrated cleaning products have also substantially increased the efficiency and cost savings for these eco-friendly cleaning products in all types of retail and hospitality/restaurant facilities. Over the past decades, green cleaning products have saturated the market providing powerful, more natural, energy-efficient and less toxic cleaning solutions.

The Internet of Things and Sustainability

Facility managers can also benefit from the implementation of the Internet of Things (IoT) in their sustainability programs. IoT technology enables the integration of various smart devices, sensors and systems that can enhance efficiency, productivity and cost-effectiveness. IoT devices provide real-time monitoring and data to measure usage as well as track energy efficiency and consumption patterns throughout facilities to help operators eliminate energy waste and optimize energy usage in high-traffic locations such as dining rooms and restrooms. Smart lighting, heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems can be controlled based on occupancy and environmental conditions, leading to energy savings.

Customer and Community Perception

Finally, the cost of NOT being socially responsible can certainly harm a business’s bottom line. Perception is everything in competitive industries such as foodservice and retail. We’re seeing more operators implement sustainability programs as part of their corporate mission, which trickles down to the consumer and their demand for more environmentally conscious brands. In the foodservice and hospitality industries, especially, we are seeing a shift toward more sustainable packaging and programs to appeal to a broader customer base with positive impacts on revenue and sales.  Additionally, employees are becoming more interested in corporate cultures and choosing to work for businesses that have clear environmental directives and are putting them into action.

The Future Forecast for Sustainability Programs

Without a doubt, the future of sustainable programs is strong, as is the demand for more culturally aware and environmentally friendly brands. We expect to see continued innovation in new materials such as Polyhydroxyalkanoates or PHA, a biodegradable bio-derived plastic, an increase in domestic production of materials to keep supply chain costs down, and products that carry marine degradable certifications. Equally important, we also hope to see more jurisdictions continue to build out their infrastructure for compost to support these important sustainability programs and help support completing the waste stream cycle. 

The good news is, with the demand for green products and programs on the rise, and new materials made from renewable resources continuing to hit the market, sustainability programs are becoming more cost-effective and practical to implement and grow.

— Scott Attman is the vice president of Acme Paper & Supply Co. His primary responsibilities are geared toward business development in the metro Washington, D.C., market. Acme Paper & Supply is a distribution organization based in Jessup, Md., that focuses on serving clients in the foodservice, sports and entertainment, facilities maintenance, healthcare, and industrial-packaging industries. Email: [email protected].

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