Cascade Engineering, the large-scale plastic injection molding manufacturer, began exploring zero-waste-to-landfill opportunities before the sustainable concept was a trend. Today, there is an inevitable demand for companies to consider their waste practices. What consumers and partners are asking for is balanced by the potential bottom-line benefits of minimizing, or even eliminating, waste streams.
Sharon Darby, Director of environmental, safety and sustainability led the charge at Cascade, starting and has overseen the transformation over the last 10 years. “When we started the journey, there was no talk about zero waste. Nobody had even heard about zero waste,” she says. “But we kept plugging away until that became a thing. And it’s like, why not?”
Today, the Grand Rapids, Michigan-based manufacturer with a global footprint is a leading example of how a B2B company can increase its financial, social and environmental capital with the support of its employees and partners. The outcome is a matter-of-fact approach to evaluating waste over time and promoting employee buy-in. The foundation, according to company leadership, is setting a baseline employee culture based on trust, open feedback, and strong engagement, qualities that develop over time and that for Cascade were part of the company’s certification as a B Corporation.
As part of my research into sustainable, stakeholder-focused business, I recently sat down with Sharon, Cascade founder Fred Keller, Christina Keller, Cascade’s President and CEO since 2018 and Executive Vice President Kenyatta Brame to learn more about the inherent and unexpected values created from the sustainability developments within Cascade’s operations.
Chris Marquis: How has the zero-waste-to-landfill program evolved since its start (about a decade ago)?
Sharon Darby: I was fortunate to be involved right from the get go. When a volunteer opportunity came up to help reduce our waste, I jumped at the chance. We started with the scrap, and asking how do we recycle the plastic parts that were just going into the landfill? In 2002, when we looked at how much we were spending in waste-to-landfill, it was $268,000 a year. A year! We were able to get that down quite a bit in the first year to $181,000.
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It took seven or eight years to get to a point where we only had one item left. By that point the Zero-Waste team focused on solutions for the last item, compost, which believe it or not came accidentally. We were asked to help Davenport [a local university] facilitate a Zero Waste event. They asked for Cascade’s help, and we said, ‘Well, yes, absolutely, we’ll help you. But what do you do with compost?’ We hadn’t even resolved that.
The opportunity caused us to really dig in. We found a local farmer who would do composting for us, we also ran across the Spurt Industries, who we now work with. They have an anaerobic compost site outside; they take compost and turn it into fertilizers for consumer-use in gardens and for farming. For Cascade the larger scale operation was more conducive to what we were providing for compost. That’s how we transitioned and achieved zero waste.
Marquis: What tips do you have for other companies that would like to reduce or eliminate their landfill waste?
Darby: As people are starting out, I would encourage them to track their progress on an annual basis, and not just look at their financial progress, but look at your progress relative to your environmental footprint, look at your progress relative to your people, and measure it.
And I think that’s part of the magic of the Triple Bottom Line-line (TBL) reports or B Corporation B Impact Assessment, or even the ISO 14001, is that if you track it, and you measure it, and you hold yourself accountable to it, you’re more likely to make that progress and to push through those barriers, because you’re seeing the results.
Fred Keller: There’s something about expecting the unexpected. There’s a prize in there, somewhere. You don’t know what it’s going to be. It isn’t necessarily going to be financial, but it might be. In our case, we found that there are financial benefits, obviously, adding $280,000 to our bottom line every year.
And it’s really hard to find the cost of doing that. I mean, people separating things out is pretty minimal, but there is some cost associated with having it happen. It does take everybody. I think the bottom-up thing is really kind of an important element, letting the folks own it, as opposed to having it being imposed, is something that I think really helps. So that the leaders become cheerleaders, as opposed to enforcers.
Marquis: What are some innovations in this area that have been impressive to you?
F. Keller: I was in Israel working with a partner and learned of an organization UBQ that was working on this idea of taking, literally, garbage and making it recyclable. It would be plastic rich, but it would be full of other stuff, not very clean.
Christina Keller: Yes, UBQ is really revolutionary because it is the first time that you can use true waste. We have so much waste that we don’t know what to do with. We don’t have to till a field for it, we don’t have to do an industrial application.
Everyone wants to talk about bioplastics now. But when you think about a true lifecycle analysis on a compostable bioplastic that you’re getting your coffee in, you are often utilizing grain or corn that has taken fertilizer and pesticides and all these other things to create, and it has an alternate use, consumption.
But they are then taking it down to make it into the bio-based product lines, is another industrial action that’s combining that down. And then, they’re making it into plastics that are compostable. But how often are they actually composted in an industrial composter? Often, those are then going into the landfill.
When you look at the full carbon lifecycle of a bioplastic that is compostable, you’re adding up a lot of chemicals to the field, adding a lot of industrial applications, and then you’re not really getting the benefit of that, from an excess perspective. Also, it generates methane.
Marquis: What additional business process changes have evolved to help you achieve this zero-waste goal?
Darby: From my perspective, it’s never ending. We’re always looking at efficiencies to improve the process, to have less scrap, improving our standard work, dealing with it at the engineering stage, versus waiting until it’s in the production stage. That’s just our way of life and we deal with that every single day and we have goals to improve that, year-over-year. It takes a little bit more effort than just saying, “oh, that goes in the one container.” We could have five or six containers for different types of plastic parts that were scrapped.
Kenyatta Brame: If you make a “bad” part, you can sell it as a secondary product. And we had some employees thinking, ‘You know what? That’s OK, because we’re still going to sell it.’
And so, we actually had some conversations with employees to say, “If we’re selling it as a good product versus a secondary product, there is a difference in our margin.” Some people had aha moments—even though we are able to sell it, we’re selling it for 25% or 75% less. Therefore, take the time to make a good product so we can sell it at the appropriate rate, so we can all continue in this journey.
People ask questions about things that they may not have asked before. We have found that employees empowered with information make good decisions for the business.
Darby: There was a point in time where we were sending plastic parts to Beta Plastics for recycling, and then they were grinding it up and re-selling it. And we had asked, “Can’t we buy some of that back and reuse it in our product?” Now we buy as much of that back as we can, that’s within spec, to re-engage into new product.
Another process change is our purging compound. We had developed a purging compound to minimize the amount of waste when we had purging going on [cleaning the manufacturing equipment]. That causes a lot of waste of material so we developed the purge compound with the help of our sister company Noble Polymers, that minimizes the amount of waste in our practices.
F. Keller: And that purging compound turned into a product that Cascade can sell on the open market, as well.
Marquis: What type of training or guidance do new employees/contractors receive about the program? How do employees help shape the program?
Darby: We have a policy identifying where [all waste] goes. So, as you can imagine, there are a lot of different places from office supplies to manufacturing supplies, oil to compost, plastic, glass, metal, and there are multiple sources for all of it.
We have labeled bins and recycling containers, which we try to provide in convenient locations. For instance, upstairs, downstairs, the kitchen; areas that make sense.
You’re probably going to ask me, “how do you make sure people follow and put things where they need to?” Because that is a real big concern, and with our ISO 14001 Certification [environmental management certification] we do get audited every year on this, we have to stay on top of it. We have to keep the communication going. The biggest impact is in orientation and people who come on site. They have to understand that we are zero waste, that we have no trash cans, and that it’s not appropriate for them to just put it in any container that they see fit, whether it’s labeled or not labeled.
It is a constant reminder, it is education.