03/28/2008 02:48 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Problem With Waste

As an entrepreneur focused on infusing business with a clear environmental mission, my strategies at Stonyfield Farm for reducing or eliminating waste did not spring fully formed from my subconscious. It's been a long evolution for me, as I'm sure it is for many. My goal is to shorten your evolutionary time line a bit, by sharing what I've learned.

In our early years at Stonyfield, we sometimes, and always reluctantly, dealt with waste by dumping it, much as my father and grandfather did with their shoe business, in the nearest version of "away." But it really bothered me. Having waste to dispose of always seemed, well, a waste.

If I needed an epiphany to make me truly serious about the problem, it came one snowy night when the Dumpster outside the Yogurt Works caught fire. We were still on the farm, with my partner Samuel's house and mine both connected to the barn, where all our cups and lids were stored, as well as the Yogurt Works and the office. We had supported our local recycling center back then, but it didn't take plastic, so we had a Dumpster outside the barn. It turned out later that an employee had thrown a cigarette butt in there.

We were having dinner when I noticed that it was light outside--this in February, long after dark. We ran outside and there was the Dumpster, about ten feet from the barn, with twenty-foot flames belching up, dancing back and forth in the hilltop wind. The Dumpster itself was literally orange, glowing with heat. The paint on the barn was already blistering and cracking, and I was afraid the whole place would go up in flames.

There was a volunteer fire department, but we were at the very end of the end of town and it was going to take them forever to arrive. I had no choice. I grabbed a chain, jumped onto the tractor, and backed up to the Dumpster. My hair and skin were getting singed as I crawled through the snow to hook up the Dumpster and drag it away from the barn to burn itself out in the driveway.

The next morning, the contents of the Dumpster had cooled into one giant meteorite of plastic. We made two firm decisions that day. One was that nobody would ever smoke again anywhere on our hill. And the other was that, somehow, all our film and plastic would be recycled from that point on. We had to find a place to do it.

There was another, less dramatic turning point for Stonyfield's waste processing, and it came about twenty years ago when circumstances forced us to discard 3,600 plastic cups of unsellable runny yogurt. Incubator problems had kept the batch from reaching the right consistency, and we hadn't noticed the problem until it was neatly packaged and ready for shipping. I knew that I couldn't just put the load in a landfill, so we piled it on ten pallets, trucked it to a nearby pig farm, and began laboriously opening each cup. We intended to pour the contents into the pigs' trough and then rinse the cups for recycling.

I'll never forget the look on the farmer's face when he figured out what we were going to do. "Forget it," he said. "Just push those pallets off the truck, and watch what happens." As the cups rolled all over the ground, the farmer opened a gate and the pigs stampeded through. In a matter of seconds, they tore the cups apart and slurped up every ounce of yogurt, drooling, oinking, and stinking with a ferocity that left only a pile of plastic shreds licked absolutely clean. All we had to do was scoop up the debris with snow shovels and drive it to the local recycling center.

Thus did a herd of hungry pigs show me the way, back in 1986. I am forever grateful. Besides saving us the cost and trouble of washing out 3,600 yogurt cups, those pigs showed us--vividly--how little we knew about managing our waste in more efficient ways. Watching those pigs eat was a master seminar in how to slash costs and drive profits--without the consulting fee, the boxed lunch, or the stuffy conference room.

Since those porkers schooled me, however, I've learned that not everything works as perfectly as feeding cups of yogurt to pigs. It's largely unrealistic to think that we can avoid generating at least some waste. People are not going to lie down beneath a cow, mouths open wide, to get their dairy. We have to package it, and reducing the environmental impact of packaging is the Holy Grail of waste management--the goal everyone in industry is straining to meet.

Speaking of reducing, the real solution is source reduction, or simply limiting the amount of material used to make our packaging in the first place. In the mid '80's when we began examining the environmental aspects of our packaging, we assumed the most important characteristic was its recyclability. But after evaluating a number of life-cycle analysis studies and finally, in 1999, commissioning our own with the University of Michigan's Center for Sustainable Systems, we learned that less than 5% of the total environmental impact of packaging is in how it's disposed or recycled. Instead, the best thing we could do for the environment was to reduce the weight of our packaging. We achieved that by choosing to use lightweight plastic, by using as little of it as possible, and ultimately by changing our lids from plastic to foil. Simply converting to foil lids meant we needed 16% less energy and 13% less water, and created 6% less solid waste. As a result, we now save millions of dollars each year on our packaging strategy alone.

It would be nice if there were a national strategy in place to guide companies seeking to do the right thing. Unfortunately, in the area of packaging waste, all we have is a crazy quilt of state initiatives begun under the 1976 Solid Waste Disposal Act. Huge landfills here, incinerators there. Curbside recycling programs in some communities, virtuous individuals left to scout out recyclers on their own in others. Worse yet, very little attention is given to the notion of stopping waste, say, by finding another use for an item or repairing something that's broken.

No wonder many businesspeople feel isolated and uncertain as to how to proceed. Lacking a coherent waste-management policy in this country, each company struggles to find a path for itself--or, too often, gives up entirely.