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Talking Trash

EMBI Program at UW-Green Bay Finds Value in Waste
Talking Trash

When a customized container management company specializing in packaging two of Wisconsin's most famous products—cheese and beer—wanted to gauge the performance of one of its best-selling containers, it asked a neighbor for help. Partnering with experts from University of Wisconsin-Green Bay's Environmental Management and Business Institute (EMBI) and a few good interns, Tosca Ltd. found a way to save money and improve environmental performance.

Like UW-Green Bay itself, EMBI is a known community resource, establishing itself as a leader in the promotion of environmental awareness and ecologically prudent initiatives. In the 1970s UW-Green Bay earned recognition and national acclaim as "Eco U" due in large part to its multidisciplinary approach to solving problems, including those of an environmental nature. EMBI complements the university's solid reputation as a leader in sustainable practices on campus and in the community-long before "being green" became trendy-by partnering with public and private sector interests like Tosca throughout northeastern Wisconsin. 

Tosca's business is national in scope, supplying returnable containers for bulk shipment of food products including dairy, fresh produce, meat, and poultry. For over fifty years the Green Bay-based firm has handled beer keg distribution and repair. With an interest in sustainability, Tosca set out to perform a comprehensive lifecycle analysis of its standard wood "640" cheese box, compared to an alternative plastic box. 

With an eye on cost effectiveness through sustainable practices, undergraduate EMBI interns Steven Teclaw and Phillip Davister examined the energy and material requirements of the 640 box in the hope of improving its environmental footprint. They spent long hours in the plant working with Tosca team members to gather data. It was no easy task, notes Tosca VP of operations Greg Gorski. "The scope [of cost analysis] included not only the manufacturing of the wood and plastic components, but [also things like] transportation, repair, and wash analysis." 

EMBI graduate student Adam Snippen helped refine project data inputs, assumptions, and final analysis under the oversight of UW-Green Bay environmental engineer and professor John Katers. 

"I think we have a really good program in place that deals with a lot of emerging waste issues … occurring in Wisconsin and across the country," says Katers, who shares directorship of EMBI with public and environmental affairs professor John Stoll. 

As the Tosca project was being finalized this spring, Tosca vice president Gorski was already labeling it a success. "Their analysis was extremely comprehensive and the results of their work will be applied directly to our Sustainability Goals and 'Green Tier' program." In addition to addressing the basic performance of the 640, the students' work has marketing value: new and existing customers are increasingly seeking businesses with sustainable practices. 

"I hope that students will gain perspectives on environmental issues and perspectives on the opportunities that are available to them in the workforce," says EMBI co-director Stoll. "Students—and the public—should be able to recognize that environmental interests can be compatible with business interests."

Says Steven Teclaw, a senior Environmental Science and Policy major from Rhinelander, "This internship was one of the most important opportunities I've had at UW-Green Bay, especially as it applies to real-world experience." Teclaw says he was especially pleased he could participate in every facet of the program, rather than just focusing on a single perspective, and that the project was beneficial on a local level. "Being an environmental science-oriented student, taking business classes is something I would not have normally done. EMBI makes sure students go in with a multi-disciplinary approach to their internships." 

For Tosca's Greg Gorski, the program was a win-win. "[It was] a very successful, mutually beneficial project meeting the needs of both the private sector and academia." 

Taking its cue from successful private/academic partnerships like the one with Tosca, UW-Green Bay's Environmental Management and Business Institute got down and dirty this spring with a UW System Wisconsin Idea Forum entitled "Green Innovations: Waste or Wasted Opportunity?" The forum was held during Earth Week on April 20-21, and hundreds of campus and community members gathered to discuss waste-related issues and opportunities. "This was a really great forum for members of the campus community to see the many companies in our state that have been successfully using waste or recycled materials to make new products or produce renewable energy," says host and EMBI co-director John Katers.

Among the hands-on activities for students was an exercise in "dumpster diving": creating a waste comparison study from dumpsters collected from student housing, the union, and academic facilities. The results were somewhat surprising, as it was determined that a significant amount of food waste was found in the residence hall waste. However, on a more positive note, there were not many recyclable materials (cans, bottles) found in the waste, which indicated that the campus was doing well in terms of recycling.

Forum participants also had the opportunity to attend the Wisconsin premiere of DIVE! Living Off America's Waste. The award-winning documentary explores how our grocery stores are filling their dumpsters with edible food while many people in America go hungry. The film's director, Jeremy Seifert, was on hand at the post-screening discussion along with members of local food pantries and organic food growers.

During the forum luncheon Thursday, the Green Bay Packers assistant director of public relations Aaron Popkey shared an overview of the "green" recycling effort adopted by the recent Superbowl champions. Like the project with Tosca, a team of EMBI interns spent much of the academic year helping the Green Bay Packers assess and upgrade their game-day recycling efforts at Lambeau Field. With roughly 7 million pounds of recyclables collected on an average game day, the project—still under way as of spring 2011—is an excellent addition to the "Packers Green Team" program started in 2008 which focuses on the use of renewable resources and other sustainable practices at Lambeau Field.

Several ideas and opportunities emerged from forum discussions. First, the need for ongoing education regarding the benefits of waste reduction and recycling was thought to be very important, particularly on college campuses where the student population changes regularly. Second, given the current economic environment in the state, increasing resource efficiency and minimizing waste production should be primary concerns to both the public and private sectors. Third, enhanced economic development efforts in Wisconsin centered around these waste opportunities could benefit the state in many ways by adding jobs and increasing tax revenues.

Perhaps the most important lesson to come from the "Green Innovations: Waste or Wasted Opportunity?" forum was the importance of peer adoption, which can hasten a community's acceptance of good sustainability practices. Wisconsin has many excellent examples of companies such as Tosca and the Green Bay Packers that have aggressively implemented these ideas to become not only more environmentally friendly, but also more profitable. If the methods used by these companies are adopted by public and private sector peers, Wisconsin will further expand its legacy—established by the likes of John Muir, Aldo Leopold and Gaylord Nelson—as an environmental leader. 

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