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Don’t feed the seagulls

Have you been to the landfill lately? A recent trip confirmed that Idaho has an impressive population of seagulls, members of the Landfillasaurus family, thanks to an immense amount of gull food disguised as household and industrial waste. That trip to the landfill also confirmed that we are filling up a very large hole at an alarming rate.

Although Bigelow Tea has a corporate culture of sustainability that dates back three generations and today extends to all three of its production plants, until five years ago, about 50 percent of the waste generated by the Boise Bigelow Tea plant went to the landfill. To put that in perspective, we were burying the equivalent of one school bus full of trash every month. We recycled the easy stuff – cardboard, paper, aluminum cans and broken pallets – but the rest went to the trash bin, and then to the landfill.

Looking at it that way got a lot of us thinking. It was the wrong thing to do and it was costing us money.

Cindi Bigelow, third-generation president of our family business, challenged the entire company to reduce landfill waste by 50 percent. A group of Boise employees accepted the challenge and asked if they could form a team to work on the Boise plant waste stream. At the time, the goal of cutting our waste in half seemed daunting. Surely we weren’t that bad at managing our waste. But as the team started working, it became apparent that we had loads of opportunity (bus loads), and the work began.

The first thing the Boise team did was a trash audit, not-so-affectionately dubbed “dumpster diving.” They found that we were throwing away far more paper than we knew about. We thought we had a good paper recycling program, but we didn’t. The divers also found plastic from food containers that people brought for lunch, water bottles and a lot of stretch wrap. There were also a tremendous number of bags that our raw tea comes in. And there was a lot of scrap from our process, like teabags that didn’t meet our quality standards and raw tea that was part of our scrap and no longer useful to us.

Plastic waste surfaced as the biggest opportunity, so that became the focus. Western Recycling, a great partner in the entire process, agreed to take our discarded stretch wrap if we would bale it first. We already had a baler for cardboard, so the team established a system for saving and baling stretch wrap. Western picks it up once a week and sends us a check for the material.

The lunch containers and plastic water bottles weren’t a significant part of our waste, but they were important for us to address because they were visible to every person in the plant. We set up a recycling system in the lunchroom, so when people have plastic to discard, they rinse it and place it in the recycle bin. It’s a subtle reminder that every little bit of waste is important. We also issued reusable water bottles, which made a small but important difference.

Our tea waste was a challenge. It is compostable, but we couldn’t find a convenient compost facility in the area. So that became my contribution: Once every two or three months, I bring my truck to work, load up the compost and deliver it to a local dairy. The tea is mixed with bovine byproducts and eventually becomes the most fragrant compost in the Treasure Valley.

Packaging waste turned out to be another challenge the Boise plant needed to overcome. It took effort and some initial investment, but once addressed, we found we were able to save an additional quarter-busload from going to the landfill each month. For us, it is the right thing to do.

At Bigelow, sustainability is a real core value, which means we follow it even if takes extra effort or increased cost. Our efforts are not confined to waste reduction. Across the company, there are numerous examples of the family’s commitment to sustainability, from huge projects like the 900 solar panels in Connecticut, to small investments in low-water toilets. The sum of these efforts is incredible. At last count, we are saving nearly 6.5 million kilowatt hours of electricity, 800,000 gallons water and 1.7 million cubic feet of natural gas.

In waste reduction, the Bigelow Tea company as a whole now landfills less than 10 percent of its waste. The Boise plant is at 8 percent, earning it the distinction of being a Zero-Waste-to-Landfill company. To achieve this, we completed lots of projects. Some of them paid off financially, while others were neutral and a few even cost us some money.

One of the best things about Bigelow Tea is the family’s commitment to do the right thing, even if it doesn’t have an ROI. But overall, the waste reduction push actually paid off for us.

Five years ago, the Boise plant alone was spending $1,500 per month emptying a dumpster the size of a school bus. Now, we spend only $105 per month, and all we need is a small waste box. Even when we add the labor and effort we put into the program into the equation, we still end up saving around $5,000 per year. But the bigger benefit is the pride and sense of accomplishment employees feel knowing that by accepting the challenge and working together, they’re preventing 12 busloads of trash from being buried every year. That’s a lot of trash! And if you can do something about it, why not try? It’s not that hard. And don’t worry about the seagulls; they will find something else to eat.

Tony Greer is the plant manager for Bigelow Tea’s plant in Boise. Bigelow has been manufacturing in Boise for 29 of the company’s 67-year history. Bigelow sells 1.6 billion teabags per year, with about a third of those manufactured in Boise. 

About Tony Greer

One comment

  1. Thank you for the great job you do in reducing wastes and conserving natural resources! Bigelow Tea is a great asset to our community, in part due to your environmental leadership.