Last month, the Lean Green Institute took a few members to tour the operations of Cèdre, a sorting service for corporate office recyclables in the greater Paris area.
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Cèdre was created to fulfill two objectives:
- Create long term employment for individuals with a disability.
- Protect the environment by ensuring the greatest amount of value from office rubbish is recycled.
Having insights into the recycling industry, Cèdre saw an opportunity to fix the broken system of office recycling while also incorporating one of the most overlooked workforces in society. By combining these two strategies, Cèdre’s founders created a leap in value for their company, clients and business partners, employees, community, and environment. They’re an excellent example of a thriving social enterprise at work; fulfilling the needs of society while stoking the economy and delivering value to multiple stakeholders.
Rubbish Tossed, Value Lost
It’s no secret that an office generates a lot of waste. What might come as a surprise, however, is that almost all of office rubbish is recyclable, according to the EPA, and yet most of it is still sent to the landfill. The capture rate of recyclables at an office is on average, only 40%. This is tragic considering the benefits of recycling for the planet, society, and the economy.
On the tour, Cèdre shared why several common practices and factors at offices encourage mediocre recycling. These include:
- A proliferance of rubbish bins in the cafeteria, meetings rooms, and at employees desks.
- A lack of communication about the opportunities to recycle in the office and a lack of standards to support the behavior.
- An even higher barrier, is that in many cases the responsibility falls on company employees, not facilities, to ensure recyclables are being managed to retain their highest value (simply have a recycling bin is not enough, as I’ll explain below …).
- Another office practice which can sabotage office recycling is the shredding of confidential documents. Non-shredded paper can be recycled six to eight times, but once shredded, paper can usually only be remade again once because the paper fibers have lost the strength of their length. Worse still, only certain recyclers accept shredded paper because of the difficulties it creates during the sorting process.
- While adding simplicity and ease to the practice of recycling, the “single bin” practice results in many perfectly recyclable items going to the landfill due to contamination. Broken or mixed glass and paper soiled by food or liquid cannot be recycled and are immediately discarded by recyclers as landfill waste.
- The single bins have also reduced the capabilities of recycling centers to be flexible and process a large variety of materials. According to Plastics Europe, more than 7.5 tonnes of plastics waste were collected for recycling in 2014. It takes so much work to sort through that mess that it’s nearly impossible to make a profit doing it. Many sorting and recycling centers have a common practice of accepting mixed recyclables, then sorting mechanically to locate specific high-value plastics and metals while selling the rest to China or a landfill.
These practices not only negatively affect the planet by sending valuable recyclables to the landfill, but they also dampen Cèdre’s ability to be more profitable. After sorting and baling, recyclables will be sold to manufacturers, and they must meet certain standards. They can’t have too many impurities, since recycled materials compete with virgin materials for use in manufacturing. So, how can the economics work with the goal of capturing and retaining value in as many recyclables as possible? Cèdre took a page from Toyota’s book and committed themselves to uphold quality as the highest standard, not only in their operations but also in the upstream and downstream processes that bookend their operations.
Quality at Cèdre
Cèdre’s managers knew that quality starts with consistency, and consistency must come from operational stability. For Cèdre, stability means that variations within all aspects of operations are under control. To have everything under control at Cèdre means customer pick-ups and drop-offs are timely and accurate, schedules are stable and level, equipment runs safely, properly and as planned, staff have on-going training to do their job well, and every job must follow a documented standard. Cèdre saw that when employees are committed to hitting the bull’s-eye consistently, it cast a sharper eye on every feature of the center, and this is when improvement work started to take place. Cèdre employees have contributed ideas to ensure materials are sorted more efficiently, implementing preventative standards ensuring certain plastics won’t cause harm to the machines, organization and improved flow of the workspace, as well as safety and environmentally-friendly ideas all to improve consistency, stability, and quality of their bales.
However, even with the best in-house effort to generate quality for the customer (and they also consider the environment as one of their customers), Cèdre is still at the mercy of the quality level that is passed to them from their customer/suppliers, which will continue to impact the materials’ upstream destiny. They can have perfect quality in their center, but that doesn’t increase the ability of an office to recycle more effectively or for their business partners to stop selling recyclables with lesser value to China. Cèdre has a strong ethic of “service to others” woven into the values of their company, so it’s no surprize they applied this thinking to influence quality both upstream and downstream.
Quality starts at the source, so they began to redesign the collection process in-office to meet the needs of their customers and human behavior better, and above all, foster stability in process and materials. Some of their solutions include:
- Smaller bins, but more of them: As seen with many “big batch” solutions, by the time a defect is discovered, much damage has already been done. At an office, the single-use bin acts like a large batch, where one seemingly small defect (a half-full plastic water bottle tossed into a bin full of paper and cardboard) can contaminate the entire batch. Contamination is a waste for the environment as more trees and energy will be needed to make fresh paper, a waste of money for the customer, and a loss of material for Cèdre. Cèdre creates small bins that can be put in multiple locations throughout the office, placed in areas of high usage of recyclable materials. If contamination does happen, (they try to prevent this with visual management) it is limited to a small batch size.
- Visual Management: Working in partnership with the small bins are visual controls clearly demonstrating which materials go in which bins, but also what actions are “Okay” and “Non Okay”. For instance, there is a bin just for paper, just for cans, just for plastic goblets, another for plastic water bottles, and so on, depending on the types of recyclables the office generates. Liquids and food are not allowed, nor is broken glass and other variables which would decrease quality at the recycler. Sorting at this high level of quality, while desirable from recyclers and smelters, is usually cost prohibitive at a sorting center. The cleaner and better sorted the materials are, the better Cèdre can sort and bundle materials to sell a “pure” bale to a recycler. Serving the customer (making it easy for them) to cooperate in sorting accomplishes: 1/ A lower chance materials downcycled into cheaper products likely destined for the landfill at the end of their useful lives. 2/ Higher profitability and financial stability for Cèdre in the volatile commodities market. When commodity prices are down, the the highest quality recycling bales are sold first, rewarding operations doing the best job sorting. In addition, keeping inventory of low-quality items in a down market takes up space, time, and resources — all of which have an impact on their operating costs, flexibility, and the planet.
- Routine pick-ups: With smaller bins, Cèdre comes more frequently on a set schedule so customers know when to expect them. They will also come as requested if there’s been a party, large delivery, other event producing more recyclables than normal.
- Secure document handling: Cèdre ensures all paper can be recycled at it’s highest value with their creation of a secure recycling zone in their center, reserved for non-shredded confidential papers. Documents have their own special bin at the office and are sorted and processed at the center in a highly secure room according to the specifications of the paper mill. Clients receive a certificate of security and can rest assured that their sensitive data has been optimized for protection and paper value retention.
- Training and communication: Cèdre provides ongoing training with their customer/suppliers to help them understand the benefits of sorting (choose the right bin, and the earth wins!), what should and should not go in a bin, the current state of recycling in Europe and the role citizens and companies can play, and how to increase the recycling rate in the office. Cèdre views customers/suppliers as partners in their success and so they make an effort to be available to help with special requests, ensure a real person answers the phone to help with questions, and offer their service and all interactions with a warm smile.
- Metrics and Accountability: Every customer has a digital dashboard which reports on weight and other metrics of their recyclables, allowing for companies to track their goals of reduce and reuse. They can also manage their pick-up times and other account details through their dashboard.
- Requests for Improvement: Cèdre is always seeking to serve their customers better and alleviate the friction of sorting and recycling in the office. They aim to provide consistent communication and frequently seek their customer’s ideas on improvement.
Nudging Quality Upstream
The result of these improvements is that Cèdre can acquire and process higher quality bundles to be sent to recyclers. It’s understandable to think that Cèdre’s commitment to quality is complete: they’ve achieved their goal of a stable system where they can continuously improve the quality of their outputs. However, their mission does not allow them to stop here. They did not go through all the work to achieve quality for the final product to potentially be burned or downcycled simply by the highest bidder. Instead, they choose their business partners carefully based on their track record and operating practices. Offering a high quality product at a reliable rate and consistency makes facilitates negotiating contracts for the best price with the right partners.
As the world becomes hotter and resources more scarce, we need to expand our definition and role of a value stream and supply chain (also naming actions after linear objects nudge us think in a linear model) with one that is circular and collaborative. Quality doesn’t live in one segment of the process, it must be built into the entire lifecycle and we must be in service to others, like Cèdre, to achieve it.