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On Product Packaging and Extending Lifecycles: Sustainable Efforts That Work

As I traveled for business on the West Coast this past week, I was struck by this thought: Washington, DC is the hub of our government; New York City is the heart of banking and fashion and California is the home of “green” (Don’t tell our Portland brothers and sisters who would argue for top position).  These days, our world’s axis spins around issues of the environment – the very epicenter of our being.

As I traveled for business on the West Coast this past week, I was struck by this thought: Washington, DC is the hub of our government; New York City is the heart of banking and fashion and California is the home of “green” (Don’t tell our Portland brothers and sisters who would argue for top position).  These days, our world’s axis spins around issues of the environment – the very epicenter of our being. And though the major issues of carbon emissions and global warming are arguably not yet even close to being fixed, there are plenty of people and organizations devoted to working on it.  The people I met and spoke with during my week in California elevated the sustainability conversation in my mind, and I come back East with renewed belief that we truly are on our way to a more sustainable world – and even the seemingly smallest of things, like product packaging and cell phone donations, are making a difference.

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I had the privilege of listening to one of Wal-Mart’s marketing gurus speak on the company’s move to drive vendors to reduce packaging.  He shared an interesting anecdote about a colleague who observed the heaps of trash in front of homes after the December holidays –much of which was Radio Flyer products like wagons and tricycles.  The story went on about the Wal-Mart executive’s realization that as the largest distributor of Radio Flyer products, many of these products were undoubtedly purchased at a Wal-Mart store, compelling him to influence Wal-Mart’s Radio Flyer contacts to redesign their packaging.  Radio Flyer not only did that, but also redesigned their popular tricycle to reduce the amount of parts needed for assembly and store better on the shelf. 

Now more than ever, companies must examine and alter product design, lifecycle, and in Wal-Mart/       Radio Flyer’s example, end-of-life packaging. Here’s another one that should hit a little closer to home for most of us without kids to pull along in red Radio Flyer wagons:  corporate cell phones. Did you know corporate cell phones make up 30 percent of cell phones in the North American market?

Last weekend, I ran into my friend Blair Brookins who is involved with a venture called TGB – a company that partners with companies to take back old cell phones while reducing the environmental footprint of the “how-did-I-ever-live-without it” technology.  

Here’s a startling statistic: Nearly 95 percent of the carbon footprint of cell phone production occurs during the manufacturing process, and making a new wireless device consumes an estimated 10 gallons of gasoline and emits CO2 equivalent to burning 6 gallons of gasoline.  This does not even take into account the embedded energy in packaging and shipping the product before it arrives in your company’s IT department.  Once in the hands of the end users – that’s us! –  the average corporate cell phone enjoys a lifecycle of roughly 18-24 months before it is replaced (planned obsolescence, anyone?  That’s a whole other blog entry, but you can read a wiki entry on the topic to educate yourself.  Once replaced, the majority of these old phones go into a drawer where they sit or worse, they’re thrown out and on top of a head in U.S. landfills.  According to TGB data, there are 3 billion wireless phone users worldwide and only 3 percent of them recycle their old cell phones and handhelds.

Prior to organizations such as TGA, cell phones and handhelds were ending up in landfills at a rate of 130 million per year (epa.gov).   That’s over $3 billion in phones and 20,000 tons of equipment.  So while the manufacture of new cell phones is not exactly environmentally sound, old cell phones are a waste, a security hazard and cost the planet energy and carbon both to replace and recycle.  So what does TGB do with the old phones?  They first scrub the phones of all sensitive information (phone numbers, texts, emails, saved documents and other contact info) and then recycle by sending them to various organizations:  Schools and Non-profits who need and cannot afford this equipment; and Programs in Africa where equipment needs are at a premium, but allow NGO workers to communicate.  TGB will even pay corporations for their phones, providing companies with an additional revenue source OR (and I hope many corporations will take advantage of the latter) a socially responsible donation to a charity of the companies’ choice. 

Among the companies already taking advantage of this great program are the Coca Cola Company, The Home Depot and AirTran.  All of these companies are donating a portion of the proceeds to Techbridge, a non-profit organization that helps the products get to the non-profits I listed above.    I am already looking into The Mohawk Group joining this list of influencers.

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TGB – and the many others throughout the country that are similar in mission – has a business model to admire.  Take old materials, divert them from landfill, ensure security for the company, create a revenue stream for corporations, provide donated or reduced-cost goods to organizations that can’t afford them, and finally donate the funds to a charity of the corporation’s choice.  Blair and his partners are heroes for the planet in my mind.  Keep up the good work, folks…

If you have a program that is similar or also works to recycle other office equipment (furniture, computers, lighting, etc…) please comment or email me and I will look forward to sharing that information in the future.   And by the way my company, The Mohawk Group, is the largest recycler in the industry and a major recycler of carpet.  Visit www.mohawkgreenworks.com for more info.

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