Government and Sustainability

Exchange offers new option for avoiding the landfill

Companies can save money in the process

October 15, 2012
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Ever think you could find just what you are looking for in the Dumpster or recycling bin down the street?

During a roundtable discussion with members of The Employers’ Association of West Michigan last summer, two companies did just that. One company representative was lamenting the high cost of purchasing barrels the company needed, at $20 per barrel, while another mentioned the $10 per barrel cost of recycling those same barrels. The solution? The companies decided they could help each other by exchanging the barrels.

Following that dialogue, TEA decided to create a free online exchange program that would allow companies to post materials for reuse and other companies to search for items they need. The companies could then work out an arrangement for the exchange.

“There are companies out there that are struggling with commodities and they just don’t know where to get rid of them,” Renae Hesselink, sustainability coordinator for Nichols Paper & Supply and chair of TEA’s board of directors, said in a statement. “Instead of searching around out there looking for ways to use or dispose of them, this is a place we can go.”

Hesselink recently helped connect a Nichols client with a group of teachers in need of lab coats. The exchange involved 40 gently used lab coats that no longer met clean-room standards at the company, but were still in good enough shape to be handed off to science and art teachers in Muskegon, Ottawa and Allegan counties, keeping the coats out of the waste stream where they were headed.

The website, exchangewestmi.com, allows for increased accessibility between organizations and is expected to save businesses, municipalities and nonprofits money and time, reduce waste and provide increased opportunity for business-to-business collaboration.

The site, which is just out of its beta testing phase, currently has 15 users, with three companies in the queue for membership approval. Lisa Sabourin, president and CEO of TEA, said that companies can sign up and participate for free, and she expects that as word of mouth spreads, “it will take off like wildfire.”

Sabourin hopes in one year to have an elaborate offering of resources, particularly in the form of recycling guides on the website. She also expects to have reports of cost savings and landfill avoidance available, and the beginnings of mapping based on site utilization that identifies where the needs are located. Though the website has built-in reporting functions that look at types of materials, frequency of use and cost, its members’ exchanges will remain confidential and the information gathered will be provided in aggregate form.

Sabourin also sees potential for unique business-to-business collaborations to result from the exchange and sees an opportunity for companies that are mature in their recycling programs to help those that are not sure where to start.

The website was a result of a grant from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality for pollution prevention.

“We did market analysis as to interest and functionality and chose an appropriate vendor,” Sabourin said.

The organization chose a subscription format for the site so that it can utilize already existing software to run the program. Sabourin believes the program will be easy to sustain.

There are similar programs across the country, including in California and the Northeast, where Sabourin said seven exchanges recently linked up to expand their reach. She hopes the West Michigan exchange might be able to do something similar in three to five years.

Currently, the program is focused on Kent, Muskegon, Newaygo, Oceana and Ottawa counties, but there are no strict boundaries that a business must reside within to participate.

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