In 1992, Chris Fisher had the idea that he could make money by picking up recyclables from restaurants in his pickup truck. The simple concept filled a void in the city's waste disposal system, and 15 years later his company, Fisher Recycling, has a fleet of trucks and a North Charleston processing plant. Charleston Place is now saving $58,000 annually after Fisher conducted a waste audit demonstrating how much they could save by not throwing recyclables in the dumpster. "If it's done right, it's really a win for the business, the environment, and everybody," says Fisher.
Back in July, Newsweek published a "green" issue highlighting the steps that corporations like Tesco and Wal-Mart are taking to conserve. With public concern about the environment growing, it's become possible for businesses to balance eco-responsibility with profits. The nation's major cities and colleges are all seeing an increase in "green buildings" and awareness, and Charleston companies are beginning to take notice.
Local "ecopreneur" Jason Cronen is a managing partner of Ad-Naps, a company that he hopes will revolutionize bar and restaurant waste in Charleston. He subscribes to the "triple bottom line," a "make money by doing good" business model that equally emphasizes profitability, accountability, and environmental responsibility.
Ad-Naps began with napkins printed on recycled paper that feature an advertisement from a local business but is now focused on converting restaurants from disposable petroleum-based plastic to biodegradable corn cups. "Our country has gotten so dependent on foreign goods that we've failed to take stock of what's viable right here," says Cronen. "Using corn creates less dependence on a fluctuating commodity."
Corn cups are created by fermenting and distilling corn sugar into lactic acid, which is then transformed into pellets. The cups are compostable and can hypothetically grow more corn, closing the loop that's broken in a system of extraction to landfill. Businesses like Kudu Coffee, Bert's Market, and Wholly Cow have signed on when the cups become available in January. "I'm getting quizzed by conscientious college kids every day, 'Why aren't you recycling this?'" says Kudu owner John Saunders. "I'll even spend a little more if I have to just to use those."
Although corn cups aren't a panacea for the bar industry's waste problems, Cronen feels it's a start. "There's no municipal compost initiative in this city," he says, explaining that "composting" the cups requires an anaerobic digester that maintains 140 degree heat and 80 percent humidity. The cups break down slowly in landfills or conventional compost piles, but Cronen hopes a large-scale transition will encourage the city to build a composting facility, mirroring successful initiatives in cities like San Francisco and Baltimore.
Charleston's current recycling program is operated by the county, and is designed specifically for curbside, residential pickup. "As long as a business is on a residential route, we're nice about it," says Robert Ballard, a project officer for Charleston County Recycling. Nonetheless, many downtown bars generate bottles, cans, and cups in numbers too large for standard blue bins. These are picked up for free as "trash," so there's no financial incentive to recycle. Ballard claims that a corrugated cardboard plan is in the works, but that the modest return on glass discourages a downtown dumpster program for beverage containers.
Cronen expects that a combination of demand from restaurants and educated consumers will encourage both an upgrade in the county's recycling plan and a city-run composting program. "Tourists from New Jersey are going out to dinner, and they don't understand that what we've got here in the Lowcountry is a very fragile ecosystem," he explains. "When we dump petroleum products in the landfills, it's finding its way back into the water."
Through advertising, Ad-Naps plans to subsidize restaurants' transition costs to corn cups. "By putting an ad on a napkin or cup, a company is making an environmental statement," says Cronen.
There's no argument that throwing away huge amounts of recyclables in area businesses is a wasteful practice. The environmental certification agency Green Seal estimates that Americans throw away an average of 100 plastic cups a year and on Folly Beach, Bert's Market alone goes through 50,000 cups each summer.
Until the city addresses recycling woes, Charleston's innovative ecopreneurs are eager to combine their altruism with their livelihood. Half Moon Outfitters recognizes the growing trend and plausibility of "greening," and is planning a U.S. Green Building Council-approved warehouse that will use recycled construction materials and be extremely energy efficient.
At Fisher Recycling, they're now manufacturing glass countertops, tiles, and landscaping sand from the millions of pounds of glass that are stored in bunkers constructed from pieces of the old Cooper River bridge. "I can't compete with the city picking up trash for free," says Fisher. "But they do no recycling for businesses at all. That's why I started my company." Once bitter rivals, industry and environmentalism are beginning to shake hands, make up, and move forward.