TRENTON, Ohio -- It was business as usual as Kelly Harris took out the trash at the MillerCoors brewery in Trenton -- a routine task for employees of the facility that averaged about 56 tons of trash each month.
But on this trash take-out day, a message he read in a corporate email caused him to pause.
“They wanted us to reduce our landfill [waste] by 15 percent,” said Harris, a 48-year-old hourly employee who worked as a machine operator on a 12-ounce production line for two decades.
He dumped out the trash, and noticed something inside he hadn’t paid attention to before -- glass bottles, cans, cardboard and more.
Lots of it.
“I noticed about everything was recyclable,” he said. “I read the 15 percent [goal in the e-mail] and went to [the brewery vice president] and said ‘Hey, I think we can do better.’”
A small recycling goal that came from the top down in 2008 quickly morphed into a much bigger plan from the shop floor up, led by Harris, who thought he could make the 1,100-acre Trenton facility the first mega brewery in the country to become landfill-free.
For one of the nation’s largest mega breweries an employee culture that historically shied away from recycling would be hard to change.
“People really hold on tight to those garbage cans,” Harris said.
And it would be even harder for the “little guy” to convince 550 employees -- and eventually thousands more -- why it was essential for him to take their precious trash cans away.
"I had never made a facility landfill-free," he said.
“It was perhaps a bit of a surprise that we had turned it over to a technician. People were like ‘Woah, wait a second!’” said Denise Quinn, the brewery vice president and Trenton plant manager behind the company’s initial sustainability push.
Harris returned to the production line, but this time it wasn’t to run that machine. He watched his co-workers recycling habits and documented them. Meticulously.
“I rotated shifts -- sometimes all three -- in four or five days,” he said. “I would measure every [recycling and trash] container we had out there to see how much it was contaminated.”
He walked the 32-acre facility for days, and even sat outside office doors to record how many times employees left their desks.
“They had no idea [I was watching],” Harris said of the employees he observed for the first month. “I measured what they were recycling, what they were throwing in the trash. Was the recycling contaminated with other recyclables or with the trash?”
The biggest surprise?
"How much cardboard was being thrown away. I mean, it was hundreds of tons. I had no idea," Harris said.
He came to Quinn with that data and a five-year business plan.
“We looked at it and said, yes, there could be a cost to us, but we [were] willing to take that cost on because…we can’t put a cost on what the community thinks of this, what this can do to the business, what our employees think,” said Quinn.
Despite budgeting to spend extra money on the sustainability plan, Quinn and Harris quickly discovered the Trenton facility would actually profit from recycling its waste.
The Trenton brewery declared it would recycle not just 15 -- but 99.8 percent -- of its waste by 2013.
"We wanted to do it right," said Quinn. "We could have said probably less comfortably -- but we could have said we were landfill free if just 90 percent of what we were doing was reuse and recycle....But we felt like doing it right meant you went as far as you possibly could."
Harris achieved his landfill-free goal in 2010, just 23 months after he submitted the five-year plan. Ninety-eight percent of the facility's waste is recycled and the remaining 2 percent -- comprised of floor, cafeteria and bathroom waste -- is sent to a waste-to-energy facility in Indiana.
Today, the brewery recycles or reuses about 2,000 tons per month, according to a company spokesperson. MillerCoors also claims to recover more than $20,000 each month just by selling conventional recyclables.
"The intent was never to make money. I'll be honest, I thought we were going to lose money," said Harris.
How He Changed The Company's Culture
Stripping MillerCoors employees of their office trash cans and dumpsters along the production lines was a delicate task, Harris said. So he prepared to share his audit data with employees who expressed concern.
"I knew that when someone would say, 'Well, I never leave my office,' I could say, 'Well actually over the past two days you were out of your office five times every hour," said Harris. "You cannot fix anything unless you measure it."
Employees approached Harris with several concerns about the then-newly announced initiative: they didn't have time to recycle, they didn't have the space and they didn't want the company to add more work to their daily jobs.
He mulled over options to simplify what many employees considered a burdensome task, but it took an every-day glance at three colored lights for the solution to become clear.
"I was driving through the intersection and it hit me -- let's color code this," said Harris.
He likened the different color recycling containers to the non-verbal commands you follow at the stoplight -- green for go, yellow for caution and red for stop. But in this case, it's yellow for aluminum cans, brown for cardboard, white for plastic, dark grey for glass and so on.
"The color coding really worked for the source separation. Some of these recyclables are worth thousands of dollars a ton. You don't want to lose that," Harris said.
He made the recycling switch line by line, and eventually implemented a scoring system so the 10 production lines could compete.
"A majority of the workers here are competitive by nature. 'Look what we can do that some of our competitors [aren't doing],'" said Harris. "But what really pushed this was score carding. There was no discipline, no bonuses but I scored every single line in the department and posted the results monthly."
Trenton brewery model goes national
The Trenton brewery reached landfill-free status three years early, and other MillerCoors breweries wanted in.
"I was asked to go to other breweries and at first I told them no. Even though we had reached our goal, there were people who weren't on board with the culture change so I took that scorecard and just kept scoring," Harris said.
He planned to stick around the Trenton facility to work out the kinks in his new recycling process -- until an unexpected run-in with the company chairman Pete Coors at a local Buffalo Wild WIngs.
"I introduced myself and he said, 'I've heard of you.' We talked about how he had heard of me and he was like 'When are you coming out to the Golden brewery [in Colorado]?' and I said 'When do you want me there?' And he said 'Next week.' So I went the next week," said Harris.
Miller Coors Golden brewery is the company's largest brewery by volume and is one of the largest single-site breweries in the world. Harris spent about two years at that facility, modeling the same recycling process he had implemented in Trenton. The site became landfill-free in June 2013.
Six of MillerCoors eight breweries are now landfill-free.
Harris continues to work as an hourly technician for MillerCoors in Trenton.
This is the first part of a three-part series on Tri-State business sustainability initiatives that have inspired industry standards and ideas across the nation.