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Seeing the Business Opportunities in Sustainability

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A Shift in the Market

Alpine Waste & Recycling started sixteen years ago with one collection truck and one driver. Today, it’s the largest independent waste and recycling company in Colorado – growth it achieved by recognizing the business opportunities of sustainability-focused innovations. By helping both customers and employees fulfill their core values of creating a healthier community and environment, Alpine has become the sustainability leader within Colorado’s waste industry, making it necessary for other local companies to improve their own recycling and composting services in order to compete.

John Griffith, President of Alpine Waste & Recycling
John Griffith, President of Alpine Waste & Recycling
Alpine was launched in 1999, when founder John Griffith learned his employer, BFI Waste Systems, was about to change hands. He used the sales and management training he had received at BFI and Sears, Roebuck & Co. to start his new endeavor and sold his private stock to fund it. As a small, independent company competing against much larger rivals, such as Waste Management, Republic, and Waste Connections, Griffith knew he had to find a niche: delivering exceptional service by understanding his customers’ needs. Within eight years, he had more than 30 trucks and 50 employees.

In 2006, Griffith noticed a major shift in market demand. As his business customers began implementing their own sustainability programs, they started asking for services that would divert more of their waste away from landfills (thus eliminating a major source of greenhouse gas). Griffith recognized that sustainability was going to be the future of the waste industry and that a disposal company that offered a comprehensive set of waste diversion and recycling services would have a distinct advantage.

To make it easier for customers to reach their sustainability goals, Alpine began offering single-stream recycling (where all recyclables could be placed in the same bin and collected by a single truck, to be sorted later at the recycling facility). But they still needed a way to process the recyclables. Because Denver’s only recycling facility was closed to third parties, Alpine had been hauling their material to a facility in Fort Collins. Now, with the increase in demand, they made the key decision to build their own recycling plant and make it a state-of-the-art single-stream facility. That facility now recycles enough paper fiber to save about 700,000 trees a year.

John Griffith presents the natural gas fueling station at HQ; Image courtesy of Alpine Waste & Recycling
John Griffith presents the natural gas fueling station at HQ; Image courtesy of Alpine Waste & Recycling
Alpine also saw that much of the waste stream still going to landfills was made up of organic materials. In 2007, Alpine became the first company in the Denver metro area to collect organic material and offer a facility to process it. They also own the state’s only privately held landfill. This vertical integration helps them offer more affordable rates to their customers.

Rather than hiring consultants to help them plan and implement these initiatives, Alpine relied on the advice and examples of California disposal companies like Recology that had already successfully implemented single-stream and composting programs.

A Focus on Revenues

Unlike many companies that focus their sustainability efforts on internal initiatives, such as risk management or cutting their energy consumption, Alpine bases its sustainability strategy on market demand and is willing to invest in innovations that offer added value to their customers. Griffith has always been a believer in the importance of sustainability in fighting climate change. 

The scientific community agrees that climate change is happening, and even if there’s a five percent chance that they’re right, we need to do everything we can to tackle it 

John Griffith
President, Alpine Waste & Recycling

But he’s also keenly aware that for small businesses to remain competitive, their sustainability initiatives must be economically viable. In the case of Alpine, sustainability is their major competitive advantage and largely responsible for a 34 percent annual compounded growth in revenues over 14 years.

Leading by Example

With the success of Alpine’s single-stream and organics recycling initiatives, the executive team began looking for other opportunities to lead their industry forward on climate solutions.

Their next decision was to convert their fleet from diesel fuel to compressed natural gas (CNG), which produces 21 percent fewer carbon emissions than diesel, as well as being more cost-effective and domestically produced. CNG also increases labor productivity because the trucks can be refueled using a “slow-fill” system that frees up the drivers for other tasks. Alpine was the first waste company in Colorado to use CNG vehicles.

Empowering Customers

The leadership team also realized that, since sustainability was emerging as Alpine’s key differentiator, they needed to keep expanding their sustainability-focused customer offerings. Alpine recently implemented a new service called Automated Sustainability Reporting (ASR), which quantifies the proportion of each customer’s waste that is being diverted to landfills. Scales and computers in each collection vehicle weigh every container being picked up and wirelessly gather the data. Alpine can then deliver customized reports that let customers see the environmental impact of their diversion efforts. This is important for companies who need to justify the costs of their sustainability initiatives to their stakeholders.

Image courtesy of Alpine Waste & Recycling
Image courtesy of Alpine Waste & Recycling
Based on customer feedback, the ASR reports now offer competitive data as well, so companies can benchmark their performance against other companies or sites. As customer Alvino Salcedo, Green Mission Representative for Whole Foods Market, says, “The sustainability reports shows us concrete numbers – something our team members and our leadership team can see as a store. It’s showing an end result of what we do in our separation effort here.” Currently, Alpine believes is the only waste disposal company in the country to offer this service.

Along with improving customer satisfaction and acquisition, the ASR had an unforeseen financial benefit – it provided more accurate pricing for customer contracts, further enhancing client relationships.

Getting Employees on Board

Sustainability is now at the heart of Alpine’s sales efforts and offerings, but initially, Griffith’s team had their doubts. “When we first sat down with our management team and said, ‘we want to look at doing natural gas trucks,’ they were a little skeptical,” he says. So Griffith sent his managers to visit a transit company in Los Angeles that utilized CNG trucks. When they saw the success of that program, they bought in.

It was also important to engage the sales staff so they could effectively represent Alpine’s sustainability services. Alpine keeps employees abreast of new initiatives (and the competitive advantages they offer) by sharing information at monthly staff meetings. The ASR program also helped make sustainability a major selling point by offering customers a unique way to quantify their sustainability efforts.

Creating Added Value for Customers and Employees

Griffith has never looked at his business as commoditized, and he believes that’s a key factor in his company’s success. Where competitors have focused on what has conventionally been the most profitable area of the industry – landfills – Alpine’s model is based on customer trends and desires. As Griffith puts it, “People want to recycle and they want to do the right thing for their community and their environment and for future generations.” Through their sustainability leadership in the waste industry, Alpine is helping empower other businesses to be climate leaders in their own industries.

Griffith also feels Alpine’s shift to sustainability has helped them hire a better quality of employee.  “We’re diverting these huge amounts of volume from the landfills,” he says. “It really gives our employees a sense of accomplishment. We’re doing something good here. That adds a whole other element of enjoyment in what they do for a living.”

KEYS TO SUCCESS

  • Listen to your customers – increasingly, consumers and investors are expecting companies to be socially and environmentally responsible, so make sure your business practices reflect well on your company brand.
  • Engage your employees – keep them informed about your climate and sustainability initiatives and explain how those efforts will make your business more profitable.
  • Learn from your peers – seek out other successful sustainability leaders and let them guide you as you plan and implement your programs.
  • Make the most of opportunities – look for new ways to build on your existing sustainability initiatives and expand into untapped areas of the market.
  • Add value – keep your customers engaged by showing them how your product or service helps support their sustainability and business goals.

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