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Solid 'Green' Credentials

Written by Solid 'Green' Credentials
Published: April 9, 2009

When Steve Kuhn says his moving and storage company is "green," he means it.

Many people claim too freely to be green, he said. And there's no way to prove that what they do is helping the planet.

So for nearly 10 years, the owner of JK Moving and Storage researched how he could make every aspect of his Northern Virginia company more environmentally friendly.

He decided to stop using cardboard boxes. Then, struck by the "abundance of waste" that people usually leave behind after a move, he looked into companies, charities and outlets across the region and found about 60 that could recycle or reuse items.

Office furniture and working appliances go to Goodwill Industries or Habitat for Humanity's Habitat ReStores. Because Goodwill can't take sofas or beds -- landfill managers say they've seen lots of perfectly good ones in trash bins over the years -- Kuhn found a company that recycles fabric into insulation, rugs and padding.

Broken water heaters and other metals go to one of a handful of smelters in the area. Wood waste is packed up and sent to a waste-to-energy facility in Baltimore that turns it into steam and pumps it into the Baltimore Steam Co. to power air-conditioning systems in the inner city.

Kuhn started a Web site that works much like the Freecycle Network, where people take photos of stuff they no longer want and post it at http://www.reusedc.org, so others can get it for free.

By changing to "boxless moves" 10 years ago, Kuhn said he figures his company has kept more than 25,000 tons of compressed cardboard -- about 45 football fields stacked three feet high with cardboard -- out of landfills. He calculated that the company, which he founded with his brother in 1979, has saved 425,000 trees. And by aggressively looking for ways to recycle and reuse nearly every scrap that's typically tossed out in moves, he said JK Moving has kept more than a million pounds of waste out of landfills in just the past seven months.

"We've all been hearing more and more about being green. The reason why we didn't promote it three years ago when we started was because we didn't feel there was any accountability behind people who promote the word 'green.' So we spent years building a system that was foolproof," Kuhn said. "Our mission is to walk the talk."

Kuhn said he decided to go green a few years ago while sitting at his kitchen counter with some of his four children. They'd been talking a lot about the environment, and what they were saying stuck with him. With their help, he drew up the company's first environmental action statement.

"Now, I can't pass a light switch without turning it off," he said. "It's contagious. You start looking for things you can do, and it builds. It's like having an obsessive-compulsive disorder. But the bottom line is, we feel like we're in a position where we can make a difference, so that's what we want to do."

So committed is Kuhn that his company gives out an annual Environmental Sustainability Award. Last year's winner, announced late last month, is the Crystal City Business Improvement District, which has put being green among its top four priorities. The Crystal City BID and Kuhn's company sponsored a Power Purge event, in which more than 50,000 pounds of electronics was collected from about 300 community members and businesses and sent to recyclers. (This year's Power Purge is Wednesday.)

Crystal City has supported low-water, low-pesticide and low-maintenance landscaping; created a program for residents to buy "shares" in farms and receive fresh produce all year; and contracted with a company to compost everything, including leftover food, plates and forks, used at BID events.

"The bottom line of the Business Improvement District is to give Crystal City a soul," said BID spokeswoman Angela Fox. "For us, if you're adding soul to a neighborhood, you can't do without being cognizant of the impact you're having on the environment around you. That's how we ended up with the sustainability award. We're very proud of that."

Kuhn and the Crystal City BID are part of what environmental groups say they hope is a wasteful society finally seeking earth-friendly alternatives to mend its ways. In recent years, major corporations such as Nestle, Wal-Mart, Amazon.com and Coca-Cola have committed to reducing their product packaging and thus the trash produced.

Chaz Miller, director of state programs for the National Solid Wastes Management Association, said the group is clearly seeing an interest on the part of U.S. business "to create less waste."

"They're cutting down on their own waste generation in their manufacturing processes," he said. "Stuff they would normally send to disposal, they're looking at as a cost they can cut out. They're composting food-production waste. They're recycling more materials that they just used to throw away. In a sense, it's just smart capitalism."

In recent years, municipal governments have been encouraging homeowners and businesses to reuse and recycle to cut down on waste as well. Elinor Coleman not only owns and operates Vintage Mirage, an upscale consignment store in Alexandria's Old Town, but she is active in the city's Reuse and Recycle Network, which seeks to find creative second and third lives for stuff.

Since the recession started, she, like thrift, consignment and used-clothing stores nationwide, has seen an uptick in business. "I'm seeing people with a healthier attitude about the life of a garment; there's been a big change in personal shoppers' attitudes," she said.

People in the United States produce more trash per person than those in any other country. But it wasn't always that way.

Susan Strasser, a professor of history at the University of Delaware and author of "Waste and Want: a Social History of Trash," said that extravagance started at the dawn of the consumer age in the mid-20th century.

"Cleanliness. Newness. Convenience. Those were attributes that got sold along with products in the new consumer culture," she said. "They all said, 'Use it and just throw it away.' They made throwing something away into not just something that you might do but into a virtue."

But with the recession, a funny thing has started to happen. Landfill managers have been reporting a steep drop in the amount of trash they're receiving. People are buying less, so there's less packaging waste, they say. People are holding onto things longer, repairing, reusing and recycling.

"Sometimes, it's hard to tell why trash is decreasing, but in this case, it's clearly the economy," said Bill Hayden, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, which monitors landfills and trash. He said that as trash levels have been dropping in every category -- municipal waste, out-of-state garbage and construction debris -- recycling rates have been climbing, from 32 percent in 2006 to 38 percent in 2007, the latest figures available.

Paul Rinderle of Fairfax said he bhttp://corporate.recyclebank.comegan recycling more when trash hauler AAA Recycling started a program a few months ago with Recyclebank. Instead of a small plastic box for his recyclables, the company gave him a 64-gallon wheeled cart. It has a bar code and radio frequency identification chip so its contents can be weighed and logged in. Based on the weight, Rinderle earns Recyclebank Reward Points that can be redeemed at hundreds of retailers, including CVS, Dick's Sporting Goods and Bed Bath & Beyond.

"We now recycle more than we ever did before because they gave us LARGE CONTAINERS," Rinderle wrote in an e-mail. "Yes, it's that simple. We can throw in the cans, bottles, and papers together without separating them in individual containers. Seemingly, I wheel out my garbage container only one third as much. I used to place other recyclable materials like paper towels, napkins, mail, pizza boxes in the garbage and now I do not."

Ron Gonen, New York-based Recyclebank co-founder and chief executive, said the Fairfax program is the only one in the Washington area, although company officials are in talks with other municipalities, including the District. All materials, he said, are taken to Canusa, a recycling company in Baltimore.

A recent walk through the Bradley Shopping Center in Alexandria was an object lesson in the new reuse, recycle and repair economy. Business was brisk at Batteries Plus, which not only sells batteries and rebuilds tools but has a drop-off to recycle batteries.

Mark Becker, an owner of B&C Jewelers, reported steady business in jewelry and watch repair, an uptick in people trying to sell him their gold and not so much interest in his pricey baubles.

Jolanda Johnson, who works at her father's shoe-repair shop, said they're not only busier than ever but are seeing people they never have. "The younger generations are so used to buying new all the time," she said. "But now they're coming in. They're shocked they can get their high heels repaired for as little as $12."

Around the corner, at Virginia Vacuums, president Balbir Singh said people used to buy one of his shiny new machines and toss an old one with problems. Now no one's buying, and everyone wants old machines repaired. "When your pocket is full, you go to a big restaurant," he said with a shrug. "When it's not so full, you go to the hot-dog stand."

Alexandria personal shopper Susan Boyd has been taking clients not to Saks or Nieman Marcus for new clothes, but instead going to their homes, hanging out in their closets and helping them "reimagine" how to use the wardrobes they have. "The economy is a big part of it," said a client of Boyd's, Terri Prell. "You just feel frivolous going out and spending money when things are in such flux and you have a fairly full closet."

Kuhn said he hopes that the recession and people's new behaviors will stick. "It's not easy," he said. His recycling efforts actually cost him about 20 percent more than if he dumps stuff in the landfill, he said.

And when his company stopped using cardboard boxes, he not only gave up the biggest profit margin in the moving business (the boxes have about a 70 percent profit margin), but he spent $20,000 on what's called a "spider crane," which can lift office equipment, such as full filing cabinets, in one fell swoop. (JK Moving now has four.)

So instead of a company paying its employees to spend two hours moving files out of a filing cabinet into about eight boxes, Kuhn's movers can move the whole thing in eight minutes. And, since there's less to move, his trucks make fewer trips, which, he said, helps keep the air cleaner.

Now he's busy on his next mission: putting a request for environmentally friendly moving trucks into the company's purchasing guidelines.

"We're trying to see what the feasibility is of actually having trucks the size of a tractor-trailer that have a negative impact on the environment," he said. They don't exist yet, he said, but perhaps, if he starts asking for them, they will. "We try and make a difference when we can."

Information about where to donate or recycle items:

Read this article on The Washington Post.

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