Madison Environmental Group turns businesses’ trash into treasure

Protecting the earth is a goal every environmentally conscious citizen shares, but tackling too much by oneself might seem a little like trying to scrub the Grand Canyon with a toothbrush.

Obviously, no single individual can really “save the earth,” but just about anyone can help sweep up their own little corner of it.

That’s the working philosophy behind Madison Environmental Group’s Monroe Street recycling collection initiative, which recently won an IB Business Sustainability Award for Eco-Service of the Year.

Madison Environmental Group, which moved to the Monroe Street area in 2012, decided it wanted to help divert other businesses’ waste materials from the landfill, and so it launched its program as a pro bono initiative last fall. Since then, the company has collected around 800 pounds of material that may have otherwise been sent to the landfill and, in some cases, could have leaked hazardous materials into the groundwater.

Madison Environmental Group's Leah Samson-Samuel, shown here with her company's Business Sustainability Award, says she'd love to see the Monroe Street recycling program replicated elsewhere.

Madison Environmental Group is a for-profit consulting firm that helps businesses and individuals enact cost-saving environmental solutions. It’s involved in green building consulting, LEED certification consulting, and sustainability planning involving everything from waste audits to assessing carbon footprints.

Its Monroe Street recycling effort, on the other hand, relies on volunteer efforts and allows the company to “practice what it preaches,” according to Madison Environmental Group President Leah Samson-Samuel.

Among the materials the company collects for recycling or other diversion are compact fluorescent lights and other small light bulbs, Styrofoam packaging, rechargeable batteries and cell phones, ink cartridges, small building materials for the Habitat ReStore, and safe materials that can be used for kids’ art projects at the Madison Children’s Museum.

Through these efforts, the company not only helps divert materials away from the landfill, it also cuts down on the number of car trips businesses need to make to recycling centers and helps heighten awareness of recycling among businesses.

In fact, through the success of the Monroe Street pilot program, Samson-Samuel is hopeful that her company can be a good role model for others who might want to launch similar programs in their neighborhoods.

“What I’m hoping is that with the ripple effect of us modeling it and working out some of the kinks, we can share that story with some other small business groups,” said Samson-Samuel. “We haven’t organized that yet, and it’s more of us still working out the kinks to make a good model, and then I think it would be great to go and present it in different places that have a collection of small businesses.”

Reaching out

While Madison Environmental Group continues to perfect its Monroe Street program, it did find out early on that old-fashioned neighborhood outreach was far more effective in getting businesses onboard than social media or email.

Today, the company relies on the help of the Badger Volunteers, who make weekly rounds to inform businesses about the service and pick up materials. Largely as a result of the company’s outreach efforts, 22 of the 36 Monroe Street businesses that have been contacted are now participating in the program.

According to Samson-Samuel, her company has learned a lesson about the limits of online networking and the persistent power of face-to-face interaction.

“If you think about it, we get bombarded with Facebook posts, LinkedIn posts, emails,” said Samson-Samuel. “We sent out emails saying, ‘We will collect these materials from you,’ and we had very little participation. We collected about 40 pounds of materials. When we had the UW students walking around and actually going to the businesses on a regular basis, it went from 40 pounds to hundreds of pounds. It was exponential, the difference it made.

“One, you’re making it simple, and two, it’s important to make it simple for that beginning phase, where you’re getting over the hump of doing the effort and making a behavior change.”

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Samson-Samuel says the impetus for the project came both from the company’s involvement with the Sustain Dane MPower Champion program (which had put Madison Environmental Group on the radar of Monroe Street’s small businesses) and the example EZ Office Products had set with its own recycling program — demonstrating the power of both nonprofit and for-profit organizations to effect change.

But while Madison Environmental Group had its own influences, Samson-Samuel hopes the company can help influence others as well.

“We had volunteers who walked from business to business to go and take the materials back to the office, and so that can be done on Monroe Street, that could be done on Atwood, that could be done on Willy Street,” said Samson-Samuel. “So in places that have concentrations of small businesses, finding someone who is a champion of that could get it started. And then it’s not a lot of work to collect it, and then you have someone come and pick up the fluorescents and you coordinate where the materials go.”

While Samson-Samuel does acknowledge there’s a PR benefit to spearheading this program, she says it’s also personally fulfilling for her to be able to give back to the community.

“I would love to be able to continue this, because we get to play matchmaker,” said Samson-Samuel. “We get to match up businesses that want the material, like bubble wrap, and a company that gets too much of it — we can pair them up. Or we can get fabric over to the Madison school district so that teachers have creative material that they can use in their art classes. Or bringing materials over to the Children’s Museum so that kids can see that, oh, this is supposed to be waste, but I get to create art out of it.

“So it’s that ripple effect of affecting other areas, so I would love to see it replicated.”

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