When Bob Cutler and a few colleagues took a look into their firm's environmental practices, they were shocked to discover that the trash, carefully sorted into recycling bins by employees, was being dumped wholesale by the cleaning company.
"We fired the cleaning company we were working with," he says with a wry laugh.
Now, a year and a half later, things look a little different. Spurred by Mr. Cutler and other green-minded colleagues, OmegaTech, a small dietary-supplement firm in Boulder, Colo., has recast itself as a model of corporate environmentalism.
Not only does it recycle, it also buys recycled products, encourages employees to bike or take buses to work, gives "green orientations" to employees, and uses wind power for nearly all its electricity.
Cutler, the firm's controller, calls himself "passionate" about sustainability. He has been gratified to see the efforts. "I hate to see waste in any form," he says.
The company has benefited as well. It has received positive publicity, the green image helps recruit and retain employees, and, Cutler says, it "shows the company cares about ... more than the bottom line.... It's trying to walk the talk of being sustainable."
While the degree to which OmegaTech has worked to turn around its practices is unusual, the sorry state of its initial recycling program may not be.
Nearly a decade after recycling a soda can became as automatic as taking out the trash for most Americans, many employees simply assume that their workplaces recycle as well.
The numbers certainly indicate that they should recycle - some 35 to 45 percent of the waste produced in 1999 was commercial, according to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) statistics. But for many companies, implementing a recycling program is still sometimes viewed as too much trouble or too costly.
Or, as in the case of OmegaTech, a plan is put in place but not implemented.
There's no hard data on how much commercial waste gets recycled, but those who work regularly with businesses on waste reduction say there still is much room for improvement.
For every high-profile recycling success story, like that of McDonald's, there is another company that isn't doing what it could. "It's all over the map," says Terry Grogan, chief of the EPA's Municipal Waste Reduction Branch.
The EPA started its WasteWise program, which encourages companies to throw away less and buy recycled products, because commercial waste plays such an important role in the overall trash picture. As Mr. Grogan says, "you have a large environmental potential for good" in corporate settings, because the volume of waste is large and the high concentration of people and ready communication channels make it easy to implement an effective program.
WasteWise, like hundreds of similar, more localized nonprofits, works with companies that are trying to design greener practices. The 1,100 or so partners - ranging from Fortune 500 businesses to tiny start-ups and nonprofits - set their own goals in waste prevention, recycling, and buying recycled goods.
They then report their progress. In return, they get technical assistance, advice, and recognition for outstanding achievements from WasteWise.
Often, says Grogan, companies just haven't thought about the ways they can cut back. Beyond the obvious products of paper and aluminum, for instance, they might compost food and yard waste, or recycle or donate office furniture. And, he says, "the real environmental benefits are from not generating trash in the first place," because "you're sending signals all the way back up the chain."
At the Boston-based WasteCap, a smaller nonprofit with similar goals, program manager Shemariah Blum-Evitts says she gets calls every day from companies interested in beginning a recycling program. Sometimes employees call wondering what their company could do; sometimes it's managers, who know they want to recycle but aren't sure how to do it or whether their budgets can accommodate it.
While large companies usually see a savings once a recycling program is in place, especially in trash-removal costs, it can be an added expense for small businesses, says Ms. Blum-Evitts. Businesses that rent their office space, in particular, have a tough time. Unless they can convince the building management to institute a recycling program, they may have to pay out of pocket to bring in a recycler.
Beyond just implementing a recycling program, experts agree, truly committed businesses need to form some sort of internal group to stay on top of the issue. It may be a paid individual's position, but more often it's a volunteer "green team," like the nine-person team at OmegaTech, which keeps track of recycling efforts, educates other employees, and looks for other creative ways to lessen the waste.
The Boston architectural firm Flansburgh Associates, for instance, has had the goal of greening its practice on a list of company principles since 1998.
It wasn't until six months ago, however, that the firm devoted some employees' time to the matter, that it truly began making headway, says office manager Steve Kluskens.
The "high-performance team" - three people and an intern - at Flansburgh also found that the recyclables they were separating weren't actually being recycled.
In this case, they discovered a former cleaner had simply been recycling on her own initiative; when the firm changed the cleaning team, the recycling stopped.
The big impact at Flansburgh relates to paper, Mr. Kluskens says - both buying recycled and recycling it. But the high-performance team has also initiated events to educate employees, and found a building-materials resource center willing to pick up some five tons of materials in storage that would have otherwise been tossed.
The newest effort, Kluskens says, involves a monthly posting of consumption versus recycling numbers on the firm's intranet site. He's hoping that will make employees aware of just how much is wasted.
With little regulation of corporate waste practices, and only a handful of communities that require commercial recycling by law - a marked contrast to stringent European demands - it may be a long time before US companies have consistently good environmental practices.
But once a company does make a commitment to cut its trash, it can rest assured it's having a real impact.
"Many businesses are the size of small towns," says Sam Cole, community outreach coordinator at EcoCyle, the Boulder, Colo.-based nonprofit that helped OmegaTech improve its practices. And, he adds, "It's easy to do. There are more people in this country who recycle than vote. So chances are, if you're an employer and you provide a recycling infrastructure, [employees] are going to be able to adapt pretty quickly."