Companies that cut pollution for profit

Look past climate treaties, clean-water laws, and environmental regulators. The real way to clean up the planet is through nimble entrepreneurs.

At least that's the driving ideology behind a new breed of small businesses. They're hot-growth companies using technology to reduce pollution. They even have a name: "green gazelles."

For the most part, these firms run on the fringes of the manufacturing world. But as environmental regulation tightens worldwide, their methods and products are starting to move into the mainstream. If their ideas catch on, industry could become "green" much faster than anyone anticipates.

"The gazelles generate most of the new technology, most of the new jobs, most of the new wealth in the United States," says Mark Clevey, a green-gazelle consultant and vice president of the Small Business Association of Michigan in Lansing. "A green gazelle is using its green advantage to grow rapidly."

For example: Consider your average truck stop, with row upon row of trucks idling in a lot while their drivers sleep.

By law, truckers have to rest eight hours for every 10 hours on the road. They keep their engines running to say warm in the winter and cool in the summer even though it means guzzling fuel, wearing down the engine, and spewing loads of pollutants into the air.

Enter IdleAire Technologies, a Knoxville, Tenn., firm that's giving truckers an alternative. For $1.25 an hour Â- a little less than what they'd spend on fuel to idle for an hour Â- drivers can pull into a special parking station, turn off their engines, and pull down a unit that offers heat and cold air plus electric power, digital television, and high-speed Internet service.

The program not only saves truckers money and engine wear, it also offers truck stops and state-owned rest areas a new source of revenue. More important, the system could eliminate up to 34 million of tons of emissions a year if it catches on.

"It's kind of a large win for everybody," says Tom Badgett, chief operating officer for IdleAire. Conceived during a camping expedition less than two years ago, the company is building its first facility at Hunts Point Market, a huge food-distribution facility in the Bronx.

Sites will soon pop up on the New York Thruway. By year end, Mr. Badgett hopes to have 2,000 to 4,000 parking spaces operating around the country.

"We have to grow very fast to maintain the network," says Mr. Badgett. The company currently employs 25 people. By year end, it could have 10 times that many.

Maybe trucking isn't the most dynamic industry. But it's often that way for green gazelles. To make the biggest splash, they wade into the least glamorous industries. Like car bumpers.

"We do recover some oddball materials," says Mark Lieberman, chief executive of American Commodities, a plastic compound and recycling company. Using its proprietary technology, the Flint, Mich., firm recovers plastic from bumpers and car instrument panels, refrigerator liners and shelves, even computer keyboards and monitor housings.

Then it turns the plastic into pellets of the original material, which manufacturers can mold into the same part again. "We recover parts that otherwise would end up in landfills," Mr. Lieberman says.

Although new European rules that force auto companies to recycle their cars have pushed a lot of business toward American Commodities, most of its products end up in the hands of American consumers.

Why? Because companies find the process normally saves them up to 40 percent off the cost of manufacturing the same part using virgin materials, Lieberman says. That's the secret of green gazelles. Their products aren't only greener, they're less expensive than the traditional way of doing things.

"For the most part, they see green technologies as an emerging market and a place they can develop a comparative advantage," says Mr. Clevey, who also works as a consultant identifying green gazelles for the Center for Small Business and the Environment (CSBE). And "they're not a one-horse trick. If this doesn't work, they'll try something else."

T/J Technologies started out researching ultra-hard coatings for the military a decade ago. Then its researchers discovered that some of their materials had energy applications, so the company moved into batteries and, from there, fuel cells. "We need to find ways to create more power and energy, and we need to do it more cleanly," says Maria Thompson, president of the energy-conversion and storage-development company in Ann Arbor, Mich.

The firm was named one of the state's fastest-growing research companies a few years back. But investor interest in fuel cells waxes and wanes.

The CSBE hopes to help green gazelles by creating business associations that can represent them in state legislatures and in Washington. "It's not a level playing field," says CSBE executive director Byron Kennard. "Look at the ability of the big oil, the big automobile companies to control the politics."

Finding political supporters for this new breed has proved a rocky road so far. "I think the environmental movement is still mesmerized by the Fortune 500 and centralized institutions in Washington, D.C.," Mr. Kennard says. And "nobody sees this small-business entrepreneur saving the world Â- as we do."

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