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Nonprofit puts businesses in the green

Zero Waste Alliance shows clients ways to save the planet and money
by: JIM CLARK, Carpenter Gene Roberts tears out a closet at Bradley-Angle House, a women’s emergency center getting a green remodel with help from the Zero Waste Alliance.

In Portland, you're hard-pressed to find an area that the locally based nonprofit Zero Waste Alliance hasn't had a green impact on, and its influence nationwide continues to grow.

The ZWA is an eight-year-old program, spun off from the International Sustainable Development Foundation, also based in Portland. It works to help businesses and organizations implement initiatives focused on industrial ecology and sustainable business practices.

The executive director and founder, Larry Chalfan, is an Oregon State University engineering graduate who spent 30 years in the semiconductor industry before getting the green bug. He says his environmental standards have evolved drastically in the past decade.

'In the beginning, we often couldn't find contractors who understood the issues we were working with,' Chalfan says. 'We were looking for replacement chemicals - chemicals that would be less toxic and harmful to the environment in the long run. At the same time, we were quite aware of the impact on the bottom line. With one of our first clients our proposed green changes translated into savings of $60,000 a year.'

But soon Chalfan realized that he and his associates hadn't looked at the big picture. The replacement chemical they chose was less harmful in output, but in terms of its extraction and processing it had grave environmental implications.

'These days we do our best to assess from every angle possible,' he says.

Beer waste needs a use

In 2001, ZWA partnered with the Portland Development Commission for the Sustainable Business Assistance Program, to work with businesses and organizations in Portland's urban renewal areas ripe for environmental improvements.

One of the first companies to take advantage of the ZWA/PDC Sustainable Business Assistance Program was Widmer Bros. Brewing. The issue at hand: a hefty liquid waste stream from its brew-rinse solution that was environmentally questionable and incurring huge costs.

Widmer Bros. didn't want to just figure out how to dispose of it - it wanted to come up with a way to reuse it.

'The current figure is that 15 to 20 percent of everything that we extract and use is thrown away - never to be used again,' Chalfan says. 'There are countless cases now in which landfills are being mined for resources. And there will be more of that in future. We're all about changing the equation - helping businesses realize that waste is really just another name for resource.'

After an initial assessment ZWA joined forces with the Food Innovation Center, a joint venture of OSU and the Oregon Department of Agriculture.

The FIC took samples of the yeast-rich water and experimented with potential products. The center used it to make everything from bagels and pizza sauce to beer batter for onion rings.

In the end, Widmer decided that it wasn't practical to develop an entirely new product, which would require a large investment for additional staff and equipment. The company instead decided to move ahead with the portion of ZWA's proposal that outlined another use for the yeast water: metered cattle feed for livestock.

Cost-effectiveness is key

Kim Hughes, ZWA development director, is working on several initiatives that focus on energy efficiency and green building.

'I'm always checking out urban renewal areas - looking for businesses that could benefit from our assistance,' Hughes says. 'While we're meeting with these businesses and creating a sustainable project with them, I find ways to leverage assistance from other organizations - for instance the Oregon Department of Energy, NW Natural, federal tax credits.'

Hughes adds: 'If you go in solely focused on environmental issues and turn a blind eye to financial concerns, that's just not going to make sense to a business. Economy has to be a substantial part of the changes that we advise. I mean, some Portland businesses are actually willing to spend more for green changes, but that's not usually the case.'

Since August, Hughes has been working with a women's emergency shelter in Portland, run by the Bradley-Angle House, to help with an upcoming facility remodel.

Zero Waste Alliance staff members assessed the site with associates Cascade Solar Consulting and Gen-Con Solar Energy and devised a plan that incorporates re-roofing the building with a south-facing solar water-heating unit.

Other proposed renovations involve sourcing paints with low VOCs (a volatile compound of carbon that contributes to air pollution), incorporating energy-efficient insulation and installing Marmoleum flooring (an all-natural linoleum floor) instead of dioxin-emitting vinyl flooring.

'You have to be careful with the adhesives as well,' Hughes says. 'When you've chosen a greener floor product like Marmoleum over vinyl you don't want to use a harmful off-gassing adhesive to install it. That just doesn't make sense.'

Hughes also has been working with the Doubletree Hotel and Executive Meeting Center in the Lloyd District.

'We actually sought the Doubletree out because they have such progressive environmental standards - Green Seal certification, a food waste composting program and even a green team on staff,' she says. 'We wanted to see how far we could push the envelope there. After assessing and consulting they decided to focus on water use.'

Since then, ZWA has been working with the Portland Water Bureau's Business, Industry and Government Water Efficiency Program to conduct a water audit and generate a water efficiency program for the hotel.

'The difficulty here lies in the fact that the Doubletree is a small part of a big corporation with specs for everything,' Hughes says. 'There are just a lot of corporate hoops to jump through for even minor specification changes. We're helping them through that, and we have been successful so far in incorporating low-flow faucet aerators, low-flow shower heads and upgrading toilets.'

All projects have simple goal

Although ZWA has plenty of local projects, its statewide and national programs are gaining speed as well.

The ZWA Sustainable Oregon Schools Initiative - the first of its kind in the country - incorporates green change from the ground up.

Chalfan says: 'We're taking everything that schools do from transportation to food services to how they run their facilities, how they build the facilities, education, indoor air quality, landscaping and putting together a progressive sustainability program with comprehensive tool kits and topic teams. An EPA grant is helping with part of the funding for this one.'

Another large signature program for ZWA is the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool, which helps identify green electronics. The tool received a huge boost Jan. 24 when President Bush signed an executive order mandating that federal agencies buy electronic products that meet EPEAT standards.

With a professionally diverse array of more than a dozen staff members - whose degrees range from hydrology and chemistry to international politics and civil engineering - it's hard to imagine a green project that ZWA couldn't tackle. But although its expertise is wide-ranging, the mission is quite simple: reduce waste.

'Nature doesn't create waste - everything is processed,' Chalfan says. 'Humans are currently using one and a quarter to one and a third of the planet's worth of resources, and that won't happen forever - well, it just can't. Our work is simply about sustainability. We work on green projects today so that people generations from now will be able to live as well, hopefully better, than we do.'