Upping the Ante on Green Living
Christine Lenches-Hinkel of Waste Less Living offers her recycling expertise to businesses and nonprofits that want to minimize their carbon footprint.
By Carole Jacobs 11/08/2012
Businesses generate mountains of trash every day.
Two-thirds of that trash is organic and,
in the right hands, could be converted to compost. Yet it usually winds up in landfills, where it breaks down into dangerous methane gases and contributes to the pollution of local water sources, says Christine Lenches-Hinkel, an environmental planner, waste management specialist and owner of Waste Less Living in Pasadena.
Lenches-Hinkel is on a mission to reverse that trend by teaching local schools and businesses the ABCs of safe and efficient recycling. Since its inception in 2007, Waste Less Living estimates it has prevented more than 43,000 pounds of organic waste from reaching landfills, diverting it instead to commercial composting facilities where specialized equipment and high temperatures transform it into much-needed compost. “Even eco-friendly businesses who think they’re doing everything right dispose of things in the trash or recycling bins under the misconception that it will break down in the landfill,” says Lenches-Hinkel. “There’s a huge difference between recycling and composting. People don’t realize that when you put eco-friendly organic trash in a landfill, it doesn’t biodegrade. It becomes toxic.”
Fortunately, Lenches-Hinkel has a simple, sure-fire approach to recycling that has turned some aspiring eco-friendly businesses and community organizations into virtual green giants. Consider Waste Less Living client Robert Shahnazarian, Jr., general manager and co-owner of Noor, an upscale event space located in Pasadena’s Paseo Colorado. For the past two years, Noor has been recycling leftover food from weddings, banquets and other events to Union Station Homeless Services in Pasadena. “It doesn’t just feel like a humane thing to do, it feels like my duty,” says Shahnazarian.
Noor was already using Waste Less Living for recycling compostable trash at all its events when Lenches-Hinkel approached the company about a year ago about a complete eco-overhaul — from its trash to its lighting fixtures. Noor jumped at the chance to help Pasadena become more eco-friendly, says Shahnazarian.
Lenches-Hinkel analyzed the company’s waste management system, trained the kitchen staff to recycle and installed color-coded bins around the facilities. Then she inspected the company’s two indoor ballrooms and large outdoor facility for some fast and easy energy fixes. “At Christine’s suggestion, we switched to energy-efficient light bulbs and replaced a carpet in the main ballroom [which had to be cleaned regularly] with a wood floor that our clients absolutely love,” says Shahnazarian. “We’re still in the planning stages as there are so many levels to recycling and saving energy, but we expect to be fully with the program by Jan. 1.”
So why aren’t more local businesses following suit?
“Going green is initially quite expensive,” says Shahnazarian. “Fortunately, even in this economy, people still need to get married and corporations still need to have conventions, so Noor is doing really well.”
While Lenches-Hinkel is finding some companies reluctant to be partners, several nonprofits and schools have jumped on the eco-train. One success story is Flintridge Center, a nonprofit Pasadena organization well known for its community programs in Northwest Pasadena and Altadena, such as the Mustangs on the Move after-school program, apprenticeship preparation classes and educational services for nonprofit organizations. While this big-hearted group has helped countless youth, its administrators had a hunch it was doing wrong by its trash. “Our president, Jane Moseley, has always been interested in the environment and wanted to make sure we were doing everything we could,” says the center’s Karen Gerst.
In January, 2011, Lenches-Hinkel came in to provide the organization with a complete waste management overhaul, starting with an analysis of the environmental impact of Flintridge’s current waste-generating practices. How much “good trash” did the company produce which could, in turn, be recycled into compost?
After investigating the refuse, Lenches-Hinkel turned to the employees, offering them a crash course in recycling and composting. “We thought we knew the difference between them, but Christine really opened our eyes,” says Gerst.
From Lenches-Hinkel’s primer on trash: “Good trash” includes food waste, biodegradable tableware, paper towels, juice and milk cartons, paper, cardboard and yard waste, as well as recyclables like plastic and metal containers and utensils, aluminum soda cans and Styrofoam. “Bad trash” — the kind that should be sent to a landfill — includes everything else, from bottle caps, plastic baggies, used candy wrappers, plastic plates and utensils to headless dolls and toy airplanes without wings.
Gerst said Lenches-Hinkel also taught them everything they ever wanted to know about compost. More than mere dirt, compost is a valuable but rapidly diminishing
resource that reduces the need for pesticides and irrigation and increases crop yields while improving the soil, Lenches-Hinkel said. The U.S. is losing soil 10 times faster than it can be naturally replenished and paying a steep price for it — about $37.6 billion a year in lost soil productivity, she said.
Thoroughly versed in recycling and compost, Flintridge Center employees were ready to take a stab at managing their trash. To ensure good and bad trash didn’t get mixed up, Lenches-Hinkel installed color-coded bins (one color for each type of trash) at key locations throughout the center, including the lunch and meeting rooms. To spread the word about recycling, instructions and bins were also placed in Flintridge’s Retreat Center, a meeting/convention room the nonprofit rents out to local businesses. (The results were mixed, acknowledges Yvonne Taylor, director of administration. “Some businesses really got with the program, but we could tell when businesses didn’t try or didn’t care,” she said. “People have to care about the environment for the system to work.”)
Finally, Lenches-Hinkel worked with trucking firms to coordinate regular trash pickup and ensure that compostable items went to a commercial composting facility and bad trash went to landfills.
A year into the program, the results are encouraging, says Gerst. “It’s been a learning curve and it was confusing at first what to put where, but I think we finally have the hang of it, although I think there’s room for improvement,” she says. The organization’s goal is an 80 percent waste-diversion rate, leaving only 20 percent for landfills.
In addition to overhauling waste management systems, Lenches-Hinkel offers an eco-event-planning service for businesses interested in staging a green party, convention or banquet. So far she has helped organize zero-waste parties for big clients like Warner Brothers, the Audubon Society, the Boy and Girl Scouts of America and the Jet Propulsion Lab, as well as for local caterers whose customers want to hold a sustainable dinner party but don’t want to set the table — or take out the trash.
Talk about the hostess with the mostest: Lenches-Hinkel comes in before the party to set the table with her own product line of biodegradable and 100 percent compostable plates, cups, utensils, napkins and trash bags. When the party’s over, she handles the cleanup and arranges to have all the waste, including tableware and scraps, trucked to a commercial composting facility.
“Whenever we have catering clients who want to go green, I call Christine,” says Patty Fallahee, co-owner of The Spot Gourmet catering company in Pasadena. “When the party is over, she comes in and takes over. We don’t have to deal with the trash and we also know that what we’re doing is good for the environment.”
Waste Less client Rickey Smith, founder of Urban Green, also brings in Lenches-Hinkel to reduce the company’s footprint after catering events and parties. Urban Green, headquartered in Pasadena, restores green space in the Los Angeles area and runs a small organic farm in Alta Loma that supplies its two culinary outlets, The Sweet Spot and Urban Green Cuisine. While more people are interested in sustainability, Smith says, they may need a company like Waste Less to give them the tools to accomplish it. “So many people want to do the right thing, but they use biodegradable utensils that end up in the landfill anyway because they don’t understand how to recycle,” he says. “With Christine, we never have to worry about anything going into the wrong bin.”
Beyond good stewardship of the planet, Shahnazarian says it’s too soon to tell if going green will save Noor money or generate more business. “It will take about a year to see if we realize any savings on things like electric bills,” he says. “From a marketing perspective, I don’t think it will help business much, unless it’s important to a client to have a green wedding or event.”
That said, “The real value for Noor [when it comes to going greener] isn’t economical but philosophical,” says Shahnazarian. “Recycling is the right thing to do. Pasadena will be cleaner and we’ll be able to better our city and community. When it came to going green, that was our first decision-maker.”