A bunch of Aflac workers were scavenging through a large mound of garbage Monday, nearly a week’s worth of trash that had been dumped in a parking lot at the Paul S. Amos campus in east Columbus.
But it was all for a great cause — celebrating Earth Day, a yearly moment marking the 1970 creation of an environmental movement that has continued to gain steam over four decades.
More specifically for the Aflac employees, it was a chance to show co-workers just what can be recycled and how to make the process more efficient. That’s corporate speak for dump the stuff in the correct container.
“We’ve been tracking our progress, and we’ve found that we’re recycling more than 70 percent of our trash at this point. But we also found out that we’ve kind of plateaued,” said Susan Goodsell, a member of Aflac’s green committee that launched the program about five years ago.
Monday’s Earth Day event in the insurance company’s parking lot was aimed at raising environmental awareness among staffers, but also doing it in a more organized manner.
“It’s pretty much anything that hits the trash,” Goodsell said. “We have special bins for office paper that has to be locked and shredded. But everything else just goes into regular trash cans. We recycle aluminum, plastic, polystyrene, and paper and cardboard. But sometimes people just don’t take two extra steps to put it in the right bin.”
The impact of the program is major. Aflac said it recycled nearly 1.4 million pounds of paper last year, or the equivalent of more than 11,000 trees.
A food digester installed in the campus cafeteria’s kitchen kept about 40,000 pounds of edible material out of the garbage pipeline.
And the company said its efforts in 2012 alone saved 2,263 cubic yards of landfill space. That’s on top of programs that preserve electricity by powering down computers, heating and cooling systems and lights in the firm’s buildings and parking lots during off hours.
The few items not recycled include meat products and prickly pineapples, as well as glass, the latter because Aflac doesn’t have a vendor to pick it up. But fluorescent lights are part of the program, as are batteries and printer cartridges.
“The vendors do pay us for the stuff that we recycle,” Goodsell said. “It doesn’t necessarily balance out to what we paid, for instance, for the paper. But we do get paid back and that does go back into the general account and help the company.”
Among those volunteering to leap into the parking lot trash Monday was Elizabeth Moody, an information technology employee who had her gloves, goggles and galoshes prepared for the feat. The small group of workers sorted recyclables into different piles, with a few co-workers standing around offering support during the messy episode.
“It makes me feel good,” Moody said of her participation. “Everybody at work is laughing because I’m the biggest germaphobe that they know. But it’s for a good cause. My kids are on board, and we recycle at home. It’s just a good thing to do.”
Aflac spokesman Jon Sullivan said the recycling program is in effect at both the Paul S. Amos campus and the headquarters complex off Wynnton Road. The company employs about 4,000 in Columbus.
The company’s effort is a solid one, but it’s not alone in the city. Credit-card processor TSYS launched its current “TSYS Green” program in 2008. The firm estimates it recycled just under 3 million pounds of paper and nearly 15,400 pounds of plastic last year. That’s on top of 6,360 pounds of Styrofoam and 56,000 pounds of carpet.
The global processor also reduced its electricity usage by 4.3 percent from 2011 levels, while also slicing commercial airline miles traveled by staffers by 13 percent.
“The success of our sustainability program can be attributed to our team members, who have embraced the efforts we’ve made as a company,” said Chip Torbert, senior director of corporate real estate at TSYS. “It’s not just here in Columbus either. It’s true for our facilities around the world.”
Earth Day, meanwhile, was founded by former U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin following a large oil spill in Santa Barbara, Calif., in 1969, according to the website, earthday.org. Roughly 20 million Americans rallied throughout the nation during the first event on April 22, 1970.
The program has grown steadily since then to encompass public interest in avoiding factory and power plant pollution, toxic chemicals and pesticides and concern for forestlands and wildlife.