Turnkey Recycling Solution Brightens Future of Real Estate Firm

Environmental Design + Construction

by Douglass Glenn Clark

It is easy to comply with environmental regulations when fluorescent bulb recycling efforts are automatically updated and quantified. As a result, you are years ahead of most competitors, and prospective clients can swiftly compare an actual "Green" track record with the somewhat vague promises of other property management companies.

It wasn't always this way for CB Richard Ellis (CBRE). In the past the California-based company, which manages more than 1.7 billion square feet of buildings around the world, was challenged by complex tangle of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and local jurisdictional rules for ballast, battery and lamp recycling. And the firm was forced to rely on a tangled network of waste management suppliers that made it difficult to standardize and replicate services in various locales.

Mark Aaron Polhemus, director of engineering for CBRE's Washington, D.C. market, remembers those days. "It was a lot more difficult. You were never sure you were up to speed with all EPA standards. And we were looking through the Yellow Pages to find services." Polhemus, who oversees engineering staff and operations for 400 locations, a total of 42 million square feet of assets, now has the grand expanse of his environmental responsibilities at his finger tips. Thanks to an innovative, custom-built, user-friendly Web site, Polhemus can quickly procure services for new and existing assets, access a summary of universal waste recycling results and research recycling advances and new programs that might interest clients. Also, new staff engineers are immediately enrolled into the record-keeping system when they join the firm.

The Web site has also morphed into a marketing tool that advances CBRE's position as the leader in the "Green" building movement. Recently CBRE was the first commercial real estate services company to announce plans to go carbon neutral in its own operations, with a target to achieve this goal by 2010. At the properties it is managing for clients, CBRE has made a long-term commitment to an environmental sustainability program known as Sensible Sustainability. This development comes at a time when building owners who distribute requests for management proposals have begun to require a detailed account of environmental standards and practices. The Web site, therefore, is an ideal presentation tool for prospective clients and proof of CBRE's sustainability commitment.

"It's live. It gets updated as information changes. It gives us a distinct market advantage over our competitors," Polhemus said.

Polhemus joined CBRE when the firm acquired his previous employer, the Trammell Crow Company. His initial assignment was daunting: find better methods for recycling fluorescent bulbs and other waste for all CBRE assets. Fortunately, Polhemus had already championed a successful recycling program for Trammell Crow, with the help of Rod Kincaid, vice president of Virginia-based Esquire Environmental Services, a consulting firm.

It was Kincaid who introduced Polhemus and Trammell Crow to Air Cycle Corporation. The Illinois-based firm pioneered unique Web-based programs, such as the EasyPak Pre-Paid Recycling Program, which allows companies to ship spent fluorescent lamps and batteries to recycling facilities in UN approved containers. And it invented the Bulb Eater for large facilities that prefer crushing their lamps on-site prior to having them recycled.

Polhemus quickly embraced Air Cycle's various programs and found success. But the size of the CBRE portfolio, which includes about 4,500 properties in the U.S., presented a whole new logistical hurdle.

For Kincaid it was a conundrum: how to provide standardized practices with customized solutions. Even though CBRE assets were mostly office buildings, each would require a different combination of recycling services. The answer to the riddle came to Kincaid one day while walking his dog: a customized, dedicated Web-based program that allowed corporations to refer to and manage their vast waste management needs.

Also, Kincaid saw the necessity of a Web site specific to CBRE. The old practice of a firm sending prospective clients to the URL of its waste management provider was passe, in Kincaid's opinion, because it provided no marketing advantage.

CBRE Location"Imagine trying to prove how Green you are. When you can go to your own dedicated Web site with your own corporate branding and you can demonstrate your own programs, we think it's far more powerful," he said. "America wants to be Green and do business with other businesses that are Green."

Kincaid presented his idea to Air Cycle CEO Scott Beierwaltes, whose staff began to brainstorm and develop the idea. Kincaid likened the process to watching the creation of a major motion picture, from concept to final cut.

"Witnessing the realization of a concept that I shared with someone was incredible. Better, more creative minds took it, and it evolved into this green business masterpiece. It's the 'Gone with the Wind' of the environmental world," he said.

The profound organizational implications of the Air Cycle program were obvious to all concerned. And while such an initiative would be an investment, for CBRE it far outweighed the price of possible environmental damage and potentially falling short of EPA laws concerning mercury content in fluorescent lamps.

For example, the discovery of illegal dumping habits might force the EPA to slap a company with penalty fees in excess of $250,000. Even worse, a delinquent firm could be forced to cleanup a remote and costly Superfund site. And then there is the matter of public perception. A company that defiles the environment could cause ill will within the community.

"This program allows our real estate managers to have at their fingertips the local laws to make sure tenants properly dispose of hazardous waste and keep mercury out of our nation's landfills," Polhemus said. "It costs a little bit. But we assume as environmental sensitivity continues to grow, you would see the cost stabilize as this becomes mainstream."

Air Cycle CEO Beierwaltes praised CBRE for its commitment, not only to improving its recycling program, but also to helping educate and expand the consciousness of the community.

"The hope is the Web site helps them do all that--more than just know their buildings are Green, but to influence the way people think about recycling," he said. "We hope CBRE's commitment will act as a catalyst across the country for many other organizations to realize the value in being environmentally responsible."

The innovative program that began with just 50 properties, will eventually serve the 4,500 properties that CBRE manages in the U.S.

Douglas Glenn Clark is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles

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