Creating good, green jobs

Innovative companies are turning environmental initiatives to financial advantage

by Michael F. Byrne and Joel Makower
small revolution is taking place in California. Throughout the state, companies, nonprofits, and government agencies are working to turn environmental initiatives into good, green jobs.
Until recently, such a notion would have seemed unlikely. Most discussions about business and the environment amounted to a zero-sum game: profits and productivity versus the birds and the trees. Protecting the earth meant reducing a company's ability to do business. Saving resources meant losing jobs. Conserving resources at home meant sending business elsewhere.
As we learned in a recent study, Good, Green Jobs, that needn't be the case. California is teeming with companies that have harnessed the power of recycling, energy efficiency, and pollution prevention, creating an engine for economic development and environmental improvement. The result bodes well for the future of the state, both economically and ecologically.
But it will take a concerted effort by California's business community to fully tap the job-creating potential of the environment, along with consumers' support of companies turning environmental responsibility into good, green jobs.

Recycling = jobs

California's recycling laws have been one major job creator,, spurring hundreds of small and growing businesses along the recycling supply chain. Rancho Cucamonga-based TAM CO, California's only steel mill, using millions of tons a year of waste ferrous scrap metal, has 350 employees, who earn $12 to $15 an hour, plus benefits. Not surprisingly, the company has practically no turnover.
In Whittier, Talco Plastics, with 175 employees, has become one of the top 10 recyclers of post-consumer plastics in the United States. Company president John Shedd credits Talco's sharply rising profits to state laws mandating that many rigid containers and trash bags sold contain recycled material.
California's experience jibes with the growing body of research linking recycling with job creation. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance estimates that nine jobs are created for every 15,000 tons of solid waste recycled into a new product, and seven for the same amount of yard trimmings composted. By contrast, only two jobs are created for every 15,000 tons incinerated, and just one job for every 15,000 tons sent to landfills.

Green technology

Recycling is by no means the only source of environmental jobs. Another way jobs are created is through new environmental technologies: those that reduce pollution coming from factories, farms, and motor vehicles; that turn waste materials into the feedstocks of new products; that clean up existing pollution; that lead to less-wasteful production methods; and that lead to more efficient energy use.
One measure of these technologies' potential is in the size of their worldwide market. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates that international sales of environmental goods and services is already more than $200 billion per year and will grow at 5.5 percent a year through the end of the century.
SunLine Transit Agency, based in Thousand Palms, is the nation's first public transit system powered entirely by compressed natural gas. To service the vehicles, the company helped set up an Energy Technology Training Center, the first U.S. training facility in the maintenance of alternative fuel vehicles. Experts predict that by the year 2000, converting, fueling, and maintaining natural gas-powered vehicles will create more than 7,000 new jobs in California.


Still another way that environmental initiatives create employment is by reducing or avoiding job loss through layoffs, plant closures, and business relocations.
Consider West Coast Samples, a Chino-based maker of swatch books distributed to paint and home-decorating stores. Like other businesses, it faced a tough mandate to reduce air pollutants. The company had been using a traditional silk-screen process to imprint covers and binders, a process that emitted smog-producing chemicals.
Working with a local utility, West Coast Samples switched to a non-polluting ultraviolet technology. Within a year of installing the system, the company payroll grew from 90 to 220 employees.
The reason? The new system allowed the company to more than double production speeds. Profits grew by more than 25 percent in a year.
West Coast Sample's competitors, facing the same environmental laws, took very different courses: One downsized, one moved to another state, another left the country, and a fourth shut down altogether. Only the innovator triumphed.
Other companies would do well to follow the lead of these businesses by seeking out the endless bounty of technical and financial assistance offered by California government agencies, lenders, and nonprofit groups. Whether as business leaders, employees, taxpayers, or consumers, there's a role for all of us in prodding companies to lead the way.
Clearly, California has only begun to tap the potential from recycling and other environmental initiatives. We have no doubt that as more companies harness that power, there will be countless more success stories to write about.

Michael F. Byrne is director of the California Department of Conservation, Joel Makower is author of Good, Green Jobs, recently published by the Department. To obtain a free copy, call 1-800-RECYCLE.