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Bernhardt: Creating a sustainable culture

Small steps add up to big savings

Heath E. Combs -- Furniture Today, December 9, 2008

GREENSBORO — Eddie Pitts, special projects coordinator for case goods and upholstery supplier Bernhardt, can attest to how small steps can add up to something big when it comes to establishing an environmental culture.

In mid-2007, Bernhardt enrolled its domestic facilities in the American Home Furnishings Alliance's Enhancing Furniture's Environmental Culture. The program aims at reviewing and improving environmental performance in operations.

In the first year of implementing the program, the company reduced fresh water consumption by 14.6% and landfill waste by 26.2%. At the same time, the volume of recycling was increased from 58.4 tons in 2006 to more than 228 tons.

At a micro-level, the company estimated that it recycled only 23 tons of paper products in 2006. In 2008, that number was 108 tons.

Bernhardt is on track to save $130,000 through gained efficiency from the EFEC program, Pitts said during a case study presentation at the American Home Furnishings Alliance's recent Sustainability Summit in Greensboro.

Bernhardt is a company that relishes its individuality, Pitts said, so it sought an environmental model that wasn't overbearing but that would still allow it to address bad habits.

"People who would never consider leaving a light on in a room or home that wasn't occupied wouldn't bat an eye at the 50 rows of lights in a warehouse that came on when one switch was flicked," Pitts said.

To create benchmarks, the company created a database registering electric power, water gallons, volatile organic compounds, hazardous waste and recycling into monthly charts.

A first step toward reducing energy usage at the corporate headquarters was to replace all high-wattage, fluorescent lighting with more energy-efficient, low- wattage bulbs.

The lighting project cost $20,000 but reduced kilowatt usage in the building by more than 189,000 kilowatt hours. Bernhardt estimated it would recoup the costs in energy savings within 18 months.

The company also made light switches more accessible so they could be more easily switched off, Pitts said. Redundant lighting was reduced, and the company started a "turn it off" program, Pitts said, to the point of taking fluorescents out of vending machines.

"They serve absolutely no purpose. During daylight you can see front of the machine and if I'm not there at night why does it have to be lit up?"

The company also has installed a program to eliminate excess horsepower. More consideration now goes into justifying the use of machines like a 200-horsepower air compressor on a weekend, or a 5,000 horsepower suction machine, Pitts said.

Pitts said the company's EFEC teams set a goal of 8% water reduction over the next three years. Repairing leaks at the company's plants was one area of focus.

The company picked a time to turn off water, popped the cover off water meters and, as Pitts said, determined "if the dial's still turning, something's leaking somewhere."

At one facility, the team found a leak that was wasting an estimated 800 gallons a week, he said.

"How long would that leak have to go before you fill your pool up?" Pitts said.

A ballast, such as a brick or bottled water, was placed in toilet tanks to lower water flow, Pitts said. Leaky sinks were fixed or removed, he said.

Teams set a goal for solid waste reduction of 17% over the next three years through recycling programs and by pushing responsibility back to suppliers for waste, he said.

Cooperative suppliers were told they would receive preferential treatment and the company sent letters to 331 of its vendors to encourage responsible environmental stewardship.

The company was generating a lot of wood waste through skids, wood parts and crates that were formerly sent to landfills, and weren't typically used in the company's boilers for fuel, Pitts said.

Suppliers were told: "We don't need your skids. We don't need your EPS (polystyrene foam). We don't want your cardboard.... So reduce that," Pitts said.

The company made arrangements to drop off wood waste at a local facility with a better wood grinder than Bernhardt's to reuse as fuel.

The company also has reduced periodical and junk mail waste. Bernhardt cut two hours off its daily mail processing by eliminating its junk mail. For periodicals published online, the company stopped renewing many print subscriptions.

The company also has cut down on redundancy in its own printing reports, sending them only to recipients who use them directly in their jobs, Pitts said.

Last year, Bernhardt extended what it learned to its community by challenging Hibriten High School to start a rudimentary recycling program and purchased 30 large recycling containers for the school. In 2008, the program extended containers to the athletic field.

It awarded gift certificates at the end of grading periods to students whose teachers recognized them make extra effort to recycle. The company began awarding iPod Nanos this year.

Since 2006, the company has dropped its hourly consumption of electricity from 7.8 kilowatts to 6.9 kilowatts and of water from 5.8 gallons of water to 4.9 gallons. Solid waste generated has dropped from 1.5 gallons to 1.2 gallons.

It was important, Pitts said, that Bernhardt do something big that would be difficult to quit if started -- but with the understanding that everything couldn't be fixed at once.

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