It all started with a long look at the company trash.
The year was 1997 and MillerCoors Trenton Brewery technician Kelly Harris had just read a sustainability report from his company that said the organization wanted to reduce what it put in landfills by 15% over the next five years.
“I looked at what was in the dumpster on the way to the compactor and then to the landfill, and realized pretty much everything in there was recyclable,” said Harris, 51.
“I knew we could do better — but we needed a plan.”
Now thanks to Harris, all of MillerCoors breweries are certified as landfill-free — a factoid the company likes to promote in all its advertising.
Harris also changed the culture at his Trenton, Ohio, brewery to such a degree that it reuses or recycles more than 99% of all its by-products.
That includes dropping a great deal of leftover grains and other materials to local farmers who use it as fertilizer and as feed for dairy cows.
Harris, a lifelong environmentalist who grew up in a family that farmed, canned and hunted much of its own food, first took his concerns in 1997 to his union, United Auto Workers Local 2308.
Backed by John Holub, Local 2308 chairman, Harris spoke to the plant manager about getting a far more aggressive recycling plan in place.
“This was in 1997, sustainability wasn’t even widely talked about then,” Harris said. “But because of the trust we have between the company and the union, I was told to go ahead.”
Within 30 days, Harris had reduced landfill in the brewery’s packaging department by 15%. Harris drew up a 5-year business plan to “green” at the Trenton facility, catching the attention of the MillerCoors CEO.
Two years later, Harris had reduced the company’s landfill use to nothing. Within several years, the Trenton Brewery became the first MillerCoors factory to be certified as landfill-free.
“A lot of it was changing some of our recyclers, who would tell me, ‘That’s not recyclable,'” said Harris. “I spent a lot of time looking for new vendors.”
He also color-coded every container in the brewery and then set up score cards between different production lines and departments.
“We scored every line, we created a very competitive environment. There was a lot of reward and recognition — we put posters and announcements of winners all over the plant,” he said. “You need people to strive to be the best.”
Harris still marvels that he, working a bottle line 10 years ago, came up with an idea and within 30 days got a one-on-one talk with the company CEO.
“It’s unprecedented, and it’s all from trust, and this is just one example of how things work at this brewery,” he said.
And nobody is a bigger cheerleader for Harris than his UAW colleagues.
“The potential of what blue-collar hourly workers can do is so often overlooked — we are not just the arms and the legs of a factory,” Holub said. “We have much more to contribute in ways that can make companies grow.”