Zero Waste Business: Great Lakes Brewing Company

Karen Schaefer- The owners of the Great Lakes Brewing Company are used to taking risks. Daniel and Patrick Conway built their new business in the middle of the 80's bust. Instead of locating in an industrial park, they refitted a hundred-year old red-brick building in a derelict district of downtown Cleveland. But the risks paid off. Today, their award-winning brewery and pub reflect the spirit of a revitalized neighborhood.

Now Great Lakes is gambling on another venture Pat Conway says could turn his business -- if not his beer -- green.

But what Conway is proposing goes beyond recycling. He says he wants to eliminate waste from his business altogether. To do that, he'll take the spent barley and yeast from his brewing operations and turn it into food for other products.

Pat Conway- Behind you here, these are some mushrooms we're growing out of the substrate of the barley. This is mycillium, and this is just a small example of what we're going to do on a bigger scale in the brewery, where we're going to grow our own mushrooms for the restaurant. And we'd also like to get some of our waste into the farmer's hands for use for composting. In fact, if I could show you in the next room the small farm that we might do in-house. Can I show you the back room?

KS- Sure! Sure! The back forty, huh?

Conway's plan to grow vegetables under a skylight in barley waste obviously won't feed his entire restaurant. But Cleveland environmental consultant Lisa Hong says a corollary idea to turn restaurant food waste into compost is being analyzed by the local Solid Waste District.

Lisa Hong- When Pat and Dan started the brewery they were in Ohio City when nobody was in Ohio City and they were really the pioneers here. And it's kind of the next phase of their pioneering is environmental. And I see already that they're serving as a catalyst for potentially getting thinking started at least and maybe even launching some new businesses with this concept in mind.

KS- It's a concept that's already saving Conway over $20,000 a year. That's how much he used to pay to dump brewery waste into the Cleveland sewer system. Every week over a hundred tons of spent barley makes its way to this farm in neighboring Lorain County. Dairy farmer Roger Mohrman says it's worth making the trip to Cleveland. He adds the barley to his herd's feed.

Roger Mohrman- It's protein and it stretches your ration out, it gets more moisture in it. It's already cooked and it's easy for them to digest.

KS- How does it compare in terms of milk production?

RM- Good, real good...We put the yeast in, too. 'Cause he said his sewer bill's phenomenal, just putting the yeast down the sewer.

KS- It's kind of handy, then?

RM- Real handy...Yeah. Work both ways.

KS- Using the waste stream of one product as the food for another isn't a new idea. But Eric Lombardi says applying the concept to business is. Lombardi heads EcoCycle in Boulder, Colorado, one of the country's most successful recycling programs. He says as a business model, zero waste -- or zero emissions -- is really catching on.

Eric Lombardi- Zero waste or darn near. It's a statement of our intentions and it's a goal all at once. With this consciousness shift happening around the world, you're starting to see people like New Zealand moving towards becoming the first zero waste nation in the world. And some companies out in California -- and elsewhere -- are doing an incredible job looking at their waste streams and reducing or eliminating them in such a way that the businesses are achieving some significant financial rewards.

KS- At the Great Lakes Brewing Company, Pat Conway admits that not every environmental enterprise he's tried -- like recycled cardboard six-packs -- has saved him money. And it does take extra effort. In addition to a consultant, Conway is working with both Oberlin College and the University of Michigan on a number of energy-saving and waste-reduction projects. But he believes it's worth it.

PC- What spurred a lot of this environmental initiative is that, it makes so much common sense. It's not just tree-hugging, irrational, un-business-like thought process. It's very rational in the sense that you can be kind to Mother Nature and also keep some dollars on your bottom line. So it's win-win.

KS- Conway hopes his demonstration projects at the brewery will inspire other business people to consider the zero waste model. And this June, he'll celebrate his own and other's environmental success with the first Burning River Festival to honor Cleveland's clean-up of the Cuyahoga River. At the Great Lakes Brewing Company in Cleveland, Karen Schaefer, 90.3, 90.3 WCPN.

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