Grow a Green Team

Nov. 15, 2013
West Star Aviation shapes sustainability by cultivating a green culture amongst employees

Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day neither was West Star Aviation’s sustainability program.

There are no shortcuts to sustainability, explains Kraig Meyer, director of Environment, Health and Safety at West Star Aviation, a national aircraft maintenance and overhaul firm that has facilities in East Alton, Ill., Grand Junction, Colo., and Columbia, SC. In addition, West Star also runs the maintenance operations at Aspen-Pitkin County Airport in Aspen, Colo., and at Spirit of St. Louis Airport in Chesterfield, Mo.  West Star provides complete FBO services from its East Alton, Ill., and Grand Junction, Colo., facilities.

“We continue to build upon our sustainability program annually,” Meyer says. “Sometimes we take a small bite, other times we take a large one, but we continue to grow it every single year.”

Over the years the company, which embarked on its green journey in 2007, has successfully cultivated a culture of sustainability that resonates with every employee and permeates every facet of the business.

Its core commitment to sustainability has helped the company save green as it has gone green. In fact, where West Star Aviation once spent approximately $50,000 per quarter to ship 28 different waste streams off-site, its average quarterly spend for the same service today is around $16,000 because recycling has cut its waste streams to 17.

And that’s just the beginning.

Ripe for the Picking

“We grabbed the low-hanging fruit first,” says Meyer, about West Star Aviation’s sustainability program.

In other words, the company, in business since 1947, tackled the simple things first--the disposal of batteries, rubber tires, used fuel and outdated electronics. “These were all things we were already collecting, managing and paying to ship out as waste,” Meyers says.

The company first identified local vendors for its electronics waste and over time added partnerships to recycle aluminum, rubber, cardboard, paper and even office supplies. “We now recycle light bulbs, paper products, wood and more,” he says. “We do it all on-site and we always work with local vendors, which reduces our fuel and shipping costs, and helps build the economy at home.”

These efforts have had measurable results. To date, West Star’s recycling programs have kept 1,000 pounds of e-waste; 6,100 pounds of lead acid, alkaline, lithium and NiCad aircraft batteries; and 9,200 pounds of automotive tires from clogging landfills.

No Free Lunch

“There’s an impact on business to do this; it’s not cheap and it’s not free,” stresses Meyer.

West Star Aviation GJT is 360 employees strong, and for any sustainability program to be successful, all of these employees had to support it. It took an investment in capital to educate employees about sustainability and its importance. “I don’t know that there were a lot of employees on board with this when we first started,” says Meyer. “But now it’s something our employees are proud of.”

Dave Krogman, general manager at West Star Aviation GJT, agrees the program initially met with some resistance, but says most employees are “pretty vested in the company” and “passionate about its success.” As a result, once they fully understood the program’s purpose, they became its biggest champions.

Meyer recalls how when the company first formed an in-house safety committee to champion its sustainability program, it was set up as what he terms a “volun-told” program, where members were told they had to participate. Fast-forward five years, and being part of the 12-member committee is a sought after position. “I typically have 50 to 60 people wanting to be part of the program, and half of its members want to extend their time on the program,” says Meyer. “We’ve had to put limits on it. Now, you can only be a member for two years.”

Cultivate the Culture

West Star Aviation presents a safety award, which is tied to both safety and environmental improvements, to two employees annually. It’s an award that’s driven many valuable improvements as employees compete for the honor.

West Star Aviation employs an X-ray system to perform nondestructive aircraft testing in-house. X-ray films have silver (a heavy metal) suspended in them, thus the wastewater generated in the X-ray developing process is considered a hazardous waste. The company once paid a firm to haul this waste away and dispose of it properly, at least until an employee came up with a better idea.

The employee had once worked for a dental office that employed a silver recovery system to collect the silver pooled in the X-ray processing solution. West Star purchased one of these systems for $1,500 and cut out 6,000 gallons of waste stream processing a year. “We now recover our own silver on site,” Meyer says.

“We used to pay to have that liquid disposed of, and now we are selling the recovered silver to recoup some of that money,” Krogman adds.

Another employee had worked with industrial evaporators that separated contaminants from wastewater produced during the manufacturing process. From this suggestion, employees designed an evaporator with assistance from the state, and today all wastewater passes through the evaporator where clean water evaporates away leaving contaminated sludge behind. “Today we send off 400 gallons of waste instead of 6,000 gallons of water containing waste,” Meyer says. “That has led to huge cost savings; hauling away 6,000 gallons of contaminated wastewater costs in the tens of thousands of dollars.”

When an employee suggested investing in an aerosol cans deflator, West Star purchased one for $500. This device removes chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) from the cans, allowing them to be recycled. “We used to ship off approximately 20 55-gallon drums full of used aerosol cans annually at a cost of $500 per barrel,” Meyer says. “Now we recycle those cans instead.”

In 2010, an employee suggested switching to a citrus-based, environmentally friendly paint stripper to eliminate the use of methylene chloride stripper, which is an OSHA-regulated product that requires every employee to undergo an annual physical to track any adverse health effects from its use. “Our environmentally safe alternative is not even regulated by the EPA,” says Meyer. “The new stripper also has reduced the facility’s overall indoor air pollutants (VOCs) by more than 30 percent.”

Changes to lighting inside and out led to overall savings as well. In 2011, the company installed new LED lighting in parking lots, converted overhead office lighting from T12 bulbs to T8, installed light sensors in multiple offices so lights turned on as people entered and off as they left, and trained employees to shut off lights that were not in use. These lighting upgrades have saved 320,774 kilowatt hours in energy, representing $22,839 in total savings.

Adding a solvent recycler to recover and reuse solvents used to clean planes before painting enables West Star to recycle 11,000 gallons of solvent annually. “We separate the solvent out, reclean it, and reuse it until it’s gone,” Krogman says.

A free audit by the local power company drove nearly $4,000 in annual savings. The auditor suggested the company reduce air compressor operating pressure from 125 psi to 110 psi in all buildings. The total savings netted from this change amounts to around $12,000 and that number continues to grow every year.

“The air compressors ran 24/7 for almost six years before it was realized that it was a huge electricity waste and cost,” says Krogman. “The compressors were upgraded from old, inefficient 796 compressors to more efficient 790 compressors, and they now only run 50 percent of the time.”

Accept the Accolades

Shortly after Meyer came on board, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment invited West Star to participate in its Environmental Leadership Program (ELP). West Star has been a member of the organization since 2010.

As members of the ELP, West Star has worked hard to achieve different ratings in the organization. In 2010, the firm received a Bronze rating from the ELP; in 2011, 2012 and 2013, it achieved Silver status; and in 2014, it will attain the coveted Gold rating.

“It’s been a program that’s been really good for us in a sense that they give us good  ideas and wisdom and the companies that participate provide solid practical ideas as well,” says Krogman. “It is a business organization run by the state that recognizes businesses for their efforts and helps them share ideas. It’s not a police action, so much as it is a partnership.”

The accolades West Star has received have boosted business too, according to Meyer. Potential customers now ask things like: Do you have an environmental program in place? Do you have a hazardous waste reduction policy? Do you have a recycling program? And, they are interested in working with West Star when the answer to these questions is: Yes.

“They inspect our program and make sure it’s not just a paper tiger,” he says. “We’ve found there are a lot of companies out there looking to work with companies like ours because we are environmentally conscious.”