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Recycling: The Strip’s best kept secret

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Waste Management employee Marcos Miranda dumps glass into a recycling container at a Mirage loading dock Monday, April 12, 2011. The container at the Mirage fills up with six and a half tons of glass every five days, said Brad Tomm, sustainability manager for MGM Resorts International.
Photo: Steve Marcus

The mud-like, brown “stew” comes up to the pigs’ bellies as they stand in it to get their daily meal at R.C. Farms. Pigs eat constantly, and finding a steady food stream can pose a challenge to the average farmer. But not R.C. Farms owner Bob Combs. Thanks to one unique partner, he’s able to feed half of his 2,500 pigs every day. Last year, five of MGM Resorts’ 11 properties—Bellagio, CityCenter, Mandalay Bay, MGM Grand and Mirage—sent nearly 7,600 tons of uneaten food—bagels, chicken, pieces of pizza, you name it—to the North Las Vegas pig farm to be boiled down and used as feed. It’s food that otherwise would have gone straight into landfills, and good food at that. (If you’ve eaten at the Bellagio buffet, you probably already knew.) Smell that? No, it’s not pigs; it’s social responsibility, courtesy of the Las Vegas Strip. And as impressive as this pig feast is, it’s just a fragment of the efforts on Las Vegas Boulevard. The same place that’s a symbol of excess the world over, the stretch most of us zoom by on I-15 marveling at its sheer indulgence, has a dirty little secret. Gamblers are still losing shirts, partiers are still forgetting the night before, tourists are still looking for an Elvis to pose with and pit bosses are still protecting the bottom line. But today, when they trash a beer can or chuck a water bottle, someone’s fishing it out and sending it off for a second life.

“Recycling is the best-kept secret on the Las Vegas Strip,” says Brad Tomm, sustainability manager for MGM Resorts, which recycled 33.2 percent of its garbage in 2010. The corporation’s newest property, CityCenter, recycles a whopping 55.2 percent. Not quite California numbers, but not bad at all. Yet most of this activity goes undetected by the people visiting the casinos; it’s an almost covert operation, as if going green would put a damper on the Strip’s decadent, party-like-there’s-no-tomorrow image.

Not that the Strip doesn’t make its own Bigfoot-sized carbon footprint. One Strip property can produce yearly waste levels equal to that of a moderately sized city. One typical hotel room of the tens of thousands on the Strip goes through 180 rolls of toilet paper (most of which is unrecyclable, for, ahem, obvious reasons), 641 king sheets, 979 pillow cases and 750 bath towels, requiring 7,513 gallons of water for washing.

MGM Resorts Recycling

Hotels don’t recycle their own water—at least, not yet. That all goes to the Las Vegas Valley Water District for treatment.

But Tomm says everything is under consideration. Plastic, glass and aluminum are the usual suspects, but cardboard, cooking oil, uneaten food and unused resources from conventions have been added to the recycling list. If there’s a reuse for it, Strip properties are finding it.

As impressive as the Strip’s numbers appear to be, equally impressive is that the bulk of this has all happened in just the last few years. Recycling’s humble beginnings on the Strip started in the early ’90s with R.C. Farms’ Combs, who offered to help properties such as the MGM Grand, Bellagio and Mirage with asset recovery—all the salvageable stuff people throw away at hotels, from glasses and dishes to silverware and coffee mugs—if his company, in return, could be given those properties’ cardboard, aluminum cans, plastic and kitchen grease, not to mention the discarded food for his pigs.

The program proved cost-effective but wasn’t really expanded until the mid-2000s. In 2006, the year after MGM Mirage merged with Mandalay Group, the corporation created an Energy Environmental Services Division, a consolidation of expert resources and all things energy. Five focus areas were created: energy management and natural resource conservation, green building, construction design and development, waste management and sustainable supply chain management; and communication and outreach.

Recycling - R.C. Farms

By 2007, recycling was becoming a major focus area for the corporation. Tomm, who joined the organization that year, was tasked with gathering all pertinent data, taking inventory of what each individual property was or wasn’t doing, and improving numbers at each casino.

The first-year stats weren’t exactly inspiring; MGM Resorts’ properties as a whole recycled only 9.8 percent of all material in 2007. But Tomm had a plan—establish recycling coordinators at each property and give each property a green team name. (The Mirage’s name, for example, is “The Green Advantage.”) Coordinators are employees from different departments who volunteer their time, except at Mandalay Bay, which requires a full-time recycling manager because of its Convention Center.

Tomm then created a Waste Council—complete with a master of ceremonies—to give presentations about programs, practices and which vendors are doing the best job, and to foster a competitive spirit among the properties.

To say Tomm’s efforts have paid off is a bit of an understatement. Between his two innovations, all MGM Resorts properties now have “friendly rivalries” going to see who can not only recycle the most, but come up with new ways to do so. The rivalry helped generate, for example, a cork-recycling program. All bartenders, from bars to pools, now save used corks and send them to Napa-based ReCork America, where they get recycled and used in flip-flops, shoes and other usable items.

Recycling by the Numbers

For Republic Services
• 72,000 homes in Republic’s pilot recycling program
• 1.8 pounds per week residents recycle using the red, white and blue crates
• 14-16 pounds per week residents recycle using the pilot program’s 96-gallon bin
• 4,200 tons per month Republic Services recycles curbside for the entire Las Vegas Vallley
• 2,200 tons Republic recycles from just five Strip properties in the same time period (does not represent the full total recycled from those properties, as several other vendors are also involved)
For Caesars Entertainment
• 340 tons of plastic recycled every year
• 91 tons of aluminum recycled every year
• 2,250 tons of glass recycled every year
• 640,000 gallons of restaurant oil recycled every year by Caesars Entertainment’s Strip properties worldwide (123,000 gallons on the Strip)
• 47,000 magazines recycled
For MGM Resorts
• 8,722 tons of food waste recycled every year
• 8,403 tons of corrugated cardboard recycled every year
• 55.2% amount CityCenter recycled in 2010
• 14.3% amount Circus Circus recycled in 2010

“Green has taken hold,” Tomm says. “It’s not a fad; it’s not a trend. It’s the way we do business. Greener business is a better business for us. We see impacts financially, environmentally and socially.”

The same kind of sea change is happening at Caesars Entertainment, which began a $62 million investment in energy conservation projects in 2003 and launched the “Code Green” strategy in 2008. Its nine Strip properties now have a 32 percent recycling rate, according to Gwen Magita, corporate director of sustainability and community engagement for Caesars Entertainment.

“I think recycling is very important. When you’re bringing in 40 million visitors a year, it’s our responsibility to lead on the environment.”

Down in the trenches

David Benitez scribbles intently on a piece of paper attached to a clipboard. He’s got the focus of a pit boss. He needs it; he’s got 4 tons of waste coming his way at the recycling dock at New York New York, and Tomm wants accurate records of everything.

This dock is where everything generated by the hotel ends up. Much of what will eventually be recycled winds up in the trash and must be found through good, old-fashioned Dumpster diving. Tomm says the focus is on “upstream” recycling, getting employees to grab that odd plastic bottle, aluminum can or box and throw it in a separate bin. This is key to increasing recycling numbers; once a piece of paper touches liquid or food, it’s unusable.

“That’s our focus,” Tomm says. “What can we control?”

To that end, Tomm is looking at absolutely everything in the properties, but the primary focus is put on kitchens, the biggest waste producers in the casino environment.

Employee education is a key component as well. Tomm says he wants all of MGM Resorts’ 60,000 employees to recycle at home as well as at work, and launched a “Conservation Begins at Home” program. “We’ll have green fairs and bring in our vendors to educate everyone about recycling at home, so they can sign up there for Republic’s curbside recycling program.” At a recent fair, NV Energy distributed 120,000 energy-saving light bulbs to employees. “We noticed differences in enthusiasm very quickly” after launching the program, Tomm says.

A few feet away from Benitez, who works for Renu Oil, one of the vendors at New York New York, two other men stand beside a huge trough that feeds into that enormous compactor, reaching in to find anything that can be recycled. With the height of the trough nearly equaling their own, the men are literally face-to-face with the nastiest kinds of leaking, oozing waste imaginable—used diapers, spoiled food. Tomm, who’s spent time at that trough himself, calls the dock workers “the hardest-working people on the Strip, without a doubt.” (Videos of Tomm helping sort can be found on Facebook at MGM Resorts Momentum. “Like” the page and you can see other videos of Tomm, including one of him feeding pigs at R.C. Farms.)

All MGM Resorts properties have transformed their trash docks into recycling docks, and what started as a partnership with R.C. Farms has grown into a multi-tiered operation, with many other vendors in the mix. For example, at New York New York, Republic does the glass, A-1 Organic collects food for composting and NVCCU takes care of the mixed product. “The old model was one vendor does all. We’re now using vendors based on their strengths. This business is more competitive than ever.”

Late to the game

The Strip is a relative newcomer to recycling, but it’s not alone—Nevada as a whole is still in its relative infancy in that arena. After all, even though Nevada has a recycling “goal” of 25 percent under Nevada Revised Statute 444A, recycling has never been mandatory here, unlike states such as California.

Republic Services, the company that handles waste management for Southern Nevada, began offering recycling in 1991, but since reporting is voluntary, records on exactly how much was being recycled in the early years are not available, according to Bob Coyle, vice president of public affairs and government relations at Republic Services. Even data from 2007 is not completely reliable, Coyle says, and a look at Clark County’s total recycling numbers since then would seem to indicate things are getting worse, not better—19.42 percent in 2007, and 17.4 percent in 2009.

“There was a significant decrease in construction waste” because construction activity all but stopped in the last few years, Coyle explains, blaming the recession for the recent drop. The overall waste stream dove, from 4.3 million tons in 2007 to 2.1 million tons in 2010, Coyle says.

Still, despite the fluctuating, somewhat unreliable numbers, Coyle believes there has long been a passion to recycle here. So last year, Republic Services rolled out a pilot program to 72,000 homes across the Valley in which the traditional small red, white and blue bins used for recycling were replaced by 96-gallon containers. In addition, trash pickup was changed from twice a week to once a week, with recycling once a week instead of every other week.

The result? Huge recycling bins are allowing residents to significantly reduce the amounts in their trash cans, negating the need for twice-a-week pickup, and Republic is seeing a dramatic increase in recycling rates, not to mention the number of calls from residents valleywide, asking when they’ll be getting their 96-gallon bins. (FYI, if you’re really interested, call your elected representative; they’re the ones who ultimately decide these things.)

“We implemented the program in the first three weeks of November and first week of December, and at the time Henderson’s average recycling rate was 6.2 percent,” Coyle notes. “By the end of December, its recycling rate was 30.2 percent. The average home under the crate program was putting out 1.8 pounds per week. On the pilot program, it’s 14 to 16 pounds a week.” A survey is planned for the fall to gauge the program’s effectiveness.

Getting greener all the time

Tomm sees CityCenter as the future for Strip recycling. It was built with green in mind, operating recycling docks that function with the utmost efficiency and achieving gold LEED certification for six of its buildings.

Cardboard bales the size of small cars sit on one dock, ready to be shipped out. Altogether, Tomm says, CityCenter recycles 6.6 tons of cardboard a day.

A trough near the center of the room holds future pig food, and the asset recovery area is jammed to capacity with salt shakers, wine buckets, ash trays, tea glasses, pitchers and ice buckets. A wide, deep box in one corner is for discarded corks; it’s almost full.

Tomm points to a group of “grease caddies,” which act as vacuum cleaners for the properties’ deep-fat fryers. Then he points down. “You’re standing on top of the tank we use to store that grease. We’re doing 2,000 pounds a day.”

The big question at this point is how much further Strip properties can go. The logical next step would seem to be placing recycling bins on the casino floor, but Tomm says that’s a very difficult environment to control. “If that’s what the customers want, we’ll do that. But if they aren’t interested in participating, it only causes more work for us. Say you have a bag for cans—throw one hamburger in there and the whole bag is worthless.”

Good for the environment, good for business

Tomm says MGM Resorts’ decision to get aggressive about recycling has had beneficial results, including winning the properties industry awards and a cost savings that allows the program to continue and thrive. (He couldn’t offer specific cost savings, as that’s proprietary information.) It has also raised the corporation’s profile among the various businesses looking to book conventions in Las Vegas.

“Clients ask about sustainability and make decisions based on that information,” he explains. “Companies are very serious about this.”

Once a convention is concluded, much of the leftovers are given to local schools—pens, papers, pads, bags, etc. Caesars Entertainment has a similar program, called Teacher’s Exchange, as well as its own cork-recycling program and “Clean the World,” in which its leftover soaps and shampoos are donated to developing countries.

When MGM Resorts was constructing CityCenter, waste got recycled and reused. And a roster of interesting uses have sprung up around hotel paraphernalia. Room keys are ground up and used in playground material; old towels and linens are sent to local animal shelters; and tons of glass is taken from Mandalay Bay to Henderson-based Realm of Design for use in its material made of 99.9 percent glass.

It’s an evolving process that continues to inspire Tomm, who worked on oil rigs as a petroleum engineer in California before he came to Las Vegas.

“I went from the dirtiest work in the world to the cleanest work in the world,” he says. “Recycling has become my most passionate project. I have a truly green job, and I’m fortunate in that I can inspire others to join us and make a difference.”

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Ken Miller is Las Vegas Weekly's associate editor, having previously served as assistant features editor at the Las Vegas Sun ...

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