Aligning Water Goals with Fiscal Responsibility: Q&A with Cox Enterprises

by | Oct 25, 2017

Sustainability and profitability go hand-in-hand at Cox Enterprises, a $20 billion company headquartered in Atlanta with major subsidiaries in the communications, media, and automotive industries. The company’s Golden Isles Conservation Center won a 2017 Environmental Leader Award for using Italian pyrolysis technology to remove tires from the waste stream and break them down to their original components, allowing them to be repurposed. The judges called it an extremely valuable project that works to create a resource from an existing waste stream.

“By doing it in profitable way, we hope that we can create a marketplace where it’s attractive for people to recycle all these tires in an environmentally friendly way,” says Steve Bradley, assistant vice president of environmental sustainability for Cox Enterprises.

This year also marks 10 years of the company’s national sustainability program, called Cox Conserves. Bradley has been there from the start. Since 2007, he and his colleagues have completed nearly 40 alternative energy projects and saved 57 million gallons of water. “The value of our program is good for the planet, good for the bottom line,” Bradley says. “We need to make sure that all these endeavors have some financial component to them.”

Currently, the company’s goals are to become carbon and water neutral by 2044, and to send zero waste to landfills by 2024. Recently we caught up with Bradley to find out about how Cox is pursuing those goals, particularly for water, in fiscally responsible ways.

Have the goals for Cox Conserves changed over time?

Our second largest expense, other than our people, was energy so that’s where we chose to start. Jim Kennedy, the catalyst for this program and CEO at the time, wanted his legacy to be that Cox leaves the world a better place. After five years, just having an energy goal was not fully honoring that legacy. A lot had changed. We decided that we needed more disruptive and audacious goals so we expanded into water and waste.

How do you define ‘circular economy’ and what does it mean for your company?

This is probably very simplistic, but it’s using things to their fullest extent. We can’t continue, as a society, with this use-and-throw-away model. It has a direct impact on our zero waste-to-landfill goal because we want to make sure that anything we use, we’re able to reuse, repurpose or upcycle it. That’s the mentality. We have to think in terms of taking water and making sure we’re using it as efficiency as possible.

What is a Cox initiative that involves water?

We wash cars at our auctions so they look nice for sale. We have systems that capture water from the roofs of the facilities that’s used in the washing process. Rain in a lot of our locations creates flood events. That water floods creeks and streams, and ends up in the Gulf or the ocean. If we can catch it for something useful, that’s a lot better.

We’re able, in some of our reclaim systems, to get the water cleaner than it was in the first place. Then we use that to rewash the cars so we’re not just using it once and sending it back to the municipal sewer system. We’re only sending out a small portion as we introduce more rainwater.

To get water super clean costs a lot from an equipment standpoint. But you really don’t need clean water to wash a car, just to rinse it off. Now we’re experimenting with new technologies that don’t get the water as clean, but still allow us to recycle it. Then we save the really clean water for the rinse at the very end.

Are there challenges you face while working toward the water neutral goal?

The biggest challenge is that the pricing model for water is flawed. Water is so cheap because it’s a price based on infrastructure. You’re really not incentivized to save it. That’s where we have to get really creative with projects to reduce water. It doesn’t make sense to deploy expensive technology across the US in places where water is cheap. That’s where the rainwater harvesting came in. That’s really cheap technology because it’s pumps and tanks.

We’ve been going through and having employees replace aerators in faucets at our auto auctions. These aerators may cost a dollar each, but somebody has to go put them in so it’s a little bit of a challenge to get it done. We created this initiative where we had local folks do the installations. Throughout three or four auctions, that turns into 5 million gallons a year of water savings we get from something that didn’t cost a lot.

Do you see the pricing model for water changing in the future?

It’s got to change at some point. The investment required to update all of the water infrastructure in the US is a massive number. In Atlanta, when we had to go through an update of our sewer infrastructure, our rates went from being competitive to some of the highest in the country, even though we have plenty of water supply.

I’m afraid of how rapidly it might change, which is part of the reason we’re working hard to get out ahead of it. We don’t want to be caught behind when water prices triple or quadruple.

Are there any key lessons you’ve learned along the way?

The one thing that made sure our program lasted a decade and will continue to last in the future is operating at the intersection of “good for the planet, good for the bottom line.” Because we’re bringing good returns back to the company, that ensures that we can stay the course during challenging times. At the end of the day, these two concepts are not mutually exclusive. We can do more good if we’re financially successful than we ever could if we only singularly focused on the environment.

We’re now accepting submissions for the 2018 Environmental Leader Product and Project Awards. Early birds receive an entry fee discount when they submit by November 10. Learn more here.

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