If you order a cup of coffee or a sandwich to go, there is a good chance it will come wrapped in layers of styrofoam and plastic that cannot biodegrade—packaging that is destined to sit in a landfill permanently after your meal. For some, tossing used containers in the trash is an afterthought. For Thad Cummings and Brian Smith at composting consulting and compostable product distributor AL&S (Augmenting Logistical and Sustainable Solutions), those used cups and boxes are a serious concern—and a business opportunity. AL&S provides West Michigan clients with access to a full selection of affordable compostable tableware and silverware, and also arranges the composting of leftover food waste.
While some corporations only begin thinking about sustainability after consumer pressure forces them to, at AL& S a sustainable mission has been central to the company since its beginnings in 2009. Cummings, president of AL&S, began the company as a way to utilize his college education and interest in alternative energy in the face of the economic crisis.
“I was trying to find something sustainable that would provide money,” he said.
At first, finding a direction for AL&S was difficult. Cummings began AL&S as a sustainability consulting firm and quickly realized that there was a demand for sustainable products in many different commercial markets. “I was probably trying to do about a dozen different things,” he said,”moving anything you could ever think of. That’s great if you have 12 people working for you and a million dollars in you pocket.”
Cummings purchased his first shipment of compostable containers in November 2009, but sales did not immediately take off. Several years of sleepless nights, mounting loans, and near bankruptcy threatened the fledgling business. Occasional sales provided income, but not enough to continue sustainably.
Amway Grand Plaza came on as a client in 2011, which proved to be a turning point for AL&S. “That was my breaking point,” said Cummings. “I was still ready to quit at that point, I was running on fumes. Amway came on and changed everything.”
The summer after Amway Grand Plaza, distribution of the compostable containers grew to the point that AL&S began to order the containers by the truckload instead of by the pallet.
Smith, Environmental Steward at AL&S, met Cummings at a creation care church group before he joined the AL&S team in 2012. Smith’s extensive background in supply chain management and information systems made him a definite fit for the direction AL&S was taking. “Over the course of conversation [at the creation care group], I found out what he did and that he needed help. It was action on both of our parts, and went from there,” said Smith.
The business continued to grow over coming months, with AL&S passing $300,000 in projected annual sales in June 2013. While Cummings and Smith have sold AL&S’ east Michigan client base to focus on the Grand Rapids and West Michigan area, sales have continued to increase steadily. “Now we’re happy if we can get an order under six pallets,” said Smith.
To allow Cummings and Smith to focus on consulting efforts and customer support AL&S recently partnered with a logistics company to handle storage and shipping of the compostable containers to clients.
The rapid increase in demand for the World Centric products AL&S distributes has come as the price of compostable goods has become competitive with traditional paper and plastic containers. “One of the biggest hurdles is the perception that it’s more expensive, when in actuality, if it is more expensive at all, it’s marginal. Most of the time we end up saving customers money,” said Smith.
For Smith and Cummings, however, the sustainable disposal of the containers is as important as their cost. All of the World Centric containers available through AL&S are completely compostable, unlike many major competitor’s ‘green’ offerings that are often still made from petroleum-based styrofoam and plastics, or have coatings that cannot decompose. Even though some of these materials may be recyclable, composting waste is preferable, said Smith.
“Recycling is actually a huge drain on resources. Ultimately reusing and not using is the best option, and the next best option is composting. That’s a closed loop as opposed to recycling, where stuff ends up in the landfill anyway,” he said. “With composting, it’s a truly closed cycle where the disposables, in this case, end up becoming soil and growing plants.”
In addition looking to provide the most sustainable option for customers, Smith and Cummings also give back through the 20 Liters organization: for each case of compostable products ordered, AL&S provides a month’s worth of water to someone in Rwanda.
AL&S wholehearted approach to sustainability and social responsibility keeps bringing in new clients, large and small. Currently, AL&S has 42 customers—and the number keeps growing, thanks to a diverse range of businesses in their target market, from delis and coffeeshops to dining halls, catering services, and cafeterias. While success was an end goal for both Smith and Cummings, the reality of their situation is still catching up with them.
Cummings said that the moment he took his savings and purchased six pallets of containers for the first time, he had a strong moment of doubt. “I remember standing there looking at those pallets going, ‘Holy crap, that’s a lot of boxes. What am I going to do with this?” he said.
“Now, when I stop and think about it, when we order a truckload, you get 26 pallets on one whim and you go through that in six months—it’ doesn’t really make sense, to be honest. It happened in such a short amount of time.”
To learn more about AL&S Solutions and to contact them, please check their member page here.
To learn more about the impact of composting, please watch the WMSBF video on composting at GRCC.