This past summer I completed an internship at Resource Recycling Systems, Inc. (RRS). RRS is an environmental consulting firm based in Ann Arbor, Mich., that specializes in corporate sustainability, waste recovery solutions and organics management. It serves a variety of clients, including cities, counties, corporations, hospitals and trade associations, among others.

I was particularly interested in exploring how for-profit businesses can make a positive social and environmental impact. RRS is a profitable consulting firm that has a built a reputation for helping its clients reduce waste and become more sustainable— a perfect intersection of social and environmental impact.

I worked on both internal business development and external client projects throughout the summer. Internally, I helped the public sector team develop a system and tool for new client development and relationship management.

Client  projects involved working with a series of Fortune 500 companies to assess the recyclability of specific materials used in the packaging of these companiesproducts. Our team  conducted research to determine whether 3000+ communities across the United States had the capacity to recycle these materials. We did this by researching city and county websites and conducting phone and in-person interviews with local residents and officials. It was interesting, and somewhat discouraging, to see how different each city’s website/communication was. Some had detailed instructions on what to recycle, others had very little information, and some had conflicting information that most consumers would find very misleading. Throughout this process, I realized the critical importance of messaging and communication in terms of empowering citizens to recycle, and that something as simple as a website can actually be very complex to create.

We analyzed a substantial amount of data and presented each client with a comprehensive report that included recommendations on how to improve the recyclability of their products. Some of these recommendations involved establishing partnerships with local material recovery facilities (MRFs), cities and state recycling organizations to implement policies that expand the types of materials communities recycle. They also included considering the use of different raw materials in production that have a higher end-of-life value and pose fewer problems for MRFs, and working with manufacturers to create end markets and facilitate the purchase of post-consumer recycled products. The reports were well received and helped inform the clientsfuture approach to procurement, supply chain operations and extended producer responsibility.

By the end of the summer, I had learned a lot about day-to-day life at a consulting firm and experienced how dynamic the consulting space can be. One week, you are working 80 hours to meet deadlines for external projects, and the next week, you are working 40 hours solely on internal business development projects. Learning more about recycling turned out to be a really interesting experience, and I believe there is significant opportunity for both the public and private sectors to work to reduce waste. I was encouraged by the initiative that many private companies took to make their products more recyclable and less resource-intensive, and how many companies are adopting the extended producer responsibility approach.

I am grateful to both RRS and the Erb Institute for providing me with an invaluable experience, and I look forward to further exploring how business can be a positive force in society.