What do plastic bottles, soup cans, printer paper, cardboard boxes, light bulbs, glass containers, batteries, and food scraps have in common? They all have the potential to be recycled, but only if your business is prioritizing waste diversion.
Whether you have an established recycling program or you’re trying to motivate employees to use those blue bins, a waste stream audit is one of the best ways to verify your progress and expand recycling opportunities.
“It’s more than added recycling containers or signage,” says Miriam Zimms, director of program planning and development with Kessler Consulting, which specializes in waste solutions. “An audit evaluates and benchmarks waste stream volume, collection contracts, education and outreach, environmentally preferable purchasing, and measurement and verification.”
Use a waste stream audit to establish a benchmark for a new program or refine goals for an existing one. Chances are less trash in your garbage bins will also mean more money in your pocket.
1) Go Dumpster Diving
It may be a smelly proposition, but sorting through mounds of trash is the only way you can gain a sense of your waste volume.
The most common method is a waste composition sort, which includes a visual assessment of collected materials. Its goal is to document each waste stream your facility generates by weight and volume, says Patrick Leonard, manager of the Portfolio Services practice with Paladino & Company, a green consulting firm.
This informal audit, which can be done in-house or by a third-party professional, should be scheduled during times of typical waste production, such as a non-holiday week.
Plan ahead for the following steps:
- Divert waste to a central location (such as a loading dock) for one to two days.
- Count all trash bags or containers.
- Separate each waste type: trash, mixed paper, glass, metal, wet waste, compostable materials, and plastic.
- Record the weight of each waste type.
- Publicize the results to your occupants.
“Measuring current performance with a waste audit gives you a baseline for improvement,” Leonard emphasizes. “You can track actual month-to-month performance against this based on your vendor billing or reporting cycles.”
Use the data to help you increase diversion rates, right-size waste handling infrastructure, adjust removal contracts, and highlight occupant or janitorial education opportunities.
2) Clean Up Your Contracts
Not every visual audit has a trash-to-treasure outcome – your removal and recycling revenue contracts are major opportunities to uncover savings. But it’s rare for facility managers to be as focused on these fees as they are on their utility bills.
“I often find that building management doesn’t have a measurement system for their solid waste and recycling costs or recycling rates. They are often surprised by how much they’re paying when they calculate annual totals,” says Zimms. “When you consolidate this information into a spreadsheet or dashboard, you can begin to pinpoint improvement areas.”
For example, Zimms once had a client who was receiving recycling revenue share for cardboard, which was collected in a compactor.
The company was supposed to receive $60 per ton, but due to some minor plastic contamination, the cardboard fibers couldn’t be reclaimed – they were going straight to the landfill for almost a year.
Because no one had scrutinized the contracts and the contamination notification was buried in the bill, this change was overlooked. Not only did this complication result in lost revenue, but it negatively impacted the company’s diversion goals.
As important as correct invoices are, however, remember that they don’t tell the full story, stresses Karen Cochran, sustainability manager for Pacific Gas and Electric Company.
“They only reflect your current setup – how big your bins are, what type of waste they collect, and how often they’re picked up,” she explains. “Keep in mind that the hauler may assume those bins are 100% full. But an audit will often find that the materials are different from what they’re supposed to be or the bins are only partially filled.”
If your waste volume is lower than what you’re currently paying for, you can reduce dumpster pulls or the size of your bins, suggests Leonard.
You can also right-size your operations by increasing the number and location of recycling receptacles.
Another tactic could be to increase the density of your bales, which requires changing your baler technology, Leonard notes, but the payback can be less than three years.
You should also review how much waste is being brought into your facility in the first place. Strong purchasing policies can help to reduce the volume of cardboard and plastics that come as packaging, for example, Zimms recommends.
3) Get Your Occupants Involved
At the heart of any waste management program are your occupants. It takes the hands of many to generate trash and equally as many to be steadfast about disposal. Whether it’s school children recycling project papers or employees diverting their plastic bottles at lunchtime, human habits can make or break your recycling rates.
Ensure that bin placement and signage are clear, accessible, and easy to understand. A common mistake is locating recycling bins too far away from garbage containers, stresses Zimms, which makes it more difficult to keep the streams separate.
Communication is also a key factor in your program’s success. Employees need to know recycling guidelines, what the benefits are, and whether their efforts are making a difference. When you report the results of an audit, for example, describe recycling volumes in relatable measures, recommends Leonard. Think pounds or tons diverted, miles of bottles collected, cubic yards or football field lengths, or reams of paper saved.
You can also incentivize employees by holding contests (see PG&E example at right) or finding unique ways to engage them with your program.
“We had a client trying to improve its recycling rate and found through an audit that there were a significant number of polyfoam cups going into the trash. So they bought every employee a ceramic coffee mug that could be reused,” Leonard explains. “People got to feel good about the initiative and the ROI was only a couple of years.”
Of course, the company also had to prove that the water used to wash the cups still had a smaller environmental impact than the foam cups, notes Leonard, but it was viewed as a chance to further educate employees about sustainability.
You may even be able to divert some of your collected waste to employees’ homes. “A simple solution is to offer used coffee grinds and landscape clippings to occupants for reuse in their gardens,” adds Leonard.
Don’t overlook your janitorial personnel – “there can be high turnover or even language barriers with cleaning staff, which can erode consistent recycling practices over time. Create a pictorial education program for them,” Zimms notes.
Waste as a Commodity
As you phase in initiatives from your waste audit, make sure to assess the overall goals of your recycling program. Some companies will target diversion rates as set forth by their local government or state goals, whereas others are driven by the gains made by a competitor.
“If you’re just starting a recycling program, set a diversion goal of 15-25%,” recommends Zimms. “Then increase your benchmark after two years to 40% and over 50% after five years with a mature program.”
You can complete follow-up audits at any time to track progress, but it is advisable to schedule them on a routine basis (such as once or twice a year) or when a major change like a new tenant impacts your operations, Leonard notes.
At the end of the day, however, one of the best things you can do for your recycling program is to change your attitude about trash. Waste management is better framed as resource management.
Every organization generates excess materials that can be salvaged – wood pallets, fryer oil, toner cartridges, food scraps, electronics, and light bulbs.
The key is to use an audit to better manage those waste streams and find a partner company who can reroute them from the landfill.
Jennie Morton firstname.lastname@example.org is associate editor for BUILDINGS.