Waste audits offer insight into what your organization is typically discarding on a daily basis, and can provide a valuable array of data from which one can glean many fascinating findings, conclusions, and recommendations.
I perform waste audits as part of my career among other waste-related environmental consulting services. Although, material characterization is the most interesting to me, because it yields actionable results, and the data collection involves getting my hands dirty sorting trash/recycling. Assuming the conducted audit takes a representative look at the waste generated, the data is like gold to those who know how to interpret it. Here are a few value propositions that I outline below:
1. Lowering Collection Costs – The most obvious information that a business can draw from a waste audit are savings on collection costs. Take the City of Orlando’s solid waste collection rates. If you were a grocery store or fast food restaurant paying for 4X week emptying and hauling of your 6 yard dumpster then you’d be paying $745 per month or $186 per week. Although, from the business owner’s visual observation, it appears that the dumpster usually only fills up halfway before each collection day and could probably be picked up less frequently.
To maintain a good balance between cost savings and an overflowing dumpster, I’d recommend two-fold; install a Trash Talk sensor to monitor percent fullness, and perform a waste audit in case there were any available diversion opportunities.
I have personally met Matt Liddle, the founder and CEO of TrashTalk LLC, and used his product to much success:
“TrashTalk sensors enable dumpsters to report how full of garbage they are. TrashTalk implements smart fill-level sensors into existing dumpsters that remotely monitor and report dumpster fill-level and when pickups occur. The reported data can be used to optimize waste collection and reduce waste collection expenses from 30-80%. TrashTalk’s technology puts a stop to just dumping air with premature pickups.”
Hypothetically, after installing a TrashTalk sensor that shows that your dumpster on average only fills up 3X per week, and then performing a waste audit that reports that over 15 percent of your waste is unbroken-down cardboard boxes that are easy to recycle, a business owner decides to lower their collection frequency to 2X per week, saving $93 per week. That translates into $372/month or $4465/year. Not chump change for anyone.
2. Monitoring Fluctuations in Waste Generation – Performing a waste audit can yield material composition results as a snapshot in time, which, if sampled correctly, is fairly informational in itself. Although, a series of waste audits occurring over time, with multiple samples, really drills into those fluctuations in more detail, and offers a degree of statistical confidence. In any homogeneous business operation, fluctuations in waste generation are inevitable, and need to be looked at across multiple sampling events.
I’ve seen the immense value of ongoing waste audits from one of my company’s clients, a city on the East Coast (data shown above). Originally, we carried out a one-time sampling event on their recycling stream in the Springtime. We sampled from inbound trucks arriving at their recycling facility with the routes selected at random primarily coming from commercial customers. After the waste audit was done, and the composition results had been put into tabular format, we showed the client and concurred that something must have been done incorrectly! There was way too much glass given what other comparable cities typically see in their commercial recycle streams. After some backtracking, we realized that a disproportionate number of our samples had come from bars located in the downtown area. All the glass bottles were skewing the results.
This was a valuable lesson that, although a material composition snapshot may be good, a timeseries of data tracks ups and downs that are always going to happen. Imagine the difference of sampling a medium-sized office building’s dumpster during tax season, assuming one of the office’s tenants is a tax accounting firm, versus on a normal day in June. It’s essential to stay in tune with seasonal waste occurrences, or you may risk exaggerating the results. It was decided to conduct audits at least three times per year to minimize the effects of these outlier samples.
3. Determine if There’s an Opportunity to Generate Revenue – Quite simply put; those materials being thrown out that end up in your local landfill may have value to you or others in your region. There are two types of value that could arise if you decide to conduct a waste audit and really dive into the quantities of waste you’re generating; “Commodity Value,” which is the intrinsic value of the physical commodity, or “Utility Value,” which is the value it can offer you or somebody else in what they’re able to do with it.
Every material has a use even post-consumption. Whether that’s turning used tires into a playground surface, or broken glass into road fill, there are always opportunities if you’re willing to look for them. Not to mention, if you were able to find a recipient for your wasted material willing to take it off your hands for free, you’d still be able to decrease your collection frequency and save big bucks.
4. How to Tailor Employee Education, Receptacle Placement, and Signage – One of the obvious value-adds to any waste audit is how to inform your employee education program, where to place your recycle bins to maximize diversion, and the type of signs you need to create to prevent cross contamination. All this stems from a look at the types of materials frequently ending up in the wrong place, and asking “why?”
Employees find themselves at ground zero of any business operation, and dictate the success or failure of a company’s diversion plan. Are they aware of what the company is trying to do by reducing it’s garbage? Do they know which materials go where? Also, it’s important to use the waste composition data to point out “problem-materials;” materials that often cause confusion in where they belong, and to help inform the employees. It’s beneficial to provide all employees, including the custodial staff, with the audit’s results so that they can align with the organization’s mission and feel an integral part of accomplishing it.
Where you choose to place your bins around the building’s premise is the difference between a 10 percent recycling rate, or a 40 percent recycling rate, and often controls the levels of contamination found in your recycling. (Quick tip: It’s always important to put recycling and trash bins side by side, giving the person discarding their item the choice of one or the other.) Ideally, there would be signs above the receptacles describing in text and pictures what is acceptable and non-acceptable. This will discourage any wishful-recyclers; people who have their heart in the right place who want to recycle everything they can regardless if it’s actually an accepted recyclable or not.
The best decisions are driven by data and analytics, and performing a waste audit can demystify what’s being thrown away to offer alternatives on what to do with it. It takes a well-trained professional who’s seen their share of material composition data to really breakdown the opportunities that can be built upon. And even more important than that, an organization who is willing to change.