How to Conduct a Comprehensive Waste Audit

Two years ago I began my position as an Analyst with MSW Consultants. The job blends a healthy amount of statistics, data analysis, and fieldwork in the trenches of America’s battle to reduce waste.

Waste composition is our company’s bread and butter. The more experienced folks in upper management have participated in a countless number of studies at all municipal levels, and can tell you how the waste stream has changed in the last 30+ years (i.e. less newspaper, more cardboard boxes from Amazon, and WAY more plastics). Naturally, I’ve begun to soak up their knowledge like a kitchen sponge, and already have numerous studies of various degrees of comprehensiveness under my belt.

Not every Tom, Joe, and Larry knows how to conduct a waste composition audit that is both representative and statistically valid. Firstly, it takes background information on where the waste is being generated and how aggressive diversion is in certain areas. Usually, this comes in the form of weight-based data, like the number of tons of trash or recyclables being generated in certain areas by different generator types (i.e. residential, commercial, or construction related waste). Overall, a sampling plan is developed based on the proportion of waste being generated by who. At a large scale, such as the state of California, the majority of your targeted samples are going to be in metropolitan centers of the Bay Area and LA County. The Central Valley, North California, and other areas should still be sampled, but to a lesser degree. This approach can be scaled down to the size of an individual building.

Next, the fieldwork for data collection and the accompanying logistics follows. Without the right equipment and planning, the actual data collection effort can be costly and challenging to get the information you need to make recommendations or lend insights. The key is to minimize expenses while maximizing efficiency. Additional travel time, the equipment or materials you’ll need, and additional labor hours from those subcontractors hired to sort eat into the budget. It’s essential to call facility management or the janitorial staff ahead of time to find out important details and to give them a forewarning to know when to expect the event.

The list of equipment isn’t extensive, but usually involves a cargo van to transport the sorting table, 18-gallons bins to label for the material categories, trash barrels, saw horses, a rake, a shovel, and an extensive list of personal protection equipment (PPE) such as Tyvek suits and gloves. A 20′ x 20′ area is more than enough room to set up the equipment, for sorting and sample taking. The labels are reflective of the material category definitions agreed upon with the client, and it’s ideal to label the bins with pictures and bold text to assist the sort team in making a quick decision while sorting.

There are really two professional roles to be filled in any waste sort. The Sampling Supervisor is in charge of collecting the material to be sampled and sorted by the sort team. I enjoy this role the most, because you’re in charge of touring the location where the audit is being held, and using my knowledge and experience to predict where trash is being generated the most. The accumulation points are the areas where to collect samples in order to get a representative look at the waste stream. Also, the Sampling Supervisor needs to be keen to any obstacles that are preventing more diversion within the organization for later discussion with the site’s management. Are the recycle bins not clearly labeled? Is the cardboard dumpster a long walk down a hallway? The one who fills this role must develop a long list of questions to discover how things are done in the current environment (the status quo) to act as the baseline for improvement.

Sorting the samples into the various material categories, and recording weights for each material is the meat of any waste composition study. Although it’s essential for the Sampling Supervisor to obtain a representative sample that can be feasibly sorted, the Crew Chief is largely responsible for the resulting data that will ultimately inform the consultants’ recommendations and conclusions on what’s in the waste stream.

The Crew Chief is tasked with managing the personalities of the sorters, recording the weights of the materials as they are brought up to be weighed on the scale, keeping each data point cataloged to each sample, and balancing between efficiency and speed in getting the job complete in a timely manner. It takes a refined attention to detail to account for all the moving parts at once. Otherwise, you risk ending with bad data, and the need to redo the effort.

If it’s your goal to reduce your household or business’s waste going to landfill, waste composition studies or smaller audits are valuable tools to shine light on possible solutions, as well as track your progress towards those goals. Everyone knows that it’s easier to achieve a goal once it becomes measurable. Take the first step in diverting your material from the landfill today!

 

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