Sustainability 101

20 Waste Reduction and Recycling Tips For Businesses

20 recycling tips to help businesses reduce waste from Great Forest

Want to reduce waste and increase diversion and sustainability in the most efficient and cost effective way? There are so many ways to start. Here are 20 waste reduction and recycling tips specifically targeted at businesses. Have questions? Ask your Great Forest representative or contact your sustainability consultant.

1. Be in Compliance

One of the waste reduction and recycling tips is to be in legal compliance. Solid waste-related regulations are designed to reduce waste generation and improve recycling and environmental performance. As such, legal compliance can lead to benefits, including decreased disposal costs and reduced carbon footprint. It can also help achieve certification and other CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) and ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) goals. Legal compliance is not simply a business necessity–it is a valuable tool that guides your business towards greater efficiency and less waste.

Check your local solid waste authority and stat department of environment websites for updated requirements at least once per year, and follow the local news for announcements of new rules that affect area businesses. Remember, since regulations differ across jurisdictions, business chains and companies with multiple locations must comply with several sets of rules. Learn more in our compliance guide.

2. Understand Your Waste Streams

Did you know a staggering 62% of “Trash” a typical commercial building discards is NOT trash at all? Instead it is composed of recyclables or materials that can, and should, be diverted through other means. This means that most buildings are currently paying to send more materials to the landfill than they need to.

This data comes from the largest and most comprehensive waste characterization study to date focused on commercial buildings, completed in August 2021 by Great Forest. The study utilizes data collected through waste audits at over 100 buildings across the US and internationally, analyzing over 170,000 pounds of waste.

What’s in your trash stream? Businesses should conduct a waste audit to find out.  Waste audit investigations will let you know the types of waste you are generating, what is going into your different waste streams, how much recyclables are being thrown away, and other pertinent waste data. This insight will help you establish benchmarks. Waste audits should be done at least once a year or when you are thinking of adjusting/expanding your waste and recycling program.

3. Reduce Contamination

In 2018, Waste Dive proclaimed that  “…contamination rates have in many ways become the most important metric in the recycling sector.”  That still holds true especially as China and other countries continues to restrict or shut out the import of contaminated recyclables into their countries. Keeping recycling “clean” is one way to maintain the value of your recyclables. Why is this important?

When recyclables are contaminated, they cannot be recycled and are treated as trash. This means that your contaminated recycling is likely headed to the landfill. In other words, they lose their value, and you pay for their removal.

Recycling contamination happens when non-recyclable materials end up in your recycling stream. For example when food is left in recyclable containers that are placed in the recycling bin, or if items like plastic bags, wire hangers, and hazardous waste are mixed in with your recycling.

Learn more:  Reduce Recycling Contamination in 6 Steps: Maintain The Value Of Your Recyclables

4. Address organics

Organics is sometimes referred to as the final frontier of recycling.  According to the EPA, organic materials such as food waste and yard trimmings continue to be the largest component of municipal solid waste. In the largest waste characterization study conducted to date, focused on commercial buildings, Great Forest experts found that organics — at 36% — consistently made up the largest portion of a building’s trash stream.

Given that recycling diversion programs are already in place at most businesses and buildings, incremental improvements in recycling are not going to make as much of an impact on increasing diversion as a potential organics program. Organics is the biggest missed opportunity.

Restaurants or businesses and buildings that have cafeterias or restaurants on site are good candidates for an organics program. Because organic material is heavy, addressing organic waste may reduce your waste cost significantly.  Learn more:

5. Donate unwanted items

Each year, over 100 million tons of material end up in landfills. This includes many reusable items–such as furniture, equipment and electronics–from businesses that are renovating or clearing out their storage spaces. Hotels, in particular, regularly find themselves having to deal with hundreds of coffee makers, lamps, curtains, bed linens, and even bulky items like beds when they upgrade.

Instead of throwing away these assets, we strongly encourage businesses to donate the items for reuse. Here is a handy guide to donating for reuse: Transforming Waste – A Guide To Donating For Reuse, Avoiding Landfills

Great Forest has helped businesses donate furniture to schools, food and hotel amenities to charities and rescue missions, and we’ve even found homes for hard to place items such as an entire gym full of equipment and several thousand tons of old wallpaper! We even
helped a hotel set up an ongoing partnership with a nonprofit that has helped the hotel by clearing out a host of items, including over 400 beds that are now serving people in need in shelters.

6. Go Paperless

Your business can start to go paperless by selecting one area to begin the transformation. Start by requesting or issuing only paperless invoices, or stop printing reports, or use digital sticky notes instead of paper post-its. Brainstorm with your office to see  how everyone can start working with a little less paper, one day at a time.

As part of our process to reach TRUE Zero Waste certification, Great Forest eliminated paperwork related to insurance. Moving to paperless required communicating with vendors to request electronic copies only, as well as redesigning our backup filing system. This not only reduced paper consumption, but also increased efficiency for our customer service team by reducing time spent filing and searching for documents. See our TRUE Zero Waste case study to learn more.

7. Don’t forget about your shredded documents 

If your company has a lot of sensitive documents that need to be shredded, make sure all this paper does not go into the trash. Remember to recycle shredded paper. See what happens to shredded paper at one facility.

8. Go reusable

Encourage the use of reusable plates, mugs, glasses and cutlery in the office pantry. Make sure employees/tenants know that many hot beverage cups cannot be recycled because they contain a plastic liner. Here’s how to reduce the use of single-use plastic straws at your office cafeterias or food service outlet.

9. Dispose of e-waste properly

The U.S. produces about six million tons of e-waste annually. Many of these products contain toxic materials, which can contaminate if they are disposed of improperly. Because new devices replace old ones at an almost alarming pace, many of these “obsolete” electronics are actually still in good condition  and can be reused, refurbished, or recycled. Donate the items (see above) or take advantage of manufacturer take-back programs. Organize an e-waste drive at least once a year. Handling e-waste properly also keeps you in legal compliance.

10. Appoint a green team leader 

Green team leaders are crucial to keeping your waste reduction programs on track. They help motivate and remind colleagues to reduce waste and recycle right. They are the point person for questions and feedback. If you do not have a green team leader, make sure employees and tenants have a resource they can turn to for more information.

11. Make sure your employees/tenants know how to use the building’s/company’s recycling program

  • Check that recycling awareness is included in the orientation for new employees/tenants.
  • Check that your recycling signs are visible and easy to understand, and instructions are easy to follow.
  • Send friendly reminder emails when necessary.
  • Conduct a survey to gauge employee/tenant opinions, understanding and awareness of your green programs.

 12. Optimize your waste management with a centralized waste bin system

Take a look around you. Does your office have waste and recycling bins at each desk?
If it does, 62% of what you are paying to throw away is likely NOT trash at all, but commodities that you are losing to the landfill. Download our free white paper now to learn: Why the typical office waste and recycling set up is inefficient; understand the economic, environmental and social benefits of a centralized waste bin solution; learn about cost-savings of a centralized system; and how to implement a successful centralized waste bin system.

13. Location, location, location

Make sure your trash and recycling bins are placed in convenient locations. For example, paper recycling containers should be in the copy room and other high-traffic areas. There should be recycling bins for bottles and cans in the office pantry, and composting pails should be located next to coffee machines so that coffee grounds can be place there instead of in a waste bin. A centralized waste bin system (see above) will help.

14. Right-size your bins 

Having large trash cans and small recycling bins will not help your recycling program. Getting the correct sized bins, based on the amount of waste and recycling generated, will encourage employees and tenants to do the right thing.

15. Make a big green statement

At least once a year, perhaps on Earth Day, build an attention-getting recycling display to make a big green statement , or hold an event. This could be a simple lunch and learn, a webinar on how to recycling right,  or even a friendly competition (see below).

16. Compete to recycle and reduce

There’s nothing like a little friendly competition to get people motivated. Organize a recycling competition along the lines of challenges like Recyclemania held on college campuses. Departments or floors can compete against each other to see who can increase recycling and reduce waste by the biggest amounts.

17. Announce your success

If your program is doing well, spread the word. It will raise morale and encourage greater compliance. It will also help gather support for all your sustainability activities with management.

18. Set a good example

Recycling is contagious. The management team and green team leaders must set a good example and show that they take sustainability issues like recycling seriously. You can send that message by ensuring your business has a proper recycling program in place, with clear signage, that is used correctly.

In addition, sustainability reporting and certifications like TRUE Zero Waste are valuable indicators of a businesses’ commitment to being green. Research has shown that people want to work for companies that are making a difference.

19. Don’t forget to train your cleaning staff and janitorial/maintenance crews 

Once workers leave for the night, janitorial crews in many office buildings come in to move waste and recycling to central collection points. Mistakes by janitorial crews can negate all the effort your staff and tenants put into recycling. For example, cleaners might place a half-filled beverage cup they find on a desk into the recycling bin. This contaminates all the recyclables, turning them into trash. Janitorial crews should be trained on proper handling of waste and recycling, and how to prevent contamination. Learn more about our training video for cleaning staff.

20. Move Towards Zero Waste

One of the best waste reduction and recycling tips is to put in place a strategy to go Zero Waste. This is a long term strategy for effective waste management. Going Zero Waste does NOT mean that you will be under pressure to produce no waste at all immediately. Instead, it is a plan that you commit to putting in place to deal seriously with waste by reducing generation and improving diversion. Learn the benefits of going Zero Waste and how businesses can move towards Zero Waste in 3 steps.

Zero Waste can start in many ways. Here are 3 simple ideas that everyone can implement in every office to start reducing waste today:

  • When possible, create and distribute documents, reports and other materials electronically.
  • Set printers and copiers to use both sides of the paper.
  • Set the reduction feature on copiers to fit more onto a page.
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