Largest Study of Global Commercial Building Waste Reveals 62% of “trash” is NOT trash

New Study Analyzes 170,000 pounds of waste from over 100 commercial buildings worldwide, providing insight into global waste trends.


New York, NY–The largest and most comprehensive waste characterization study to date focused on commercial buildings has been published in The Journal of Solid Waste Technology and Management. The study by Great Forest Inc., a leader in sustainable waste management consulting, utilizes data collected through waste audits at over 100 buildings across the US and internationally, analyzing over 170,000 pounds of waste.  (Scroll below for a summary of the top 3 findings).

The Great Forest study is the first to focus on commercial buildings and includes a review of 100% of the daily waste stream from the individual buildings audited, providing an illustration of waste characteristics at the building level that was not available before. 

It delivers one of the most in-depth waste profiles ever created of a typical commercial building, providing insight into the amount and types of waste generated by buildings across the US and globally. The findings reveal some surprising similarities across buildings, and also identify big missed opportunities that buildings everywhere can address to make a big impact on waste and cost diversion.

Data was collected from buildings located in the New York- New Jersey- Connecticut tri-state region, the Mid-Atlantic region, and Northern California. Other audits took place both within the contiguous U.S. and in the following countries: Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, India, Indonesia, Israel, Japan, Mexico, Singapore and South Korea.

“This is the first time we have crunched the numbers and made the data public in this way. The result is a study that provides baseline building data that every business owner and manager should take note of as it reflects the general trend in building waste worldwide, and reveals where the opportunities are that can make an impact.” 

“With waste costs rising and waste reduction identified as central to a circular economy, businesses responding to climate change with ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) frameworks have to understand the waste they are generating,” says Anna Dengler, Senior Sustainability Advisor, Great Forest, and lead author of the report.

A leader in waste audits, Great Forest conducts hundreds of waste investigations every year. The insights provided in this study are interpreted through the lens of 30 years-worth of waste data that the company has accumulated through decades of waste consulting work.

“The numbers do not lie. For example, the study shows that 62% of what most commercial buildings discard in the trash stream is actually divertable. This means that most businesses are paying to send more materials to the landfill than they need to. Another data point of note is that organics consistently make up 1/3 of the material that most buildings discard in the trash stream, even though those organic materials can be diverted through composting and other means.”

“What this means is that, most businesses could see a big impact just by improving diversion and addressing the disposal of organic material, even if the same amount of waste continued to be generated,” says Liz Arrigo, Director of Sustainability Analytics, Great Forest, and co-author of the report.


62% of “Trash” is NOT trash at all:

The waste characterization study found that a staggering 62% of material found in a building’s Trash Stream is not trash at all, but is made up of divertable materials. This includes:

  • 36% Organic material
  • 14% Glass/Metal/Plastic
  • 10% Paper
  • 1% Cardboard
  • < 1% Electronic waste

The remaining 38% consists of what the industry calls “residuals” — materials that cannot be recycled, composted, or otherwise diverted using conventional waste management infrastructure.

Organics is the biggest missed opportunity:

The waste characterization study found that organic material — at 36% — consistently made up the largest portion of divertable material found in a building’s Trash Stream. Given that recycling diversion programs are already in place, incremental improvements in recycling are not going to make as much of an impact on increasing diversion within a building as much as a potential organics program would. 

Cardboard is King:

Cardboard was most consistently diverted across all sites. Its diversion was high across every program and every region. Only 2-9% of all cardboard found in the audits was lost to the Trash Stream. 

Click here to see a detailed summary of findings, including data on plastics, liquids and electronic waste, along with key takeaways, and methodology. Or read the full report.

About Great Forest

Established in 1989, Great Forest pioneered some of the first corporate sustainability programs in the country, and continues to innovate today, implementing efficient waste management programs for organizations to materially improve their environmental impact and finances for a more sustainable world. Clients include Fortune 500 companies in a wide range of industries including real estate and property management, high tech, pharmaceuticals, financial services, insurance, retail, hospitality and more.

Great Forest