Waste-Free Ontario Act

Designing for better waste management

Decisions made at the beginning of design phase affect the cost of managing waste programs
Thursday, January 21, 2016
By Rebecca Melnyk

When Angie McMurray became a waste management professional 35 years ago, to help building owners and managers meet waste diversion goals, all garbage was thrown into one bin and nothing was diverted from the landfill. Now, there are 20 different waste streams that property managers can source separately as they navigate collection and removal systems that can often be costly and unsustainable.

At a PM Expo seminar last year, McMurray who is now owner and manager of McMurray Environmental Solutions Inc., a multi-disciplinary waste management company based in Toronto and Ottawa, said there remains a call for action, specifically for architects and designers as they look to effectively design buildings for proper waste management. How a building is designed will ultimately influence the operational efficiency of the waste collection program, the cost of servicing the program and the diversion rate.

After speaking with waste haulers, recycling companies, tenants and property managers, McMurray realized that waste issues stem from fit-ups and not just the base building design. Before handing out tips to the room of building professionals, McMurray laid out some sobering facts that illuminate the determination of some and the idleness of others. As it stands, 70 per cent of all garbage in Ontario is generated at work, and the blue box program, a staple in the province since the early 1980s, is only capturing 51 per cent of all recyclable cans, glass and plastic bottles at work and home.

Meanwhile, since 1978, three-quarters of the North America’s landfill sites have filled to capacity and closed. In addition, many potential reusable and recyclable materials continue to be landfilled from commercial buildings due to lack of understanding of the design requirements to collect, store and remove these materials safely and cost effectively.

“We have reached a threshold in our progress in managing waste in Ontario, says McMurray. “A 60 per cent diversion target has been in place since 1994, yet we are stagnating at 25 per cent diversion overall from residential and commercial waste generators; that’s what we’re diverting from the landfill. In the commercial, industrial and institutional sectors, the diversion rate is 13 per cent.”

In addition, 30 per cent of all waste in municipal landfills comes from packaging. The 1.5 billion coffee cups purchased every year in Canada are embedded with a polyethylene liner. As a result, they are contaminant to the paper industry, non-recyclable and responsible for the desecration of more than one million trees. Municipalities and private companies that own and manage buildings are absorbing the majority of the cost of their collection and disposal.

The move from typewriters to personal computers has also caused more harm than good in lowering waste as the transition has increased paper consumption by more than 600 per cent— in spite of the promise of the paperless office. And in spite of stewardship programs, more than 140,000 tonnes of e-waste ends up in landfills every year.

To McMurray, there is not enough focus on the design of buildings to address the challenges of managing all these materials effectively.

“Our understanding of the recycling industry hasn’t kept pace with the changes,” she says. “Building owners don’t want to dedicate space for waste storage or materials because they are encouraged to lease every square inch of the building; however, we’re paying much more for managing waste than we need to, and a few simple considerations, if adopted during the design phase, would make all the difference. It’s time to educate developers, architects, designers and owners about the design considerations that would allow for award-winning programs. This information is available and the time is now.”

Goals for better waste management

“When we first set up recycling, we thought we could just set up a bunch of blue boxes around the office,” McMurray notes. “30 years later, we need more insight to improve our understanding in areas of decision-making, judgment and performance.

Some goals for building more value into a design include operational efficiency to meet the needs of the building, cost effectiveness, safety to minimize risk and cleanliness. Flexibility must also be considered as a way to adapt to inevitable future changes, from innovation and new markets to new pressures through stewardship programs and evolving stakeholder preferences.

Tenant kitchenette design

Many materials collected in buildings are collected in the tenant kitchenette, from mixed containers to organics. Yet, there’s often a lack of understanding of how bins have performed historically, especially for those that are built into the millwork. Bins are abandoned quickly due to people’s fear of germs, especially if there is front access, flip doors, for instance. Designers are typically not provided with feedback on the ineffectiveness of these designs, and as a consequence, continue to replicate and build collection bins that do not work.

Often, with millwork, the inside liners used for material collection slots don’t fit properly. Odours, pests and spillage become issues because the designer often doesn’t know what standard liner sizes the market offers. Instead of building to the size of the liner, designers build the cabinet and hope to find a liner later. Millwork also doesn’t allow for program flexibility; it can be decades old, while captured materials change significantly. And as programs evolve, once the millwork is cut and labelled, owners must live with the end product.

Cabinets are consequently abandoned for unlabeled blue boxes. McMurray suggests the design of recycling collection into millwork should be eliminated, except in a few cases, and installing free standing stations, which are more effective. Consulting with waste management professionals during fit-ups will help to gather information on what does and doesn’t work with respect to collection areas.

Moving garbage through a building

Garbage is usually collected inside a building by a contracted cleaning company. Janitorial companies within a building are never consultants on what does or doesn’t work from a storage or collection standpoint. Also, they are not adequately trained on the expectations of the program and its goals.

Space is almost always inadequate for the wide range of materials that must be collected. Space is lacking on floors, circulation corridors are often not wide enough, the turning radius and doorways are often not wide enough or swing the correct way. Recycling bins cannot be stored in corridors because of fire codes, and cleaners are expected to collect cardboard in elevator lobbies where there really isn’t space.

Moving materials around a building is often difficult. Also, there’s the question of whether a tenant allows the movement of materials. With rating systems pushing for energy reduction in buildings, there’s the preference to move to daytime cleaning because lighting can then be minimized at night. At the same time, tenants don’t want to see people moving garbage around the office or in the lobby. McMurray says the challenge lies in reconciling competing expectations.

Storing garbage

When garbage does find its way down to the storage room, there is often lack of space. There must be bins for cardboard, roll-out carts or some sort of system for recyclable paper, mixed containers, electronics, food waste, shredded paper, paper towels, batteries, toners and flexible space for obsolete items such as furniture. Storage facilities have to be designed to allow bins to be accessed. Waste and recycling should be separate, but isolated from one another; otherwise contamination occurs. Cleaners have to find any space available on tenant floors to stash garbage during collection rounds. When there’s not enough space for recycling, the remaining contents of an overflowing bin often go in the garbage. With reduced storage capability, comes more frequent collections.

“You pay two costs when you get garbage bins or recycling carts picked up: haulage and disposal,” McMurray stresses. “The more often your service provider comes into your building, the higher the cost, and scheduling is often dictated by haulers. More room means reduced service and less cost, less trucks trips and less greenhouse gases.”

Ideally, there should be room outside the building with a door to the outside and inside, as most carts and waste bins have to be loaded outside due to height restrictions inside the premises. Often recycling and storage rooms are embedded deep into the building, down hallways or stairs. The longer it takes to collect and remove the materials, the more the cost adds up. Location, size and accessibility are key for service providers who collect the garbage, and depending on the system, there will be different obstacles.

Considering waste management vehicles

“When we see buildings being designed, a lot of people don’t understand the service vehicle requirements,” notes McMurray.” When operations people start to design waste systems when the building is about to be leased, they begin to encounter design issues that result in having to cobble together a less than optimal program. Here is where the lack of consultation with waste management experts at the design phase really begins to show up.”

Front-end bins are the most common types used for garbage collection. Front-end trucks need sufficient entrances and exit space, as well as sufficient space to maneuver easily and safely inside and are not often inside buildings as they’re not meant for tight spaces. The location of bins must be at dock or ground level, and they are rarely emptied inside because 20 to 24 feet of clearance is required. Loading docks rarely accommodate clearance because the building has been designed to maximize the amount of leased space. There needs to be about 108 square feet for a front-end bin to allow for safe and easy movement within the premises.

Rear-loading trucks are used in commercial buildings that cannot be serviced by other types of trucks due to onsite restrictions, such as high power lines or poor access to containers. The advantage is collection bins aren’t needed. Cleaning companies unload loose garbage bags into cleaning carts, which are rolled to the edge of a dock for the driver to load and remove. However, due to safety considerations, many haulers are phasing out this type of collection. Preference is always given to waste collection systems that rely exclusively on mechanical, rather than human loading of waste into the vehicle, which is proven safer for drivers.

Roll-out compacters are the best option for large buildings because they hold a lot of garbage. They are also effective from a cost and environmental perspective, as the compaction ratio is about 4:1. They need a solid concrete base to endure the weight and secure equipment. They require a service dimension of 12 feet wide and up to 45 feet in length, depending on the size of the bin. There must also be a minimum clearance of 25 feet in order to safely tilt the container onto a truck. Yet, there are not many buildings downtown with sufficient space for such vehicles. Most of the waste-hauling trucks are designed to load from the ground, not a dock.

Regulations driving change

Building owners and managers are now under more pressure as waste management programs are under increasing scrutiny. Provincial regulations expect companies like large office buildings, hotels and hospitals, for example, to undertake annual waste audits and integrate waste reduction plans to reduce flow of resources to landfill. Annual update components are embedded in regulations to drive continual improvement. In addition, the ministry of the environment is putting increasing pressure on people that run recycling programs to prove final disposition of these materials.

On a high note, external rating systems, such as BOMA BEST and LEED, are driving the industry to improve waste management in buildings, even if some LEED Gold buildings are not fully up to par. Effective design of collection and loading areas can make all the difference in meeting waste reduction goals contained in all third party rating systems. And while programs and targets are effective, it is essential to consider the relational aspects of managing waste.

“Thinking about the players and architects and designers in order to have the necessary conversations while the building is in the design phase will go a long way in avoiding problems” she adds. “Decisions made at the beginning of the design phase will affect the cost of managing a waste program—the efficiency, the safety and what kind of performance  diversion programs will have throughout the entire life span of that asset.”












4 thoughts on “Designing for better waste management

  1. Why are municipalities and building owners having to foot the bill for disposing of packaging that cannot be recycled, or products that carry excessive packaging, and why are buildings becoming increasingly regulated to conduct waste reduction plans? Companies that sell products like the example of coffee cups used in this article are the ones who should be regulated to cover the cost of disposal of their products. This is commonly known as extended producer responsibility. Of course, these costs would then be transferred to the consumer, but it is only fair that those who purchase the product burden the cost, not all taxpayers! Coercing companies to reduce their packaging, or at minimum, produce packaging that can be recycled will reduce waste at the source. I don’t understand why these retail/food companies are allowed to continue to pad their profits while in the meantime building mgmt, and all taxpayers are paying for the disposal of a large part of what is creating those profits.

  2. Thanks so much for sharing! It is amazing just how much thought has to go into the design of both buildings and trucks that haul and dispose of waste. I think it is really good that there is more attention on recycling practices now, especially since it is so important to preserving the environment. In my opinion, having flexible plans that allow for change would be one of the best methods for increasing recycling in a long term setting. That way, more modifications can be made, and it won’t be hard to enforce newer recycling policies.

  3. As intensification increases in building designs in North America, the challenge for waste collection should be considered at the design stage. The push of designs similar to European cities is commendable but European waste collection systems are not similar to North American systems. This shift to walkable neighbourhoods by planners needs also to reflect on the services provided by the municipality or private contractor. If its feasible for municipal waste collection at the outset, costs over the long run differ and should be equated.

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