Waste diversion in the workplace

Tips to keep paper products and organics from the landfill
Friday, November 15, 2013
By Leanne Michie

There are many different areas to examine when it comes to greening the workplace: energy efficient lighting, building operations and maintenance, water efficient appliances and green cleaning services. But waste management is one of the most complex and equally important areas to keep in mind.

First and foremost, buildings — whether large or small — need to determine a benchmark for their current waste management. A waste diversion rate is the typical metric. This is the amount of material leaving the building that is diverted from the landfill (recycled, reused, donated and composted) compared to all of the material leaving the building (diverted and landfilled). This is an important first step to see how a building currently stands, and provides data that future stats can be compared to.

The next step is often to conduct a waste assessment to determine the composition of the waste being generated in a building. This demonstrates opportunities for the greatest improvement in diversion rate.

From past conducted waste assessments, the largest amount of divertable material found in the waste stream is usually organics (21–56 per cent in 2013) and paper products (20–54 per cent in 2013). Although organics can seem like a small amount by volume, it is a heavy material, and therefore significantly impacts the weight of waste. This is important as weight is the metric used at landfills and when determining diversion rate.

While paper recycling has been around for many years, it is found that poor bin placement, along with a lack of signage and education, can lead to large amounts of paper products ending up in the landfill.

Here are some helpful tips to enhance paper recycling programs:

  • Check with the hauler to confirm which materials can and cannot be accepted in the paper or multi-material recycling stream.
  • Ensure there is consistent signage throughout the building, including tenant spaces.
  • Include images of commonly found materials on signage, especially questionable materials such as window envelopes or paper takeout containers.
  • Develop an education program specifically about paper products. By having a focus, it makes it easier to develop signage, email campaigns and marketing materials. A focus also makes it easier for busy workers to take notice and make changes.
  • Implement a paper towel recycling program (in some cases this material can be accepted in the organics stream). Ensure janitorial staff is trained on the adjustments to the program, and that proper bin and signage is included in all washrooms.

Commercial organics (or composting) programs are fairly new and have only begun to pop up across the country over the last few years. It can be a little more difficult to start up new a program, especially if it is not something building occupants already do at home.

Some helpful tips to implement or enhance an organics program:

  • When starting a new program, check with current providers to see if they offer this service. If not, check with your municipality for listings of organics service providers.
  • Communicate the new program to building occupants, and explain how they can best participate.
  • Ensure that organic collection bins and signage are placed in strategic locations, such as kitchens and lunchrooms.
  • Food courts are another ideal location to have organics bins (in the back of house for retailers and for the public); however, it is suggested as an addition to an existing and successful organics program.
  • Provide clear signage with images of what can and cannot be accepted in the programs – meat and bones, oils, cooked foods, coffee grounds, compostable foodware, etc. Your service provider can advise on this, and may already have this material developed.
  • Train and assist janitorial staff on new procedures.

No matter what initiatives are undertaken, it is important to have a well thought out plan that follows the full path of the material through the building.

Slapping a single unmarked blue bin in the kitchen of an office just won’t cut it. Managers should ensure a waste bin is never without a recycling bin, and perhaps an organics bin as well — this is often called a waste and recycling station. Most people have the best intentions, but if an occupant has to walk all the way to the other side of the office or lobby to recycle their paper or compost their apple core, the material will most likely end up in the garbage. Or worse, if bins are improperly marked, or a recycling bin is located without a garbage bin, garbage can end up contaminating a bag of recycling, which in most cases end up going to the landfill.

Managers should plan for regular tracking and measurement of the program. Even within a successful program, there are often areas for improvement. They can provide feedback to building staff and occupants on the programs status, and ask for feedback on potential improvements. Sharing goals and updates can help occupants and staff feel that their efforts are making a difference and encourage participation.

Leanne Michie is a green workplace consultant with Green Calgary, a dynamic, non-profit urban environmental organization. Its award-winning Green Workplace program provides support to local businesses in reducing waste and environmental impact. She can be reached at

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