Office waste: reduction is the new recycling


Sending zero waste to landfill is no longer a good target for offices

Your office’s recycling rate isn’t impressive

Gone are the days where office recycling rates were the marker of a business’ sustainability efforts. 

These days, recycling is seen as a “false god” by waste consultant and member of Better Buildings Partnership’s waste working group, Robyn Pearson.

For Pearson, recycling is just one step above landfill.

“It’s a comfort background. An 80 to 90 per cent recycle rate? I’m not impressed by that anymore.”

Consider businesses that aim for zero waste to landfill, yet generate reams and reams of paper waste. They’re paying up front to use the paper product, then again to dispose of it – not to mention ignoring the resources consumed along the way, including human energy, water, power, transport and the carbon footprint.

“We need to think beyond that,” Pearson says. “What we are aiming for is reduction and avoidance of waste.”

The next generation of waste management shouldn’t even be talking about recycling, Pearson believes. It should simply be standard practice while the target should be reduction and avoidance. 

Human connection is part of the solution

The key to next generation waste management starts with looking at waste and rethinking why it is generated. 

In offices where recycling is well established, the majority of waste found in audits of bins is food waste and containers from takeaway food.

This often comes down to staff being pressed for time, and so nipping out to buy take away lunch to eat at their desk.

Pearson says there needs to be a whole mindset change about how we consume food and coffee. For her, selling waste management is as much about a person’s wellbeing as it is about the planet’s.

By encouraging staff to take time out to have a lunch that they’ve brought from home in a reusable container, or to eat at a cafe where they offer reusable plates and cups you are also encouraging movement and human connection.

Getting up to refill a cup from a water fountain rather than using bottled water, or having a conversation with a co worker while waiting by the microwave – these are the sorts of interactions that reduce a company’s waste and have the added benefit to employee’s health and employer’s costs. 

Waste assessment: the first step to taking control of office waste

Before you start setting targets, it’s important to get an accurate picture of the waste being generated and figure where it’s going after it leaves someone’s hands. 

Conducting a waste audit will help identify areas that can be amended and develop sustainable resource recovery objectives. It can also help boost a company’s bottom line by saving money on payments to waste contractors where resources with a commodity value can be diverted from landfill.

There are three key stages to the waste audit process:

  1. Identify volume and type of materials in bins 
  2. Quantify how much waste is produced and its cost 
  3. Identify key actions to take to reduce waste and encourage staff to become involved in waste management

A waste audit can be conducted by engaging a specialist – advisable for large organisations or those with multiple sites – or by following a do-it-yourself guide, such as the NSW Environment Protection Agency’s Bin Trim tool

To get the complete picture, it is a good idea to talk to cleaners, employees and waste contractors. They will have first hand information on waste flow and problem areas. 

Develop a successful action plan

Once you have pulled together the complete waste picture, it’s time to outline specific actionable targets. 

A good idea is to undertake a trial run of any new system. This way, staff can give feedback on the trial and provide the opportunity to overcome any barriers and identify potential costs before final implementation of the full waste reduction/recycling scheme. 

After the new action plan has been implemented, it should be revisited periodically to ensure progress and that targets are still relevant. A waste audit 12 months after commencing is one way to ensure targets are on track.

The CitySwitch Green Office Guide suggests a range of target types: 

  • Percentage based, such as “reduce general waste by 50 per cent in a year” 
  • Volume/weight based, such as “reduce general waste volume by 200 litres a week” 
  • Material focused, such as “recycle all waste paper” 
  • Specific challenges, such as holding a company-wide “rubbish-free lunch” day

Communicate success to build enthusiasm 

Keeping staff abreast of achievements is an effective way of ensuring high morale and continued engagement.

You could have a chart or a newsletter outlining waste

reduction, recycling volumes, money saved, carbon emissions avoided and targets met. 

The more involved they are, the more likely staff are to continue making efforts to improve. 

Closing tips

  • Don’t rely on recycling, reduce first – dramatically if possible
  • Choose products for both your workplace and your home that can be repaired by someone, have a long design life and are fully recyclable into a high-value product 
  • Make smart decisions around lunch, coffee and eating out so you are using reusable items – even if you bring them to the food or beverage outlet yourself
  • Scrap the personal under desk bin, instead sorting your waste into relevant categories at a centralised hub – this will help you notice your waste habits, save items from landfill, and get you up and moving throughout the day