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Drowning in Data: How to Effectively Collect Waste, Water, and Recycling Information

For a successful sustainability program, companies need to be able to wrap their heads around environmental impacts to see where the biggest opportunities for improvements are. We’ve blogged before about how carbon accounting may be easier than one would think, but this is just one facet of a complete environmental footprint. A company’s waste and water are also important to track, especially as customers and the public increase pressure on businesses to report this information.

For small to mid-sized organizations, collecting the necessary data can be quite the headache. To simplify, companies should prioritize which data streams to focus on, how complete they need to be, and what the goals are of collecting data.

For instance, when it comes to water usage, any organization that does not use process water in its operations is unlikely to find many significant opportunities to reduce its water footprint. Sure there’s the low-flush toilets and automatic sensors to be installed, and the impacts aren’t unimportant; however, the time required to quantify a full water footprint to contextualize those impacts may be better spent doing something else.

Water usage is generally straightforward to track in any facilities your company owns, because utility bills are typically direct pay, and the data can be found on each bill. However, this is not the case for many leased spaces, and it often becomes more complicated to get the data. You can ask your landlord for copies of the water bill, but if it becomes too difficult to track down, don’t be scared to use estimates.

According to Energy Star Portfolio Manager’s median data, the average office employee uses 13 gallons of water a day. This is a very simple calculation that can provide a fairly accurate annual estimate of your company’s water use and quickly contextualize water savings from any projects you want to do. Obtaining as much data as possible is better, but as a starting point for a baseline, this estimate can get any company that doesn’t use process water started on water conservation.

For waste management, a similar concept can be applied. It’s best to collect as much specific data as feasible, but sometimes the amount of effort needed isn’t justified.

Information you collect directly from waste haulers is best. Though specific amounts of waste and recycling collected may not be detailed on monthly bills, many haulers are more than willing to provide monthly reports. This is usually data they collect anyway. Some haulers may be less forthcoming than others, and often their data is not granular enough (as in, they estimate your prorated share of a full load collected from a variety of customers). If you are unable to request monthly data, you may want to consider using a rough estimate based on the number and size of collectors you have (compactors, roll-offs, etc.), the number of times they’re picked up each week, and the rough fill level.

For instance, if you have a 40 cubic yard landfill compactor that is collected three times a week, and it’s about half full when it’s collected, this translates to (40*0.5*3), or 60 cubic yards of trash generated each week. From there, the EPA offers simple volume-to-weight estimates to allow you to calculate the mass of your waste, which is usually the standard for waste reporting. In the worst case scenario, if it’s impossible to inspect your facility’s dumpsters, there are high-level estimates you can calculate based on the square footage and building type that can work in a pinch, or to fill in gaps in your company’s data.

Recycling data should be handled in a similar fashion. The first step should be to contact the hauler, and if that is unsuccessful or unsatisfactory, then estimates based on bin-sizes can be generated using the previously linked EPA tool. There are no recycling estimating tools based on building square footage, but if you have no better data, you can track something small over a short period of time and then estimate for the whole organization based on that.  For example, you can track the number of reams of paper purchased each month, or how many batteries are collected to be recycled at a facility that’s representative of most of your facilities, for a fiscal quarter.

One key to good recycling data is knowing exactly what is in each recycling stream. Does your paper and cardboard get separated from the co-mingled recyclables, or is it all together in a single stream? Make sure you’re accounting for each type of recyclable your company consumes, so that you can have as complete a footprint as possible.

At the end of the day, company needs should drive which data you estimate vs. detail. Do you have any facilities at which you’d like to implement a zero waste-to-landfill program? If so, efforts should be made for a complete waste footprint, not estimates. Does your company just want to have numbers to post on an online platform such as Ecodesk so that your customers can see efforts are being made? If that’s the case, estimates are likely enough, so long as any assumptions are noted.

Data doesn’t have to be overwhelming, even if there’s a lot of it. When it comes to waste and water, it needs to be only as complex as required to serve your company’s needs.

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