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Establishing a waste baseline is easier than it sounds

When it comes to a company’s environmental footprint, managing waste streams can seem like one of the larger headaches. Sure, there are bound to be “quick win” projects to eliminate inefficiencies around an office – like eliminating the cover sheet from print jobs, or replacing those Styrofoam water cups with reusable glasses. But when it comes to creating a comprehensive waste management plan, you need a baseline to work from, and that’s where the real fun begins.

Why is this such a challenge? Unlike energy and water, where you can normally find your usage spelled out on utility bills, the monthly invoices from waste haulers are unlikely to provide the details you need. At most, you may see the number of “pulls” for your dumpsters. For companies with multiple facilities or shared/leased spaces, gathering this information is an increased challenge, due to either the number of haulers used or the inability to separate your company’s streams from those of co-tenants.

You can always try to get a rough estimate of your trash baseline using industry standards and the square footage of your buildings. However, this would exclude your recycling stream, and crafting any sort of meaningful strategy around such an estimate would be an uphill battle.

The first thing you should do is figure out what your waste streams actually are. This may sound simple, but are employees actually putting recyclable materials into your recycling bins? Is cardboard collected separately, and if so, is the process to separate it out working as it should? Perhaps more important still: does your recycling stream end up in the right receptacle, and if so, does your waste hauler know that it is not to be taken to the landfill?

The absolute best way to answer these questions is to conduct a waste audit. Sustrana’s online app offers education and a comprehensive guide to walk you through the process. However, visual inspections can often get you on the right track as well. Tap a “green team” to walk by the dumpsters each day for a week and determine the fill-level and contents. Once you’re able to wrap your head around what streams you have, you will be better prepared to understand what data you actually need.

Contact your waste hauler and ask for monthly reports where they provide the weight or volume of waste collected. Not every hauler will be able to get this information for you, but many can, and simply opening the lines of communication is likely to be beneficial. If you’re not able to get detailed data, your hauler should at least be able to explain the collection schedule (whether it’s fixed or on-demand, and average number of pulls per month) and the size of your receptacles. For companies with multiple facilities, consider creating a point-person at each location to handle communication with the waste hauler so that data collection can be organized and efficient.

If you understand your collection schedule, the relative fill-level of your dumpsters when they’re collected, and their contents, you can create an estimated baseline, though this one will have figures far more honed than a general square footage estimate. The EPA offers volume-to-weight conversions for different types of waste streams, so all you need to do is figure out the cubic yards (or meters) of trash and recycling generated each month. For example, if you have a 20 yard landfill compactor, which is collected twice a week when it tends to be about 75% full, then you produce (20*2*0.75) 30 yards of landfill trash each week, or 120 yards per month. It may not be exact, but it will give you a feel for your baseline, as well as your recycling rate.

Ideally, you’ll be able to receive direct data from haulers. But in absence of that, there are other options for you to arrive at a baseline all the same. It doesn’t need to be a headache; once you figure out the initial parameters, tracking your waste stream is a breeze.

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