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Managing and Reducing Wastes: A Guide for Commercial Buildings

Office buildings, schools, stores, hotels, restaurants and other commercial and institutional buildings generate significant amounts of materials and waste. Here are tools and resources to help facility managers, building owners, tenants and other stakeholders improve waste management in their buildings, reduce costs and enhance sustainability.

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Benefits of Addressing Waste

Until recently, you might not have paid much attention to the waste your organization produces. Many organizations are content simply to establish a system for removing trash. Increasingly, greater attention is being paid to waste management, and pro-active organizations are seeing the benefits of establishing a waste reduction program.

  • Save Money - increasing recycling can cut your disposal costs and improve your bottom line.
  • Knowledge is power - By understanding the amount and types of wastes your organization produces, you’re better positioned to find ways to reduce hauling costs and negotiate for waste and recycling services that actually fit your needs.
  • Streamline reporting and information sharing - Tracking your waste management activities in one platform and using a standard set of metrics, makes it easier to share and report information with stakeholders.
  • Enhance sustainability - Managing waste, water, and energy more efficiently are core components of sustainability. Improving your organization’s sustainability can boost your corporate image, attract quality tenants to your properties and positively engage employees.
  • Reduce greenhouse gas emissions - Waste prevention and recycling offer significant potential for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Conserve resources - Reuse and recycling conserves natural resources including trees, metals and water.

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Track Waste

Materials and wastes offer an often overlooked opportunity to improve an organization’s sustainability, prevent greenhouse gas emissions and reduce costs. The first step is tracking the amount of wastes your organization generates, for as the old adage goes, “you can’t manage what you don’t measure.” Tracking your waste and recycling provides the key foundation for a successful waste reduction program.

ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager® is a free, easy to use, online tool for tracking waste, energy and water data over time. Use it to benchmark the performance of one building or a whole portfolio of buildings, all in a secure online environment. Portfolio Manager offers a consistent set of metrics for assessing your waste management activities.

Check out the Portfolio Manager quick start guide and the ENERGY STAR training site to learn how to use Portfolio Manager.

Alternatively, organizations that sign up as a partner in WasteWise, the Food Recovery Challenge or the Federal Green Challenge can use the Sustainable Materials Management (SMM) Data Management System hosted in Re-TRAC Connect. Through the SMM Data Management System, partners can track and report to EPA their annual waste management and green purchasing activities, set annual goals and apply for recognition.

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Team Up and Aim High

Getting others involved and following an action plan helps ensure the success of your waste reduction program.

Team Up

  • Leverage an existing team. Consider adding a focus on waste reduction to your organization's existing green team. This may mean bringing in additional team members with a focus on waste and recycling.
  • Create a new team. If your organization doesn't have a green team, consider creating a group responsible for planning, designing and implementing waste reduction activities. Some tips for pulling together you team include:
    • Get support from management.
    • Recruit representatives from different areas of your organization. A broad-based team will offer a variety of perspectives, creative problems-solving techniques and likely identify more opportunities for improvement.
    • Relate the size of your team to the size of your organization and gather representatives from as many departments, tenants or functions as possible.

As the team comes together, it is important to identify its responsibilities, which may include:

  1. Working with your organization's management to set short and long-term waste reduction goals.
  2. Gathering and analyzing information related to the design and implementation of your planned activities.
  3. Securing management participation in endorsing program goals and implementation, communicating the importance of reducing waste within the organization, guiding and sustaining the program and encouraging and rewarding employee commitment and participation in the effort.
  4. Promoting the program to other employees and educating them on ways to participate.
  5. Offering employee incentives to reduce wastes.
  6. Engaging employee to seek suggestions and create recognition and awards programs.
  7. Monitoring progress.
  8. Reporting the status of planned activities to management.
  9. Reporting the organization's waste reduction efforts to all employees.

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Set Goals

Having clear measurable goals gives teams a shared understanding of what they're working to accomplish and how they're progressing. Look at your tracking data to establish a benchmark and inform your goal setting. Look at your tracking data to establish a benchmark and inform your goal setting. Setting goals helps you prioritize activities for preventing waste and expanding recycling programs. Then track progress towards the goals using your benchmark.

To identify specific activities that may most effectively lead you to reaching your goals, conduct a waste assessment. The information collected will help you pinpoint the waste reduction areas on which to focus.

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Assess Your Program

Tracking the amount of recyclables and wastes hauled from your building gives you an understanding of how your waste management program is performing – data on the amount of waste produced and recycling rate. However, to gain insights on how to improve, a waste assessment is critical. A waste assessment will provide you with important data to discover opportunities for waste reduction.

A waste assessment or audit is a systematic review of your building and its operations to identify the quantity and composition of materials in your waste stream. Knowing what’s in waste enables you to effectively tailor your waste reduction program.

Additionally, consider contacting your city or county’s recycling office or your waste hauler for assistance in conducting a waste assessment. Some local governments and waste haulers offer free waste audits to businesses.

Using the Waste Assessment Results

Use your waste assessment results to inform your waste reduction activities. For example, you might find there is a high percentage of contamination in your recycling stream, indicating the need for improved communication and education about what should go in the recycling bin. Or the results could highlight that participants are throwing out a large percentage of recyclables in the trash.

After reviewing the results of the waste assessment, consider holding a team brainstorming session to identify potential waste reduction activities. List your most promising options and evaluate them in terms of feasibility and how they align with your goals. When analyzing and selecting your activities:

  1. Focus first on waste prevention, which will help eliminate waste at the source, saving natural resources and energy and cutting costs.
  2. Evaluate recycling and composting options to manage waste that cannot be prevented.
  3. Implement waste reduction activities best suited for your organization. You may want to start off with one or two clear activities to get others engaged. Then roll out other initiatives as some of the early waste prevention and recycling behaviors become a habit.

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Improve Your Practices

Waste prevention and recycling programs can be significantly improved by actively engaging and educating employees and identifying markets for your recovered materials.

Waste Prevention

The most effective way to reduce your organization’s waste is to generate less in the first place. Waste prevention offers the greatest environmental benefits and cost savings.

  • Reduce: Organizations can modify their current practices to reduce the amounts of waste generated by changing the design, manufacture, purchase, or use of materials or products. For example, your organization could encourage employees to only print what they need and ensure that printer settings are defaulted to print double sided to save paper.
  • Reuse: Reuse of products and packaging prolongs the useful life of these materials, thus delaying final disposal or recycling. Reuse is the repair, refurbishing, washing, or just simple recovery of worn or used products, appliances, furniture and building materials. For example, by encouraging occupants to use reusable coffee mugs rather than single-use, disposable cups, you don’t have to manage the disposal of a bunch of coffee cups.
  • Donate: Organizations can donate products or materials to others who need and can use the items. For example, restaurants, hotels and cafeterias promptly distribute perishable and prepared foods to hungry people in their communities. Many local food banks will pick up food donations free of charge, saving you storage and disposal costs.

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Recycling saves energy, helps keep materials out of landfills and incinerators, and provides raw materials for the production of new products. When waste cannot be prevented, recycling is the next best option. Recycling is more than extending the life of landfills. It is about making the best use of the resources we have available and conserving those resources for future generations. It is about conserving water, energy, land and raw materials.

Composting is recycling for organics. It converts organic materials, like food waste and yard trimmings, into a valuable soil amendment that contributes to soil health and keeps organic wastes out of landfills.

When looking to increase recycling, there are two interrelated components to address, availability and engagement.

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This refers to the collection systems, markets, and equipment available to you that influence and impact your recycling options. Your location and the amount of materials or wastes your organization generates shapes your opportunities to increase recycling. Availability has several layers:

  • Regional - What material end markets and processing facilities can you access, particularly if you have large amounts of materials?
  • Local - What materials are accepted by your municipal or county programs for recycling or composting? What services do haulers in your area offer? Are there other businesses or organizations that could use your waste material, like waste exchanges and donation outlets?
  • Within a Building - What services does your hauler offer for your building? Are recycling and composting bins visible and convenient?

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Once the option to recycle or compost is available, then it’s important to engage and educate. Recycling is an easy, visible way people engage in an organization’s sustainability efforts. best practices include:

  1. Kick It Off: Whether you’re starting a new recycling program or reinvigorating an existing one, make an announcement and host a program kick-off. Have a senior leader in the organization announce the goals, why this effort is important and how it will be implemented.
  2. Keep It Fun: Use challenges, zero waste lunches, recognition and more to highlight people’s role in helping the organization meet its waste reduction goals.
  3. Pictures, Please: Clear signage on recycling, composting, and trash bin that includes pictures of what goes in which bin. For example, the San Francisco Environment sign- maker Exit feature provides pictures that you can use to customize recycling, composting, and landfill signs.
  4. Better Together: When it comes to trash and recycling bins it’s best to keep them next to each other so people have both options in one place. It should be as easy to recycle as it is to throw something away. Make sure that all waste bins and recycling bins are clearly marked to avoid misuse.
  5. Be Consistent: If your recycling bins are blue, composting is green, and trash is black, keep the colors consistent throughout your program and building.
  6. Keep It Up: Ongoing communication and promotion is key to program success. You can leverage special emphasis days like Earth Day (April 22nd) and America Recycles Day (November 15th), and celebrate program milestones to maintain momentum.

Fore more best practices on improving recycling, see our list of resources.

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Share Your Success

With active tracking of your waste management activities in platforms like ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager®, you can measure progress, track cost savings, and run reports to view summary metrics of your waste management performance.

To quantify the greenhouse gas emissions impacts of your waste management activities, use EPA's Waste Reduction Model (WARM). WARM enables you to quantify the greenhouse gas and energy savings resulting from recycling and composting.

Consider conducting an annual review of your efforts. With the green team, evaluate what is working and what can be improved upon.

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Always look for existing information to help design, implement, or expand waste reduction and recycling programs. Plenty of information is already available if you know where to look. The lists below provide a few resources.

Business Toolkits for Managing and Reducing Wastes

Link to ToolkitThe following links exit the site Exit Description
Recycling@Work Sponsored by Keep America Beautiful, this site provides a Recycling at Work action plan, outreach tools, and case studies.
Zero Waste Toolkit for Businesses San Francisco Environment’s Zero Waste Toolkit includes a sign making feature, guidelines for implementing office building recycling and composting programs, and case studies.
Sustainable Office Toolkit Created by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the Sustainable Office Toolkit is a set of resources and tools to help offices of all types and size move toward sustainability through practices such as recycling, energy and water conservation and “green” building.

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Recycling, Composting and Reuse Facilities

Link to Facility's Site The following links exit the site Exit Description This resource includes a zip code search to find a recycling center near you and “discover how garbage gets another life.”
Recycling Locator Sponsored by Earth911, this search tool enables users to specify the material they’re looking to recycle and identifies collection programs and facilities in local areas.
The Composter Navigator Sponsored by BioCycle, this search tool enables use5rs to find local composting and organics collection services.
Food Bank Locator by State Sponsored by Feeding America, this locator provides food bank locations by state.

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Other Educational Resources

Link to ResourceThe following links exit the site Exit Description
General Tips on Waste Reduction This website, sponsored by, provides an excellent toolbox.
General Tips on Source Reduction (122 pp, 980 Kb, About PDF) This book, provided by State of Minnesota, provides information on implementing source reduction program in your organization. This resource provides posters, ads, decals, signs, stock photos.
The Recycle Guys This resource provide graphics.

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