With more companies taking the leap into sustainability these days, recycling in the office has become one of the top green initiatives for corporate sustainability programs. The fact is: All companies, even those with remote workforces, generate some form of waste. This article focuses on regular office waste and discusses the benefits of recycling in the office, steps for implementing an effective recycling program, and how to encourage green employee behavior.
The Benefits of Recycling in the Office
You might not think that throwing that empty cardboard box in the bin holds much power, but collectively, recycling in the office can yield many benefits for your business and beyond.
Enhances Company Reputation
Being aware of your waste and making an effort to manage it responsibly reflects your consideration for the world outside of your business. The consumer population is growing to include more eco-minded, socially conscious young buyers who are demanding businesses take accountability for their environmental impact.
Implementing a recycling program that can also handle external consumer waste – e.g. buy-back programs that allow customers to turn in used products – goes even further to reflect your commitment and can inspire green-thinking among your customers.
Supports Sustainability Certification
Having a recycling program in place can earn you credit towards sustainability certification which is now becoming a standard across industries, serving as the seal of trust that stakeholders expect.
Green Business Bureau includes several recycling related initiatives within its Eco Library, designed to guide companies towards better waste management and other sustainable practices.
Creates Employee Engagement Opportunities
A well designed and well executed recycling program can be a powerful tool for promoting sustainability among employees and creating engagement opportunities. Your recycling program can spur employee training on proper waste management or serve as the foundation for building a Green Team, a group of forward-thinking individuals designated to oversee the company’s green initiatives.
The opportunity to learn about business sustainability and participate in a recycling program can give employees a sense of responsibility and fulfillment outside of their daily work tasks, ultimately nurturing a green work culture. Further, employees who feel that their employers are committed to good causes and positive change often remain loyal workers and are more invested in the company’s mission.
Reveals New Revenue Streams via Material Reuse
Depending on the type of waste you generate, there may be potential for new revenue streams via material reuse. This is more complex than your typical in-the-office recycling as it requires understanding the nature of your manufacturing waste and figuring out how your waste byproducts could be turned into useful alternatives to be used in your own operations or by other companies.
The concept of waste or material exchange is becoming a standard element in the upfront design of large scale industrial parks. Here are just a few of the largest exchange agencies in the U.S.:
- Resource Exchange Network for Eliminating Waste (RENEW)
- Southern Waste Information eXchange Inc. (SWIX) operated by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection
- North Carolina Waste Trader operated by the North Carolina Division of Environmental Assistance and Customer Service
- South Carolina Materials Exchange operated by South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control
Combats Landfill Waste
While there continues to be speculation over just how effective recycling really is, well designed recycling programs can divert significant amounts of waste from landfills, helping slow down the growth of these massive garbage piles. With over 3,000 active landfills in the U.S., roughly 1,800,000 acres of habitat have been lost.
Effective recycling can also help reduce the amount of emissions released from landfills. According to the EPA, U.S. municipal solid waste landfills are the third largest source of human-related methane which has over 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide.
Further, diverting landfill waste can prevent the entry of chemicals and hazardous substances into landfills and thus the risk of toxic runoff into nearby waterways.
Saves Virgin Resources and Energy
Doing your part to recycle is a small contribution towards conserving the world’s supply of virgin resources and the energy required to harvest and process those resources into new products. Yes, it’s true that recycling anything also consumes energy and releases emissions but it is possible that using recovered materials versus raw materials is less energy-intensive. For example, recycled aluminum is about 95% less energy-intensive to forge compared to raw aluminum.
Creates Jobs and Supports Economic Growth
According to the EPA Recycling Economic Information (REI) Report, recycling and material reuse activities produced $37.8 billion in wages and $5.5 billion in tax revenues and accounted for 681,000 jobs in 2012.
Recycling Versus Trash Collection
While recycling is the good and green thing to do, the unfortunate truth is that it’s not always the most cost-effective nor the most impactful. The U.S. recycling industry is complex and there are several reasons why recycling is often more expensive than conventional trash collection.
For one, many cities use single-stream recycling which is more convenient for consumers but requires sorting by both machine and human hand, thus bumping up collection and processing costs. The single-stream method also has a high risk of producing low-quality, contaminated materials which is one reason why China ceased accepting recyclables from the U.S. back in 2018. The inability to export away our heaps of recyclables has forced us to finally take accountability for our waste and improve our recycling system.
How to Set Up an Effective At-Work Recycling Program
Despite how convoluted recycling may seem at times, keep in mind that many companies have successfully figured out a system that works and you can too! So, how do you create an effective at-work recycling program? Here are eight key steps to guide you:
- Get Senior Management Approval and Support – Get your recycling program off the ground running with senior management buy-in. Relay the business benefits of recycling and the responsibility that your company has to be a responsible steward of the earth. The company-wide launch of your recycling program can have stronger hold and a more seamless transition when upper management is involved.
- Conduct a Waste Audit – Before you can divert your waste to recycling, you need to understand what kind and how much waste you generate and where it comes from. This can be accomplished by conducting a waste audit. Whether you use your internal team of employees or seek a third party auditor, conducting a waste audit will produce hard data of your waste and identify opportunities for waste reduction, including where recycling would be appropriate.
- Launch a Green Team – Recycling programs are often more successful when given a designated team to ensure the program is making steady progress and to make adjustments as needed. Rally together your most passionate, green thinkers to form a company Green Team and begin planning out your recycling program.
- Develop a Recycling Plan – Develop a comprehensive plan for your recycling program that includes:
- Data around the types, quantities and sources of your waste, along with materials targeted for recycling and/or reuse
- Realistic recycling goals and a set timeline for achievement
- How to track waste/recycling streams and how to measure and record important benchmark data
- Collection protocols
- Contact information of your collection partners
- Waste management training resources for all employees including remote workers
- Provide Adequate Resources – When your program is set to launch, ensure there are resources in place to make a seamless transition. Such resources include:
- Adequate amount of collection bins installed at convenient locations
- Clear signage indicating what can and cannot be recycled, including next steps for disposing of those hard-to-recycle items
- An online hub for employees to find educational resources on recycling and waste management (Check out the EPA’s recycling resources for specific sectors including schools, business, C&D, and others)
- Encourage Leadership and Employee Buy-In – The level and quality of participation reflects how successful a sustainability program will be. It’s critical for management to set the tone for the program and lead by example. This can be done by:
- Keeping company green initiatives a regular part of monthly or quarterly team meetings
- Announcing your new recycling program in a PR to outside stakeholders
- Incentivizing employee participation and recognizing those that go above and beyond
- Organizing company-wide events related to waste and recycling or allocating PTO for employees that engage in a community cleanup event (Find green events in your area using the Keep America Beautiful program search)
- Create Material Reuse Pathways and Partnerships – To reap the rewards of recycling more directly, consider how your waste byproducts could be reused as material alternatives. Material reuse allows you to sell your waste byproducts to another company for additional revenue or reuse them in your own operations, saving you both the time and money involved in purchasing new material.
- Monitor Progress and Make Adjustments – Finally, an effective recycling program always leaves room for improvement. Make sure your Green Team or designated recycling program manager is knowledgeable on how to track your waste and recycling streams and record important benchmarks. Evaluate your progress monthly or quarterly, discuss steps for improvement, and identify any new opportunities to reduce, reuse or recycle waste.
Common Challenges to Recycling in the Office
Recycling might seem like a no-brainer but there are some obstacles to company-wide recycling programs.
- Lack of Education and Awareness – One of the most common challenges is the lack of education and awareness around what can and cannot be recycled. This has become a growing problem due to the complex material makeup of products today. Many products, dubbed “monstrous hybrids”, are made of two or more different materials, making it nearly impossible to recycle down into its constituent parts. So, it’s understandable why employees and companies have a hard time knowing what truly is recyclable (Read our article, “Recycling in the Workplace: Are You Doing It Right?”, which highlights the consequences of wish-cycling and the most common office items unsuitable for recycling.) Further, not all municipalities accept the same items for recycling. Where one company may be able to recycle its styrofoam packaging, a company in a different city may not be able to.
- Costs – As previously mentioned, the cost of recycling versus trash pickup is often more expensive partially due to the inefficiency of single-stream systems, the high effort required to sort recyclables and the high risk of material contamination.
- Inconvenience – Employees may be reluctant to participate in recycling programs if it requires them to go out of their way to recycle materials. Conveniently located bins (Ex. in the breakroom or at entryways) with clear signage can help make recycling a natural part of the work day.
- Loss of Interest – Programs that are not routinely monitored and updated risk losing employee interest and participation. Keep recycling and other company green initiatives at the forefront of team meetings and announcements. Schedule quarterly cleanup events – as a company or PTO for individual employees – to give employees something to plan and look forward to.
Whether you’re a sustainability expert or just beginning your green journey, recycling in the office should be at the top of your initiative list. Keep in mind that reducing waste should be your first call to action but for the waste that you can’t get rid of, a well designed and well executed recycling program can minimize its impact. To recap:
The Benefits of Recycling in the Office:
- Enhances company reputation
- Supports sustainability certification
- Creates employee engagement opportunities
- Reveals new revenue streams via material reuse
- Combats landfill waste
- Saves Virgin Resources and Energy
- Creates Jobs and Supports Economic Growth
8 Keys Steps to Implementing a Recycling Program
- Get Senior Management Approval and Support
- Conduct a Waste Audit
- Launch a Green Team
- Develop a Recycling Plan
- Provide Adequate Resources
- Encourage Leadership and Employee Buy-In
- Create Material Reuse Pathways and Partnerships
- Monitor Progress and Make Adjustments
- Lack of education and awareness
- Loss of interest