You don’t have to be a product of the ’70s or even (cough, cough) the ’80s to know the mantra Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. While we’re already firm believers, we here at Hennebery Eddy have recently begun to question just how good of a job we’re doing when it comes to our own waste management. Having myriad recycling containers to help us sort everything from batteries to styrofoam peanuts, in addition to having personal recycling bins for each employee, we had begun to feel pretty confident in our efforts. So with Earth Day 2013 fast approaching, it was time to put our confidence to the test.
First, let me back up. It’s important to state that while the concurrent timing with Earth Day was ideal, the Hennebery Eddy waste audit is just a small part of a much larger effort. Over the next few months we will be surveying and tracking several metrics, including energy consumption and commuting habits, to better understand our carbon footprint. Over the course of one week we collected 15 large bags, comprising all of our recycling and waste, totaling nearly 150 pounds. While gearing up to sort through piles of waste and mentally prepare myself for what I could only imagine would be knee-high surfing in coffee grounds and paper towels, it only seemed appropriate that fate would delay the sorting for a week, allowing the loot to ferment. I met Tonya Allison at Republic Services in Portland (our recycling and waste collector) to begin our waste audit. She outfitted me with plastic gloves, eye protection, and reflective Republic Services vestment, at which point I was ready to dig in. What I initially expected to be a disheveled operation, Tonya had down to a science. Rummaging through trash was actually more like sifting through a sandbox looking for buried treasure, which in this case came in the form of Starbucks coffee cups, unmarked plastics, and to-go food containers.
After two hours of digging, Tonya and I had finally reached the end. We stepped back from the blue tarp and collection buckets and piles of recycling, compost, and waste to take it all in. I was shocked when Tonya delivered the initial findings. Of the 150 pounds collected, only 13.5 pounds were actually solid waste destined for the landfill. Do the math, and that means that 91% of our weekly debris has the potential to be reused or recycled!
The biggest opportunity (32% of our total waste stream) is for the office to resume composting. For several years we composted by collecting food scraps in 5 gallon buckets and disposing them in the home gardens of employee volunteers. Now that we are a 42 person team, however, we have outgrown that model. The results of our audit show the need to return to composting, which along with careful sorting would place us well above the EPA’s published national average recycling rate of 34%. The chart below summarizes the contents of our waste stream.
Through the process of auditing our waste, I was most surprised by how much misinformation there is surrounding recycling. Each waste management facility has its own rules and guidelines for handling waste, so while one facility may accept a certain item, another may not. Tonya explained that contaminated materials, bottle caps, and even our beloved trace paper were often misunderstood. Here are a few of my own preconceptions about what was/wasn’t recyclable, and how they stood up to reality:
Assumption: Contaminated materials cannot be recycled
Reality: False! – Even your week-old leftover-covered to-go box can be composted. As long as it’s not soiled by human waste or coated in another material, it’s good. Don’t dismiss your kitchen waste – contact your provider to determine if composting is available.
Assumption: Bottle caps are bad
Reality: False! (as long as they’re not loose) – I couldn’t believe it – as a child I can remember tediously removing caps because I believed it would ruin a load of recycling, but this proved not to be the case. Tonya corrected me stating that bottle caps should either be securely fastened or thrown out all together. Loose caps can become lodged in the sorting machinery and cause failure of the system.
Assumption: Trace paper can be recycled, just like normal paper
Reality: False! – “Skinny,” “trace,” “bumwad,” whatever you choose to call it, trace paper is thin semi-transparent paper that designers use to sketch on. For a long time we had believed it was recyclable but even Tonya was unsure of this one. After sending samples to the lab to be analyzed, it was determined that trace paper contains so little fiber content that it cannot be effectively recycled.
Assumption: When in doubt, throw it out
Reality: Correct! – Republic Services is able to recycle almost everything but the phrase still holds true – when in doubt, throw it out.
All said, the waste audit was a success! At the end of the day, our habits proved to be fairly progressive. You might say Hennebery Eddy receives an A for effort with above average sorting but with 33% of the total potential diverted waste on the table (so to speak), there is big room for improvement. Looking toward the future we now know what waste streams we can target and the significant impact we can have with the implementation of compost in the office. Stay tuned as we take more steps to reduce our footprint.