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Start a building-wide recycling program

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Starting a building-wide recycling program to help to support systems that transform trash into new products, reduce disposal costs, and prevent new resources from being used. All of these measures combined cut energy and water consumption, too!

How to start a building-wide recycling program

What follows are some tips for creating a recycling program—a vital component to your waste reduction scheme successful. If you haven’t already, perform a waste audit and then create a waste reduction plan.

  • Appoint a recycling coordinator: They should be enthusiastic about the environment, strong communicators, respected among other stakeholders, familiar with the implementation of a recycling program, and able to evaluate its effectiveness. Their responsibilities will include researching and launching the program, getting other employees or residents involved, and evaluating the program once it's begun. In an office environment, it's a good idea to choose people from your office’s green team so they're aware of other green projects in your business.
  • Get support from decision-makers and key personnel: This will increase participation and enthusiasm for your recycling program. For businesses, this will include top management, mail room staff, technology staff, custodians, and so on.
  • Determine program type: How your building is organized will strongly influence how your recycling program will function.
    • A tenant-run program is managed exclusively by those occupying the building without input from building owners or property managers. Although inexpensive, these programs tend to be less effective.
    • Shared-tenant recycling programs are coordinated by tenants and property managers. They can be problematic, although somewhat more effective than tenant-run programs.
    • Full-service programs have the highest success rates since property managers take an active role (they often collect the revenue from discarded materials). This results in higher participation rates and lower instances of contamination (combining recyclables, such as glass and aluminum, that should be separated for more efficiency, or discarding non-recyclable food scraps or other items that might cause recyclables to be rejected because they're unsafe or dirty).
  • Evaluate available collection methods: Will all recyclable materials be commingled in a single-stream (collected together in the same bin)? Or will they be separated into individual bins (white paper separate from colored paper; tins separate from bottles and cans, etc.) in a multi-stream fashion? Separating recyclables on-site will require more education and additional bins, and could reduce rates of participation. However, there may be a higher market value for separated materials. On the other hand, commingling materials may cause greater contamination and therefore lower market value.
  • Decide whether recyclables will be picked-up or dropped off: Some municipalities provide recycling pick-up for businesses as well as residents, so check before you employ a private recycling company. If you're a smaller business, you may not produce enough waste to warrant hiring a recycling company. Instead, you'll have to drop them off at a local recycling center. A few employees or residents might be encouraged to take turns transporting them.
  • Choose a preferred service provider: For those who have to hire an outside company, call around to find one that will provide the best service. Don’t forget to ask if there are financial reimbursements and incentives for your recyclables—in some instances you can actually get paid for recycling your trash! If you get stuck, check the Yellow Pages under ‘recycling’ or ‘waste removal’ (some traditional garbage haulers offer recycling as well), or check with your local chamber of commerce for ideas.
  • Consider resource management (RM) contractors: These programs work by compensating waste collectors based on whether waste reduction goals are met rather than on the volume of waste collected. This way, they're encouraged to work with you to prevent waste and provide the most cost-effective methods for recycling.
  • Set up collection stations: Be sure to provide clearly marked, conveniently-located bins. Signs should indicate the why's, what's, how's, and where's of the program. Make sure the bins look different from trash cans. Office collection stations should include small bins beside each desk for paper (very important for success), larger ones in the kitchen for various food-related recyclables, large bins near photocopiers for paper, and so on. Consider coordinating bin colors to match those used by your municipality’s curbside pickup program so that employees easily identify what goes in each bin.
  • Designate a storage area for recyclables: Often, individual bins will overflow before the recycling is picked up, so find a place to store recyclables until they're taken away.
  • Promote your program: Distribute memos (email preferably) and signs and conduct short information sessions. And don’t forget to brag about your accomplishments to clients, board members, neighbors, and other external stakeholders.
  • Evaluate your program: Measure your waste and recycling efforts and compare to the baseline you developed in your waste audit. Then let residents and staff provide feedback and ideas on how to improve the program. The more they're involved, the more likely they'll remain engaged. You may need to provide further education if contamination is a problem or adjust the frequency of pick-up if it's too often or not enough. Celebrate your successes by communicating them to the various stakeholders, including cost savings, revenue increases, resources saved, and so on.

Find it! Recycling companies

For a comprehensive list of recycling companies, consult Earth 911's website, which has a listing of recycling services that is searchable by state or zip code.

Starting a building-wide recycling program helps you go green because...

  • Buildings create a significant amount of waste, much of which can be reused for other purposes. Recycling rather than trashing prevents new resources from being harvested, reduces operational costs, and keeps additional trash from ending up in landfills.

Commercial businesses in the United States generate waste equal to the weight of 1,125,000 elephants every year,[1] which is roughly 35-45 percent of the total waste stream. The bulk of commercial waste is paper, but also includes organic matter, metal, plastics, glass, electronics, and wood. Fifty-five percent of all waste in the US is generally discarded, 12.5 percent is incinerated, and only 32.5 percent is recycled.[2] In 2006, almost 34 percent of the 251 million tons of municipal waste in the US was paper, by far the largest percentage of total waste.[3] Office workers use 10,000 sheets of paper each year, which when combined, is enough to build a wall 12 feet high from New York City to Los Angeles.[4] Some estimate that only 10 percent of this paper is being recycled.[5]

An equally important component of office waste is electronics—the fastest growing portion of the US waste stream, rising at rates around 8 percent annually.[6] According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), by 2005, 250 million computers in the US became obsolete.[7] The waste generated by these electronics will include 1 billion pounds of lead, about 2 million pounds of cadmium, 1.2 million pounds of chromium, more than 4 billion pounds of plastic, and almost 400,000 pounds of mercury. However, fewer than 10 percent of these outdated electronics are updated or recycled; the rest end up in landfills or incinerators where they can then enter the water or air supply and cause harm to human and ecosystem health. The toxic qualities of lead have been well documented and it is already banned from many uses. The toxicity of mercury is well known as well, and it is potent in acute quantities. Just 1/70th of a teaspoon of mercury can pollute and contaminate a 20-acre lake, rendering its fish unsuitable for consumption.[8]

Many are beginning to see waste as a source of raw materials rather than repository for unusable trash.[9] Recycling has numerous ecological and financial advantages. It reduces energy, water and material costs, protects and expands manufacturing jobs, cuts landfill requirements, decreases pollution including greenhouse gas emissions, and conserves natural ecosystems.[10][11]

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