I think anyone should experience a full-blown waste sort at least once. As a learning experience, it is a real eye opener. However, I don’t think it is often necessary to determine whether or not you should target something for recycling or waste reduction efforts.
There are really 4 things you can do that will help you to figure out what’s in the trash to be diverted:
- Look in the trash to see what’s in there.
- Look at your purchasing records to see what you are buying that will eventually be thrown away.
- Talk to the staff that handle stuff every day to see what they are seeing.
- Look at your peers. What have they managed to divert compared to what you have?.
Looking in the trash doesn’t necessarily mean getting as intimate with your trash as you do with a full-blown waste sort. If there is enough of something to target, you can often tell, just by looking into a dumpster or trash can. Big stuff like cardboard, or scrap metal, or electronics don’t hide well in a dumpster and you often don’t need to do much sorting to find them if they are still being thrown into the trash.
Another option is to look at what you buy. This is a much less messy option than doing a waste sort. It is often a nice follow up to a visual inspection of a dumpster, to give you some numeric certainty to confirm what your eyes are telling you when you look into a bin. Just be aware though that you do need to use some common sense when looking at purchasing records. Not everything purchased by a facility will be used in that facility. For example a campus alumnae association purchases a tremendous amount of publications, but the majority of those are mailed off campus – thus those purchases should be excluded if you are trying to use purchasing records to extrapolate the campus waste stream. Conversely, there are wastes, like the free newspaper ninjas (seriously do you have another explanation for how all those free papers appear on college campuses when no one ever seems to see them delivered?), that could be a significant portion of your waste stream that will not show up in purchasing records.
Want a foolproof way to figure out what could be diverted? Ask the folks who deal with it every day! Want to know what’s in the trash? Ask a custodian. It has never ceased to amaze me over the years how accurate they are in their perceptions and unfortunately how underappreciated they often are. Likewise, if you want to know what your facility buys, ask the folks in the mailroom and the shipping/receiving warehouse. Want to know how much waste gets left on the plates that could be composted? Ask the folks in the dishroom. Want to know how much food prep waste there is? Ask the foodservice folks in the kitchen. All of these different folks see this stuff every day. Use their observations. Trust me – you’ll be glad that you did. My last piece of advice if you are trying to figure out what to recycle, is to look at your peers. Every facility is a little different, but every facility is made up of individual elements. The waste from each of those elements is often remarkably similar. If you can figure out what a peer facility is doing about each element, you can project fairly accurately how that would translate to your facilities unique mix of those same elements.
How does your recovery rate compare to theirs? Recycling rates have gotten a little nutty in recent years, so you have to be a bit careful these days to ensure that you are comparing apples to apples. Be sure to try to mine down into that recycling rate data to find their apple data, so that you are not comparing something like “apples to total fruit”.
Also note that comparisons for some facilities that might be easier than that of others. Colleges and Universities for example tend to be pretty open about sharing information. Commercial facilities can be less open about sharing info with competitors.
Doing a full blown waste sort gives you a unique “learning experience.” However, piecing together several bits of information can often give you as accurate, and sometime more accurate information than a waste sort will. And it involves less mess in the process.