by Dan Studer — This article originally appeared in the September/October 2019 issue of FMJ
The International Statistic of the Year for 2018 was 90.5 percent. Most facility managers won’t be surprised to learn that number is the amount of plastic waste that has never been recycled. Globally, around 6,300 million metric tons of plastic have been disposed of, according to a 2017 study published in Science Advances. Of that waste, 79 percent ended up in landfills (or the ocean), while another 12 percent was incinerated.
Sustainability efforts and ambitious recycling goals have been implemented to address the global waste problem. But how do facility managers know they’re getting the right size solution for their campus or real estate portfolio? And how has the 2017 China recycling ban factored into environmental regulations, the cost of waste disposal, and internal corporate responsibility goals?
The “hidden costs” of waste
Anyone who’s been in the facilities industry for more than a few years knows the garbage and recycling market can fluctuate wildly every decade or so. Some years haulers offer rebates for recycling, while other years disposal costs spike. In the past, these fluctuations were often written off as the cost of doing business.
However, the latest recycling ban has caused many FMs to reevaluate their waste generation and trash solutions. Recycling costs have risen as much as 70 percent in areas with steep environmental fees, and landfill tip fees have gone up more than 6 percent across the United States since 2018. The national average rose from $51.82 in 2017 to $55.11 in 2018—and those fees are passed on to facility managers. Globally, the situation isn’t any better.
“Reduce, reduce, reduce” has been the mantra in the facilities industry for the last five or so years—with good reason. Environmental regulations seem to change every year, and it helps to have a waste solution partner who understands the complexities of changing waste disposal fees and regulations. Reducing waste is the first line of defense for cutting disposal costs.
FMs know all too well the amount of garbage generated within the walls of their facilities. The Frontier Group, a policy research organization, estimates people throw away seven pounds of materials—per person—every day in the United States. Multiply that by the number of workers in an office complex or residents in a housing facility, and that is a lot of garbage.
How to perform a waste audit
A waste audit, or waste assessment, will establish a baseline for future waste reduction efforts. Use past records and walk-throughs to create a thorough evaluation of how waste is managed in the building. For pre-made PDFs to document your findings, visit www.epa.gov/smm/instructions-conducting-waste-assessments.
- Examine waste records.
- Review waste hauling and disposal invoices, recycling contracts, supply invoices and operating and maintenance logs.
- Identify costs associated with each phase of collecting and removing waste.
- Walk through the facility.
- Observe where waste is produced and where it ends up.
- Talk with members of each function area or department to find out what type of waste is produced and where it’s taken.
- Conduct a waste sort.
- Physically collect, sort and weigh one day’s worth of waste.
- Decide how to quantify the waste—typical categories include paper, plastic, metal, organic material.
- Determine which materials can be exchanged, sold, reused or recycled.
Whether an FM manages one location or 500, trash collection is often a trade-off between paying the high cost of a major waste service company (and not knowing if you’re paying for the right size dumpsters), or having to navigate a maze of multiple local vendors, plus one or more trash contracts, and the sometimes imprecise art of calculating how many dumpsters are needed to meet demand.
With most garbage contracts, the cost is calculated based on the size of the dumpsters and the frequency of pickup. But what happens when the dumpsters are regularly overflowing, and high overage fees show up on invoices? This is especially true now that more recycling is deemed contaminated, rejected by recycling facilities, and it ends up with the regular waste stream.
Even if a garbage hauler accurately predicted the amount of waste for a building a year or five years ago, there are other considerations to keep in mind.
First, take a look at the building’s location. Some locations are prone to illegal or after-hours dumping. If the facility is in a remote area, or if it’s near other retail or restaurant establishments where employees might throw garbage in the wrong dumpsters—that’s extra volume that will likely end up on the invoice.
A waste solution provider should do more than provide a questionnaire. A tour of the location and a waste audit will provide the right number and size of dumpsters and the right collection schedule for the location.
Or, sometimes just as bad, the opposite can happen. What happens if a large tenant decides to offer telecommute or flex-time to employees, or there’s a major build-out scheduled and parts of the facility will be vacant? Now half-empty dumpsters are being emptied, but the invoice hasn’t dropped a penny.
The same will be true if a building’s occupants successfully implement waste reduction programs that lower the amount of garbage generated. For example, investing in glass and ceramic dishware cuts down on paper and plastic waste. Depending on the facility, balers and compactors can also be used to help cut down on waste volume. These programs have a positive effect on the amount of waste generated—but is the waste contract keeping up with these new volumes?
Audits and cutting costs
When a waste disposal contract is signed, there’s usually a questionnaire and a quote and that’s the end of the relationship between FM and hauler. However, it’s more beneficial to stay in touch with a waste specialist or someone involved in the waste industry who provides service for a lot of different types of properties. A customer-oriented waste provider can point out location and waste reduction considerations, but they can also help navigate changing environmental regulations and fees.
Take recycling fees. Only a couple of years ago haulers offered deep rebates for recycling. That led to a boom in recycling efforts that were good for the environment and created new opportunities for corporate social responsibility initiatives. Recycling programs became mainstream and contamination was rarely, if ever, mentioned as a problem.
Now, FMs around the world are struggling to keep up with the drastic rise in recycling costs. “Commodity Adjustment Fees” are rising as high as 75 percent more than last year in some regions. This doesn’t mean companies are abandoning recycling, but it does mean it helps to have a waste partner to help navigate these fees. It also means FMs have to find ways to offset those costs.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency offers the following steps to reduce commercial waste and help keep costs under control:
- Track waste and recycling to get a baseline of how much waste the facility is generating. In other words, conduct a waste audit. (See sidebar.)
- Create a waste reduction team to plan, design, and implement a waste reduction program.
- Set short- and long-term goals.
- Gather and analyze data related to activities.
- Secure support from management and key leadership.
- Offer incentives and create rewards.
- Monitor and report program results to management and employees.
- Use the program results to improve waste prevention practices.
Taking these steps will identify areas where waste can be reduced. Even a small reduction in the waste stream across multiple properties can lead to significant overall savings on waste and recycling services.
Finally, consider re-evaluating the current waste contract, especially if it was signed prior to 2018 when the recycling ban really began to affect recycling costs. The market has changed significantly in the last year, and there may be other options available to lower the cost of disposal and recycling.
Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made. Geyer, Roland, et.al. Science Advances, July 2017. https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/3/7/e1700782.full
Frontier Group: Trash in America
Environmental Research & Education Foundation: Analysis of MSW Landfill Tipping Fees, April 2018
World Bank: Trends in Solid Waste Management
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency WasteWise Program
About the author
Dan Studer started in the waste and recycling industry in 2002 and spent seven years in local and regional operational roles for top-tier waste companies. As a major account executive in both the Chicago and Houston markets, Dan has worked with industrial and commercial clients to analyze and “right-size” waste streams for large-scale facilities and multi-property portfolios across the country. He specializes in creating custom service plans for major commercial clients. Dan is the division manager for commercial waste at ZTERS Waste Solutions, www.zters.com.