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Surviving a Waste Audit
Commercial recycling and waste management by Roger Guzowski

Sep 06, 2011

Roger Guzowski


Operations, Planning, Waste and Recycling

Surviving a Waste Audit, Part 1

Whether you are just starting out, or trying to figure out what to do next, you can’t divert stuff out of the trash if you don’t know what’s available in the trash to be diverted.

So how do you get there? The oversimplified answer is that you have to look in the trash to find out. Actually, I’ll amend that. There are really 4 things you can do that will help you to figure out what’s in the trash to be diverted:

You found what in there?

How you look in the trash depends on what you want to accomplish. What level of detail do you need? Do you want a general idea of what is being thrown away? Or do you need an exact % of each commodity left in the trash.

If the latter, then you probably want to do a full-scale waste sort. Just be aware that a sort is no small task – and no clean one.

You need a space to do the sorting. That can be tricky to get. When you approach someone and say, I want to dump open a bunch of bags of trash in this space and sort through it, don’t be shocked if your first answer is not an overwhelmingly enthusiastic one. If you have adequately planned for the sort and are persistent, eventually you can usually find a space, even if it is not your first choice of one.

You need to make sure that your space is adequately ventilated. Eau de dumpster is not a smell you want in a confined space for long.

It needs to be a space that you can clean up easily. Mixed trash is rarely dry and trash juice is not something you want to leave on your floors, walls, or clothes. One little trick I have learned over the years is that if the trash is already in a bag or bin, don’t dump that bag or bin. Lift the items out of that container and leave the wet slop in the bottom. Trust me, if you ever do a waste sort, someday you will thank me for that advice.

You need safety equipment. That means at a minimum puncture-resistant nitrile gloves. I actually recommend a full tyvek coverall (again trash juice is not something you want on your clothes or even worse your skin). I also recommend eye protection and even some sort of mask. The last thing you want to do is spend time in a hospital or infirmary because you got a shard or squirt of the wrong stuff in your eye or mouth.

Depending on the level of tactile experience you want, I highly recommend a set of long-handled pincer-style cooking tongs. Every time I do a waste audit with a group of folks new to the experience, there always seems to be a point where some of the newbies get a little too excited about actually touching the trash. I can’t explain it, but I have seen it far too many times to discount the phenomenon. After you have done a couple of these though, your interest in using tongs to do the sorting seems to go up exponentially.

One advantage of a full-blown waste sort is that you sometimes find very fascinating things you weren’t even looking for. I don’t just mean finding some exotic novelty item (although there is usually at least one of those “conversation pieces” in every sort). I mean finding a trend that you didn’t realize was an issue. I worked with one school in which we were sorting residence hall waste (not a job for the squeamish I might add) to see what traditional recyclables were still being thrown away. What we found is that we had a much bigger problem with disposable take out cups than we did with recyclables in the trash. Because of the sort, we were able to shift our focus more to getting folks to use reusable mugs instead of doing extra unneeded recycling training.

One thing to beware of when doing a trash sort though, is that the sort only gives you a snapshot of the time and pace that you sorted. You have to be very careful about extrapolating that data. For example, sorting residence hall trash on a Saturday morning will reveal a very different mix of materials than sorting residence hall trash on a Tuesday morning. If you don’t have both data points, you are going to have an inaccurate extrapolation.

If you are not sure you want this level of intimacy with your waste, fear not. There are other ways to determine what’s in your waste. Ways that I will discuss in Part 2.