Our Waste Experts Answer Your Top Trashy Questions

Arnold Bowers, Business Solutions Director at ENGIE Insight

Waste is not usually a hot topic of conversation, unless you’re ENGIE Insight Waste Experts, Kristin Kinder and Arnold Bowers. With decades of experience managing waste programs, from contract negotiation and bill resolution to waste audits and employee engagement, these two are always excited to talk trash and share their wealth of knowledge with our clients, our soon-to-be clients, and pretty much anyone else who will listen.

Kristin and Arnold recently hosted a Garbage Whispering webinar to discuss how using quantitative and qualitative data can help you understand your waste story. The webinar ended with so many great questions, we couldn’t even get to them all, so Kristin and Arnold have answered the most frequent questions we receive about waste.

Regulations

As regulations grow, the more you know about your waste stream, the better prepared you will be to ensure you’re not in some type of violation.

Regulations across the United States are increasing. Some focus on diversion, others on packaging and banning materials. The states of California, New York, Florida, Nevada, Colorado, Indiana and Michigan all heavily regulate their waste programs, but increasingly, more cities are pushing for change as well.

Q: How do businesses stay up to date on regulations?

Because regulations can be implemented and enforced at the federal, state, county and even city level, having a comprehensive, current view of regulations can be challenging, especially for multisite companies across the country.

Here are a few tools that can help:

  • ENGIE Insight tracks major regulations across waste and energy.
  • Most city regulations we see are educationally motivated (versus punitive), so municipalities will often mail educational materials to those directly impacted by new regulations.
  • Regulated medical waste providers often share quarterly updates about regulation changes.

Q: Do any states have strict regulations and fines for companies that don’t perform third-party audits?

In the U.S., we often see the need for audits arising indirectly as a result of other regulations. Because a waste audit provides quantitative insight into what’s in your waste stream, it’s the most direct way to determine compliance.  Smart companies are proactively auditing their waste to ensure compliance with existing regulations.

For example, the State of California currently requires that businesses generating over four cubic yards of organic waste per week must divert it from the landfill into separate organics collection. A waste audit will not only tell a business if they qualify for the new regulations, it will also give them insight into how to build their program.

Q: What is happening with recycling markets and cost of service?

Worldwide, we see pressure from China refusing cardboard and some plastics and tightening up their standards for contamination (accepting less than .5 percent). They recently released new standards for scrap.

This can impact the cost of service, because haulers are more likely to charge for contaminated recycling loads, and that can also impact rebates back to businesses. We’ve also seen the value of cardboard decrease (currently down almost 40 percent from 2017 values). We are still trying to understand the long-term impacts. While it is still best to divert as much from the landfill as possible, this is a powerful reminder that recycling is a dynamic industry. Volatility in the recycling markets elevates the importance of reducing waste.

Diversion

The current national average landfill fee is around $50 per ton.

Did you know that you pay twice for all the materials that are unnecessarily sent to landfills? Not only are you paying to dispose of them, you could also generate revenue from materials like cardboard and metals.

When these end up in your waste stream, you’re missing an opportunity to get paid for them, and you’re also paying a hauler to take them away.

As more companies are setting goals to reduce waste, increasing diversion is more important than ever, and a good diversion program begins with data.

Q: How do you verify the volume generated in frontload dumpsters since haulers typically don’t weigh them?

Verifying the volume of waste that you generate can be important for two reasons. One, you’re paying for the size of your container, so if you don’t fill it, you’re overpaying. Two, if you have set diversion and reduction goals, knowing exactly how much is in your garbage, recycling, and organics containers will help you accurately track your progress.

New technologies are emerging to measure real-time container fullness. They are also starting to inspire insight into levers that impact waste volumes – everything from holiday weekends in retail to new onsite management.

Of course, the simple way works well too. Visually inspecting the container just before your service day will also provide actionable data. Additionally, weighing a few bags and recording their volume will create a conversion factor to estimate the weight of material in your container. We estimate that a yard of garbage, including food and true trash, weighs about 60 pounds.

Q: What if I don’t have a local option for composting food waste or paper towels?

First, we recommend quantifying the amount of food waste you generate through a waste audit. This will help you find the best program available. From hog farms to on-site treatment, many programs and technologies manage organic waste. When we look for the best solution for our clients, we analyze their goals, the type and volume of organic material generated, and processing availability in that region.

When you’re limited on options for organics processors, consider how and why you’re wasting food in the first place.  Can you change your purchasing to ensure you’re using all the food you’re buying? Have you considered donating to food shelters? Are there better ways to prepare/use food so less is wasted? Do you need to cut back on serving portions for sit down dining? Waste audit data can help you answer many of these questions.

Waste Audits

Place collection containers where waste is generated, color code them, and use simple, graphic signage.

Did we mention we like waste audits?! A waste audit is a scientific study of your waste stream, like an archaeological dig. Understanding the composition of your waste opens up new insights and solutions to save money.

  • In food service, hospitality, retail and grocery, you’ll understand what types of waste your own operations are generating and how food waste affects your hauling costs.
  • Healthcare companies can ensure they are disposing of only appropriate items and complying with safety and privacy regulations.
  • Property managers can understand how much each of their tenants are generating, so they can bill back appropriately.
  • Retailers, often in shared waste programs, can learn more about how much waste they generate and its composition, and ensure they are being charged for only the waste their own operations generate.

Understanding your waste can lead to smaller containers, less frequent pickups, and reduced hauling fees.

Q: How do you recommend sampling from multi-site companies?

The sweet spot for a representative sample depends on the industry and our client’s goals. Generally, we suggest finding metrics to break up your portfolio. This could be by revenue (higher vs. lower), geography, or location type (distribution centers vs. stores, restaurants with a drive-thru vs. without, etc.). Sample a few sites within those divisions to start. Analyzing bills can often provide helpful data for determining where to focus the initial sample.

If you see consistencies in the data within your groupings, your sample size might be large enough. If you see discrepancies, we recommend auditing more sites.

Q: How long should I expect a full audit process to take?

Audit planning depends on our client’s sites, types of containers, their haulers, goals, and availability. To properly achieve our clients’ goals, we prefer about six weeks for planning. However, we’ve been able to put them together faster.

The audit itself usually takes from half-day to a full-day per site. On the actual audit day, we sort through our representative sample. Our clients often join in on the fun, because it’s a unique experience for them to learn.

Once we have the field data, we compile our report, which can take up to a month, depending on if we’re combining any other data points and the deliverable format our clients prefer.

My favorite part of the process is reviewing the report with our clients because they are fascinated by all that their waste can teach them, inspired to look at their waste differently, and prompted to contribute even more insights to our conversation.

Q: I want to do my own audit; does it require any investment in equipment or tools?

Many of our audits are conducted onsite. A simple investment in a floor scale (which can have many uses for years to come), a safe, preferably covered space, and bins for separating materials (one for each type of recyclable, one for food, one for what is truly waste, etc.) are all that is necessary.

These essential tools enable measuring both weight and volume, key metrics used for reporting.

Q: What is a common thing you see in a company’s trash that shouldn’t be there? What is the strangest thing you have found?

Our waste systems have been designed to be an invisible part of society, so we often forget that our waste never goes away and leaves small traces about our story.

We often come across personal information – old mail, magazines, handouts. Company employees often bring in mail from home or print out purchasing receipts and orders.

One of the craziest things we have found is small airplane bottles of alcohol that came from a back-of-house area, indicating staff may have been drinking on the job.

Once I found an unpublished book. I’m hoping it becomes a New York Times bestseller, so I can have an original copy!

Employee Engagement

The success of waste diversion really hinges on internal employees’ commitment. This can be very challenging, particularly in retail and food service, which can experience high turnover.

When we’ve polled business leaders about their biggest challenge with collecting food waste, 52 percent answered employee behavior! But, remember that motivation starts at the top. When leadership is excited about waste reduction initiatives, employees are more likely to help drive success.

Q: How do I get employees involved?

They key is to create the culture, which is easy to talk about and much harder to do. That’s why it’s one of the most common questions we receive. Here are a few of our best tips:

  • Talk about waste programs during hiring and onboarding. Sustainable actions are increasingly becoming important to Millennials.
  • Design waste programs to be employee friendly – place collection containers where waste is generated, color code them, and use simple, graphic signage.
  • Educate employees on the bigger picture and how their actions impact the company and community. Create measurable goals and post your progress toward them frequently.
  • Tie employee development goals to your diversion programs.

Q: In a building with multiple user groups, how do you best engage with each group to make the changes needed based on waste audit data? How do you get buy-in from those that generate the waste?

Our answer here might feel a little over simplified, but hear us out. From communication channels to size and types of users, every building is different. What do they all have in common? Every program will have resistors; we like to call them the “Reds,” the people who are against everything. The “Greens” already believe in your cause and are working on it. And, the “Yellows” are up for grabs. Engagement programs should focus on influencing them.

Having quantitative data based on a representative sample is hard to argue with. Plus, it can help you identify which users you should focus on to achieve the highest results. While a waste audit won’t magically fix your challenges with multiple users, it changes the conversation from theoretical to tactical and will guide you to the fastest results. Perhaps the users you’re struggling with aren’t even contributing much to the waste stream.

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We hope this has helped answer some of your top waste questions. A waste audit is your most valuable tool to gain the concrete quantitative data, as well as qualitative insights. These are needed to decide next steps, whether it’s choosing new vendors to meet your needs, reducing container sizes, verifying regulatory compliance, purchasing equipment such as compactors or balers, or simply providing better employee education. A wealth of data is waiting to be discovered in your dumpster!

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