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Waste audits: the dirty work of office sustainability

Each year a dedicated group of SERA employees perform a strange ritual, venturing into places most people try not to imagine, let alone touch. While their coworkers are heading home for the day, the group collects all of the office trash, tossing it on the floor to dig in.

Waste audits can be dirty, disgusting work, but SERA has performed them for more than a decade to see how we’re living up to our goal of creating less trash. That involves parsing every Kleenex, bottle cap and half-eaten sandwich that makes its way into the garbage.

The tradition started in 2002, when trash cans were ceremoniously banished from each employee’s desk – even at the principal level. Today, as in 2002, trash bins can only be found in the bathrooms and kitchens. The kitchens are also outfitted with an array of recycling and composting options along with ample sorting instructions and signage.

Infographic: How to conduct a waste audit.

Infographic: How to conduct a waste audit.

Download SERA’s Waste Audit Tracking Sheet

“Waste audits provide a snap shot of one our impacts as an organization on the planet and help us to focus our energy and efforts when we slip,” explained Michael Barrett, a Master Recycler and one of this year’s auditors. “We don’t know how we’re actually doing as an office until we start to measure it.”

After analyzing the data from three covert audits over the course of a few weeks, the results are shared at SERA all-staff meetings. This is a good time to talk with staff about missed opportunities to reduce our waste and find solutions for common mistakes. This year we found a lot of single-use coffee cups in the trash, so the waste audit team reminded staff how to recycle the cardboard sleeves and plastic lids (which we contract with a third party to collect).

a stack of disposable paper cups

In their presentation to staff, waste auditors showed that bringing a reusable mug to nearby cafes could save them up to $3.50 per week, or $182 every year. Demonstrating a direct benefit to employees is most effective in influencing behavior change.

Whatever the challenges each year, finding out how to help employees be better stewards of the 3Rs is what the conversation is all about.

So how’d we do?

Taking into account The City of Portland’s new rules banning paper towels from commercial composting, SERA is still knocking our diversion rate out of the park, says Barrett. Each week, the average commercial business in Portland generates 18.4 pounds per employee in waste. SERA generated a meager 2.4 pounds/employee/week last year.

Barrett notes that while the metropolitan average includes restaurants and grocery stores (big trash generators), our Portland office is still among the top for waste diversion. The new rules prohibiting paper towel composting did impact our numbers, so the staff is investigating alternate hand-drying options for the bathrooms.

“It’s tough seeing our numbers move in the opposite direction,” said Barrett, “But I try to keep in mind recycling is a fluid, market driven business and if there is enough demand an alternate to the landfill may open up again.”

Here’s a look at how much waste we produce each year at our Portland office:

Results of our 2015 Waste Audit

Results of our 2015 Waste Audit

Finally, Barrett offers tried and true advice:

“Getting it right is important, but we also have a great deal of power to impact what we buy and toss out. Remember, first reduce. Then reuse and recycle!”

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