Don’t let a recycling program go to waste

Monday, July 29, 2013

It is easy for large commercial properties to start a recycling program. But it is not so easy to make sure tenants are on board and waste diversion is successfully undertaken.

Here, Meirav Even-Har and Jessica Wilkinson of the Recycling Council of Ontario (RCO) explain how property managers can work with building occupants and staff to ensure best recycling practices, and why management should care whether their program is a success.

What role should property managers play in organizing a recycling program in a large-scale commercial, retail or office building?

The key is to be proactive and continually monitor the program.

For day-to-day involvement, the property manager can implement and utilize “green teams” – representatives from different tenants that work on sustainability issues – to engage occupants. Management should also update occupants about the performance of the program.

Managers should work with cleaning staff to make sure they have all the tools they need to ensure proper collection and prevent contamination.

Properties can even work with haulers, waste processors and other receivers such as charities to verify how a given material should be sorted and prepared for removal. One way of doing this is to work with recycling firms to determine which items are actually recyclable. Afterwards, property managers can work to eliminate items that are not reusable or recyclable. Site audits and documentation audits of waste and recycling vendors are a useful tool to achieve this result.

How can property managers monitor tenants to see if they are successfully implementing the recycling program?

A waste audit is a valuable tool in that it looks at where each waste stream originated, allowing the property manager to track performance and report back to occupants on the strengths and needs of the program. Green teams and cleaning staff can also act like waste auditors on a daily basis by recognizing best practices and issuing friendly notices to occupants that are not recycling correctly.

A good relationship with waste and recycling service providers can help determine whether materials were contaminated at the point of removal or at the receiving site such as a transfer station. Some haulers have trained their drivers to document contaminated recycling and even reject loads if a building did not sort items correctly.

Why should property managers care if occupants are using the recycling system successfully?

Waste reduction and diversion is one of the main reporting indicators for companies that publish sustainability reports. A proper recycling program is an integral part of an overall green strategy – and essential if a property or tenant wants to receive recognition for sustainability efforts.

While indicators like energy may represent a larger dollar amount, waste is visible. Therefore, diversion programs are an opportunity to engage visitors and occupants and foster a sense of community. There are many examples where a tenant approaches a building’s management company to implement an organics or battery-recycling program.

Implementing recycling programs, whether in a retail environment or office building, costs money. It only makes sense to ensure it is as efficient and effective as possible. If occupants are contaminating recyclables or do not understand which items can be diverted, it means the property manager is simply wasting its time and resources.

What are common mistakes or pitfalls that property managers should be aware of when starting a new recycling program?

There needs to be a cycle of continued monitoring and improvement. At the start of the program, property managers should evaluate equipment needs. They need the correct tools at the dock, the right collection containers and segregated waste carts for cleaners.

It can be a challenge to educate a building’s occupants on a continuous basis. Markets and technologies change frequently as do tenants and employees. For property managers, keeping the lines of communication open is essential to keeping everyone up-to-date.

Being able to measure the amount of waste reduced and diverted correctly is also important. Traditionally, building diversion rates were the only solid waste performance indicator. However, the diversion rate is not always the best measuring stick – it does not incentivize the property to reduce waste because the calculation does not reflect reductions (which generates the greatest return).

Keeping track of normalized waste generation data (such as the total tonnes per occupant or mall visitor per year) is a more appropriate measure of reduction. Buildings should measure and report on waste reduction year-over-year. The focus should always be on reducing waste through procurement rules with the end of life in mind, including related packaging.

Another potential problem is relying too heavily on diversion reports generated by waste haulers. Typically, no one verifies the numbers. The benchmark weights can also be out of date or not tracked at all (such as paper shredding services).

As a best practice, systematic waste audits and waste inspections should be part of the regular operations of a building. Management should communicate the findings from these inspections to building occupants and green teams.

Meirav Even-Har works for the Recycling Council of Ontario (RCO). She is the program manager of the RCO’s 3RCertified, a voluntary points-based certification program for the industrial, commercial and institutional sectors in Ontario that focuses on solid waste reduction and diversion. Jessica Wilkinson is the technical advisor to the 3RCertified program and is the president of Working Knowledge Inc., which specializes in cultivation of effective environmental management systems. Meirav and Jessica can be reached at and, respectively.

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