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Waste is inevitable. We create waste at home when we pull out paper plates for dinner, or when we pack groceries into plastic shopping bags. We create waste at school when opting for single-use classroom supplies, or when we make laminated paper copies for the entire class. The workplace is no different—regardless of our work environment, people create waste that requires dealing with on a loop. Given the current battle with our rapidly depleting natural resources, the waste we generate at work is a valid source of energy that can be continuously re-examined in terms of how the load can be lessened through current recycling and energy-saving practices.

On average, the U.S. produces about 236 million tons of municipal solid waste annually, while the rates for industrial waste are much higher—some have estimated around 7.6 billion tons of industrial waste produced annually. The positive note is that roughly 75% of this total waste stream is recyclable, considering over half of the average landfill consists of paper, glass, plastic, metals, or food waste. With the right practices set in place, these materials can be rerouted to be reused, which saves energy and lowers personal costs of dealing with waste. However, despite the high recyclability of the waste stream, the harsh reality is that the U.S. is only recycling about 32% of these materials. Looking closer at Prince William County, recycling rates for our community are made available each year once all annual recycling reports have been filed. These reports are required from all county businesses, large quantity waste generators, and solid waste and recycling haulers; they provide a glimpse at the quantity and quality of trash and recycling practices within an establishment. Recycling rates in Prince William don’t fare much higher than the current national average. During 2021, only 38.2% of the county waste stream was recycled. An optimist might note that this number does exceed the county mandated 25% recycling rate, and is more promising than past years’ rates. But what’s the larger cost of this, the concerning note? Recycling benefits businesses—reduced raw material costs, increased profitability, a minimized carbon footprint, support for the economy, and more. Many companies are unaware of how such small changes in the office can lead to positive financial and environmental impacts.

All businesses have their own goals and needs that must be met in order to remain open. The more realistic that companies can be about their recycling potential whilst considering these needs, the more likely they are to maintain said practices. Business’ employees should first convene to verbally establish that they want to reduce their carbon footprint and work more sustainably. This stage is a chance to educate employees on the benefits of recycling, brainstorm ideas as a team, and ensure that these new ideas can be implemented with little disruption. Helping employees feel invested in this process leads to much stronger participation.

Before brainstorming possible changes, employees should conduct a waste audit for the workplace to better understand their sources and quantity of waste. These numbers can be organized into a waste management plan that outlines recycling goals and a step-by-step process for the year. To conduct a waste audit, businesses can designate a team member to lead the initiative and keep the project on track, or a small committee of interested individuals can serve as a ‘Sustainability Team’. As a first step, they can decide when the best time to evaluate their typical trash output would be for the organization.

Determining your businesses’ categories of waste for an audit involves reporting your most common types of trash thrown out within a set period of time. Those running the project can discuss how they choose to weigh and record numbers, and ensure that they will be safely equipped to handle any waste their organization produces. Results of the audit can help reveal how much waste is being recycled, or going to the landfill, as well as where the highest amounts are coming from in the workplace. 

What do you do after gathering this information? Methods of recycling will vary by business, and some are simpler than others. Once a business has evaluated their waste output, they need to analyze the findings. Did the highest categories differ between departments? Did you find any recyclables mixed in with the trash? The answers to questions like these will determine what kinds of recycling practices are most needed and realistic for your business. Before implementing ideas, those running the audit should communicate with the entire team on what they found and discuss the impact of any adjustments made in the workplace.

It’s easy to overcomplicate green alternatives, but small changes can significantly reduce your waste. Dedicated collection areas can be thoughtfully placed and adequately labeled; for instance, scrap paper could be collected next to the printer, or the recycling bin could have an attached list of acceptable materials. There could also be a need for added collection boxes, such as for e-waste disposal or even compost. Through additional research, companies may be able to connect with other local businesses that handle waste who might be interested in accepting or setting up a transportation arrangement. For example, there may not be an employee who composts and would like the extra compost from work, but there are public facilities, such as the Balls Ford Road Yard Waste and Compost Facility, who are able to help.

Businesses may also examine what tools and equipment they are constantly buying more of and instead research reusable options or even ways to rent the materials. Perhaps employees try going paperless for certain processes in the workplaces, if not all, or they redesign product packaging to minimize raw materials needed. There are so many ways to reduce waste from our desks—get creative and don’t let initial kinks in the process deter you. Meet with your fellow employees today and see what’s possible!

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