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How to Start an Office Recycling Program (And Why You Should)

How to Start an Office Recycling Program (And Why You Should)

Posted by Trashcans Unlimited on 14th May 2015

Sustainability and green initiatives are becoming widespread in modern business culture. One of the easiest ways for your company to help the environment is to start an office recycling program. Much of the common waste in your office (paper, cans, etc.) is recyclable. Starting a recycling program not only benefits the environment, but can also save you money on operating costs and waste disposal expenses. A recycling program for your office can be the first step toward a more sustainable and ecologically-friendly world, and we’re here to help you do it. With the following steps and know-how, you’ll have a better way forward for your business’s waste management in no time.

Read on to find out more about the recycling process, why it is needed, and tips for starting your own at-work recycling program.

earth has a trash-problem

Why You Should Start An Office Recycling Program— The Cost Of Human Waste By The Numbers

It should go without saying that Earth has a trash problem. In 2018, Americans produced over 292 million tons of garbage. That’s roughly 5 pounds per person per day. Though America is home to only 4% of the world’s population, it is responsible for 12% of the planet’s trash. Approximately 35% of total trash is produced by businesses and schools, with the other 65% coming from private citizens. Sadly, only 33% of all trash gets recycled, 12.5% gets incinerated, while the other 58% takes up space in landfills.

This can lead to groundwater pollution and an increase in greenhouse gases due to methane releases. As the waste stream continues to grow, so will the pressures on our landfills, our resources, and our environment. Water, air, and soil pollution, acid rain, climate change, extinction events– the list of the negative consequences of wastefulness goes on.

Pretty intense stuff, yeah? Well, recycling can help.

Quick Facts About Recyclable Materials

Quick Facts About Recyclable Materials

About 75% of what we throw away can be recycled, but sadly only 30% is actually recycled. But you can make a difference. If everyone recycled more of the materials they used, we could make a huge difference:

  • Aluminum: Aluminum can be recycled an endless number of times. An aluminum can you throw away can be recycled into a new can and back in use in as little as two months!
  • Paper: If we recycled every newspaper in America, we would save 250 million trees every year!
  • Plastic: When you recycle plastic it saves double the energy required to incinerate it.
  • Glass: Recycling one glass bottle saves enough energy to light a compact fluorescent light bulb for 20 hours.

We can do better. Here’s how.

How To Start An Office Recycling Program

Starting a recycling program for your office isn’t as hard as you may think. The key is to plan it in phases.

Stage 1: Practice Waste Prevention

One of the most important components of any recycling program is not just the recycling itself–there’s also waste reduction and prevention. Remember: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, in that order.

Step 1. Reduce

There are many ways to make an office more environmentally friendly, and it starts with a reduction in materials used, which is not only good for the environment, but it also saves money.

Here are a few ideas for office waste reduction:

  • Set computers, printers, photocopiers, and other devices to the most efficient settings to reduce toner, paper, and electricity usage.
  • Make materials and resources available electronically to reduce the amount of paper and toner used.
  • Purchase products made with recycled materials.
  • Get products with minimal to no packaging.
  • Purchase products in bulk, but don’t over purchase.
  • Purchase from environmentally conscious vendors that practice waste reduction as part of their daily business.

Step 2. Reuse

This one is simple–wherever you can reuse something, do it. Reuse not only prolongs the life of the packaging in question, but it also delays the final disposal or recycling of the object used.

Here’s a few ways you can reuse things at an office:

  • Reuse boxes and packaging whenever possible.
  • Reuse office furniture and supplies.
  • Get durable and reusable towels, tablecloths, and napkins.
  • Use glass food storage containers instead of disposal wrapping.
  • Switch to refillable dispensers for cleaning products in every room.
  • Avoid paper products other than toilet paper in the bathrooms.
  • Use dishware and silverware to serve meals instead of disposable plates and utensils.
  • Instead of selling bottled water, use a water dispenser.

Step 3. Donate & Recycle

Finally, the last step– recycling. You can prevent landfill waste by donating lightly used products and materials to charities and nonprofits. For example, you can donate canned, and non-perishable food to a local food bank. Donate unwanted supplies to local schools or nonprofit organizations. This is one of the best ways to ensure that you are not just throwing things away. 

Stage 2: Plan & Research to Start an Office Recycling Program

Every office recycling plan worth anything starts with a lot of planning and research.

Step 1. Form a Green Team

Having an employee who is tasked with figuring out what will be disposed of is a great first step. While recycling programs are a group effort that requires the participation of the entire office staff to be successful, a dedicated team can be more effective. An office recycling brigade can spearhead recycling efforts. It helps to have a point person to make decisions and reduce confusion. Create a Waste Coordinator or Office Manager position to do exactly this.

  • Draw up a recycling policy that will outline important recycling rules that help your employees recycle the right way, and reduce confusion and mistakes.
  • Set a collection and sorting schedule for how often to maintain recycling bins to make sure recycling doesn’t pile up between pickups.
  • Make sure others know the pickup and maintenance procedures.
  • Use a spreadsheet to track the type, quantity, and location in buildings where recycling can occur.

Step 2. Figure Out the Stream

First, you need to take stock of what you're throwing out every day and then figure out what part of this is recyclable. One of the best ways to do this is to conduct a waste assessment to determine the flow (quantity and type) of recyclables and trash through your office. Once you do that, you can estimate the costs, and determine and maintenance schedule the number and size of bins.

Materials that can be recycled include but are not limited to:

  • Aluminum - Cans, scrap materials
  • Plastics - Bottles, boxes, packaging, bags, wrappers
  • Glass - Bottles, jars
  • Food scraps - Around dining halls and elsewhere
  • Corrugated cardboard - Moving boxes, shipping materials
  • Old newspaper
  • E-Waste - batteries, screens, computers, speakers, copiers

There are a number of ways to organize and process your recyclables, but there are a couple of systems that can help you improve it.

Single-stream recycling is where you collect all recyclable materials within a single bin, which is then sorted and processed at a facility.

In a dual-stream recycling system, recyclables are separated into two bins:

  1. One recycling bin combines all food and beverage containers, such as aluminum and steel cans, glass jars and bottles, and plastic bottles.
  2. In the other recycling bins goes mixed paper such as newspapers, junk mail, cereal boxes, and office paper.

Multi-stream recycling can vary in the number of containers and types of materials that mix.

Single-stream recycling is popular because of the belief that the added convenience of not needing to sort, and the desire to save money with reduced collection costs encourages more participation. (While collections costs are lower with a single stream system, processing costs may be higher.) Lowering friction is essential to getting a recycling program off the ground, so having a catch-all bin is the way to go.

Step 3. Set SMART Office Recycling Goals

Start your plan slowly with an easy-to-recycle product like paper or soda cans. Once you get your co-workers into the habit of recycling, then you can expand the program to include other materials. The first step to implementing a successful office recycling plan is to set some realistic recycling goals. SMART goals are goals that are:

  • Specific: Identify a specific area for improvement, such as paper recycling.
  • Measurable: Use a quantifiable indicator of progress for measurable goals, such as weight of paper recycled.
  • Achievable: Specify who will do it and how. For example, the Recycling Coordinator has a step by step guide of how to collect paper throughout the week, and recycle it at the end of the week.
  • Realistic: Determine what results can realistically be achieved with the available resources. For example, one person is able to take 10 lbs of paper to a recycling center once a week.
  • Time-bound: Specify the target date or duration when the results can be achieved, such as an end of year deadline, or duration of 6 months to see results.

While you may be tempted to shoot for net-zero waste your first year, this isn't likely to happen, and that’s okay. Try to improve your recycling program steadily, year-over-year, by increments of 5-15%. Start with just paper or aluminum recycling. In time, you can build up your recycling program to include even bigger products such as out-of-date electronics like computers and printers.

Step 4. Budget for Recycling

Fortunately, recycling is a relatively low cost investment that can save money by helping reduce costs and waste, but it should be budgeted for. Recycling bins, bags, and liners are essential tools for a successful office recycling program. Determining the type of recycling and how much you recycle will help determine how much to spend on recycling bins, bags, and liners, and on pickup services.

Recycling is often charged by the material and the pound, this can help you get a sense of what’s within budget. Since recyclables are marketed by weight, you’ll need to estimate this for each material you plan to recycle.

Step 5. Managing Recycling Pick Up Services

One of the final steps of the research and planning stage of starting an office recycling program is determining who should handle the separated and bagged recyclables. There are a lot of different ways to handle this and what you end up using will depend on your company’s size and resources.

Many local municipalities have recycling programs in place that will handle pick-up for you. In other situations you may consider hiring an outside service, involve a local charity or volunteers, or drop it off at the appropriate location yourself.

Some questions to ask when picking a service provider:

  • What materials do you collect?
  • Do you charge for collection?
  • Do you provide collection containers?
  • Do you pay for recyclables? How do you calculate their value?
  • What is the pickup schedule?
  • Do you pick up on call?
  • Do you provide single stream (all together) or multi-stream (separate) collection?
  • Do you offer a package deal that includes both waste and recyclables pickup?
  • Is there a minimum or maximum weight that you will pick up?
  • What are your reporting and accounting procedures?
  • Will there be a lower price for refuse pickup if I use your recycling services?
  • What is the allowable amount of contamination?

Stage 3. Set Up the Collection Program

Once you’ve got everything planned out, it’s time to start setting things up. There’s several components to this. 

Step 1. Office Recycling Collection Layout

First, you want to create a good layout and then set out the appropriate collection bins, lids and liners. Collection bins should be placed where they are most convenient and close to where the recyclables are generated. Your waste assessment should help identify these locations.

  • Ideally, place collection bins next to each trash can.
  • Make sure that it’s just as easy for people to recycle as it is to throw something away.

Step 2. Turn to Trash Cans Unlimited to Get the Right Collection Bins and Liners for Office Recycling

Use the proper recycle bins, liners, bags, lids, and signs and labels to make it easy to understand where various types of waste go.

  • To avoid confusion, the recycling bins should look different from trash cans and be easy to identify. Color-coordinate or use lids to make sure the right recyclables are going in the right bin and keep trash out.
  • Lids with round holes on recycling bins for bottles and cans will reduce contamination, which is when a foreign material (like a half-eaten pizza slice) is mixed into the recycling bin, making the recyclable material more difficult to recycle.
  • The labels on the bins should be large and clear with both words and pictures indicating what is being collected. Make sure to clearly label the trash cans too.
  • Bins are usually made from steel, corrugated cardboard, or plastic. Try to purchase collection bins made of post consumer recycled-content materials.

Often your hauler will be flexible on the types of receptacles they accept, so find what works best for you. Office recycling bins come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and materials.

When selecting recycle bins to use at your office, consider:

  • Cost
  • Durability
  • Capacity
  • Ease of handling
  • Quantity and type of recycled-content materials

Everyday usage patterns determine your capacity and maintenance needs. If your recycling bins overflow too quickly and your maintenance staff can't clean them out regularly enough, they'll overflow and pollute your property with unattractive waste. Prevent that oversight by making sure you can accommodate everyone, and consider the number of people using the trash can:

  • How much foot traffic does each space get?
  • Is it a common gathering spot, or tucked away in a semi-private nook?
  • Will you need multiple recycle bins, or is one sufficient?

You also will need appropriate plastic liners and bags for the bins. As the bins are emptied, they will need new bags to collect more recyclables. If a single-stream collection system is being used, consider using clear bags so the contents can be easily identified once filled. Some bag manufacturers even print the chasing arrows recycling symbols on their bags and many make recycled-content bags that you can purchase.

Stage 4. Promote Participation & Awareness of the Office Recycling Program with Marketing & Education

The key to any successful project is making it so others are encouraged to participate. Make it known company-wide that there is a new recycling program that has been started and then make it easy to get involved.

You do this by strategically placing recycling bins where co-workers will easily notice them and also be inclined to use them. Areas such as break rooms or lunchrooms, and by copiers and printers are ideal. Make sure everything is clearly labeled to prevent confusion and contamination.

Education is one of the best ways to encourage people to recycle. Use signs, displays, and social media or email announcements teach them:

  • Why they should recycle.
  • What they should recycle.
  • Where they can recycle.
  • How they can recycle.

To help encourage participation in your office recycling program, consider a company-wide update about recycling facts and figures to show how much good their recycling efforts are doing. The positive reinforcement means they’ll not only feel a sense of pride but also be inclined to continue.

To engage your company, you have to reach people where they’re at. Posters in common areas like breakrooms, conference rooms, or copier rooms, newsletters and virtual announcements via email, social media, and videos are a great way to start the initial awareness, and keep them aware.

Incentivizing participation is an option if awareness alone is not effective. Quotas, rewards, team-based competitions, prizes, and other challenges can encourage people to participate. Many people love to cooperate, and some are naturally competitive, and recycling and sustainability initiatives are a great way to spur this within the company.

On top of this, showing progress for the company publicly can be a way to make people understand the real impact and importance of what they’re doing and what they’re consuming. Create a monthly reminder or update that goes out via email or social media to keep people abreast of what’s happening.

Additionally, your leaders and co-workers are not the only people who need to be made aware of the program. Make sure your building’s janitors and property managers know what’s going on as well. This assures that your recyclable goods are handled properly and aren’t just thrown out with the regular trash.

Stage 5. Evaluate & Iterate 

Once you’ve got the program going, it’s time to evaluate its effectiveness. After a month or two of growing pains, take stock. The Recycling Coordinator should report on how much waste was produced, the overall costs, and where more efficient methods might be applied.

  • Did you meet your goals and objectives? Why or why not?
  • What can we improve on? How?
  • Participation
  • Waste produced
  • Waste recycled
  • Costs
  • Savings

From there, it’s a matter of keeping on top of your quotas and reducing that overall waste footprint. It’s a powerful way to have an impact on the planet, and you can start now.

Start Your Office Recycling Program Today!

With a little bit of effort, and some help from Trash Cans Unlimited, you can make your workplace more efficient and environmentally friendly. Plan for success by equipping your workplace with recycling bins and containers that make it quick and easy for your team to participate. Once you show your office how important and easy it is to recycle, they’ll be recycling at home too!