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In December 2018, San Francisco passed an ordinance requiring the city’s largest waste generators to conduct waste audits every three years. The goal? To increase compliance, reduce materials going to the landfill, help cut waste costs and move the city towards its "zero waste" goals. Approved unanimously, San Francisco’s measure speaks volumes about the importance and benefits of waste audits — and businesses should recognize this, too.
A waste audit is a survey of waste streams. It involves going through bags of waste and sorting items to identify what is being thrown away, what is being recycled or diverted through other means and the amounts of each type by weight or volume. The data is recorded and analyzed not only to verify what businesses are generating and throwing away, but the value they're losing.
San Francisco’s move to require businesses to conduct waste audits follows reports that an estimated 60% of the city’s material going to landfills was recyclable or compostable.
This is in line with results from a survey of over 100 waste audits conducted across the country by Great Forest, which revealed that 77% of what a typical business throws away as trash isn't really trash at all. The survey showed that most commercial trash is made up of organics (34%), followed by paper (23%), glass/metal/plastic (19%) and e-waste (1%).
This means that many businesses across the country are paying more for waste removal than they should, and will likely face increasing costs with rising waste removal and landfill fees.
As reported in Bloomberg, an analysis of audits at nine large commercial or multi-family accounts in San Francisco showed “those who were audited saved money because their waste reduction efforts allowed them to cut their trash services an average of 66 percent while increasing their recycling and composting by more than 150 percent.”
While the new San Francisco law only requires waste audits every three years for the largest waste generators, evidence shows that waste audits can be beneficial to all businesses on a regular basis. Here’s why:
1. Waste audits can help businesses be in compliance and avoid fines
San Francisco businesses that fail the new mandated audits would be required to hire a "zero waste" facilitator at their own expense, potentially facing fines if they fail future audits. Regular waste audits can help businesses take steps before they are fined. And fines can balloon — in New York, one hotel was fined $750 for each strawberry top found in the trash instead of the organics bin. In California, Target was recently fined $7.4 million for not being in compliance with the state’s e-waste recycling laws.
2. Waste audits help businesses improve operations
Waste audits can uncover breakdowns in a businesses’ waste and recycling programs, determine what is or isn't working, and give businesses the data they need to make informed decisions. For example, a business with a lot of packaging in their waste stream may decide to re-examine their purchasing options to look for suppliers with take-back programs or reduced packaging. A company may decide to implement an organics program if their waste audit reveals that a large percentage of their waste is composed of food scraps.
3. Waste audits can help uncover missing revenue streams
A waste audit at one global consumer products brand uncovered a large amount of cardboard and plastic wrap that wasn't being captured for recycling. This became a sizable potential revenue stream for them while simultaneously presenting potential savings of up to 33% of their annual waste hauling costs. Without conducting a waste audit, the company’s waste and recycling program could have continued to be underutilized, resulting in needless waste and years of lost savings.
4. Waste audits help businesses verify and achieve more accurate data
Waste audits help verify data provided by the hauler, which is important for operations and billing. Incorrect data can lead to unnecessary fees, and accurate data is also key when it comes to renegotiating contracts.
5. Waste audits help businesses measure success
A waste audit sets a baseline and creates benchmarks year after year so businesses can set targets and gauge the effectiveness of their recycling programs. One large financial institution began a series of recycling education sessions after a waste audit revealed that 22% of their trash consisted of recyclables. A follow-up waste audit a year later showed that the amount of recyclables in their waste stream had dropped to 15%, meeting their sustainability goals for improvement. The audit results were also a morale booster for their employees, who were delighted to learn that their efforts were making a measurable difference.
6. Waste audits help businesses meet certification standards
Waste audits can help with requirements for various certification standards like TRUE Zero Waste and LEED Building Operations and Maintenance. A thorough review of a building's ongoing waste stream is one option to demonstrate performance in maintaining a solid waste management program.
7. Waste audits are required for certain regulatory compliance and reporting purposes
You may need data from waste audits to complete reporting to put businesses in regulatory compliance, or you may require the information for your corporate social responsibility reporting or Global Reporting Initiatives needs.
Ross Guberman is CEO of Great Forest, Inc., a waste management consultancy that has been helping businesses rethink sustainability and transform waste for almost 30 years.