According to the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), “a typical North American commercial building generates about 1.6 pounds of solid waste per employee per day. In a building with 1,500 employees, that can amount to 300 tons of waste per year.” Based on these waste generation estimates, there is a significant opportunity for improving the management of a commercial building's waste stream. Reducing the demand for new materials through source reduction, recycling and material reuse lessens the environmental impact of waste disposal. In addition, as part of an efficient, comprehensive solid waste management plan, these initiatives can help cut operational costs.

Performing a waste audit on an existing commercial building provides baseline data from which improvements to the waste management system can be made and measured. This process of collecting, sorting and sampling waste from a business can help determine:

  • the total amount and composition of waste discarded;

  • the current cost or benefits associated with waste disposal or recycling activities, respectively; and

  • the effectiveness of the current waste management system and hauling services.

Once this basic information is gathered, a business can pinpoint opportunities for improvement and cost savings. Additionally, a more robust audit that identifies where waste is generated (otherwise known as “generation points”) will allow the business to target specific materials or waste streams in certain geographic or operational areas of the business.

Conducting the Audit

The facility manager or consultant should develop a project plan that defines the breadth of the waste audit, the process it will use and the desired components of the solid waste management policy to include. Next, a facility manager should identify unique and representative generation points for waste collection, such as the break room, conference rooms, offices, warehouse areas and restrooms. Schedule the audit on a “typical” day (avoid days with unusually high or low traffic due to holidays, scheduled events, cleanout days, etc.). Assemble a team to collect, sort and measure the waste, and then document the gathered data.

The building maintenance staff can help by establishing a safe staging area and ensuring that appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) is available to team members handling the waste. Identify team leaders and instruct them to assign team members a specific role in the audit. Teams should sort waste into categories depending on the goals of the audit. What material is most prominent, most recyclable, most targeted or most hazardous in the facility's waste stream?

The categorical breakdown of disposed waste will show patterns of use and disposal specific to the business and identify opportunities for source reduction or recycling of prominent items in the waste stream. The audit can be conducted either by weight or volume, but any future audits need to be consistent in order to compare results and measure improvements.