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.

LEED EBOM Requirements

USGBC's internationally recognized certification system, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), has a specific certification program for existing buildings. LEED for Existing Buildings: Operations and Maintenance (LEED EBOM) was developed by USGBC for measuring the energy and environmental efficiency of existing commercial and institutional buildings.

A key strategy for obtaining LEED EBOM certification is to achieve points pertaining to solid waste management. EBOM addresses the waste stream that is generated through normal building operations. The solid waste management credits are included in the materials and resources (MR) category of the LEED EBOM rating system. Specifically, they include:

  • MR Prerequisite 2: Solid Waste Management Policy,

  • MR Credit 6: Waste Stream Audit (1 Point),

  • MR Credit 7: Ongoing Consumables (1 Point),

  • MR Credit 8: Durable Goods (1 Point), and

  • MR Credit 9: Facility Alterations and Additions (1 Point).

Achieving MR Credit 6 requires analysis of both waste going to the landfill or incinerator, and waste currently being diverted through recycling, reuse and composting efforts. This credit can be assessed using volumes or weights, and requires that key waste material categories be audited. Among the materials that must be audited are metals, mixed paper, plastic, cardboard, wet waste, glass and landscape waste. The resulting waste stream audit report will identify patterns of existing material sources being discarded and current management programs.

Although the focus here is earning MR Credit 6, this credit helps with the other solid waste management-focused MR credits and prerequisites listed above as it provides a baseline for managing a building's waste stream. Information specific to the building's location and services available in the area for hauling and recycling should be gathered. This includes information about:

  • Local recycling markets;

  • Equipment for consolidating, storing or transporting waste;

  • Corporate social responsibility and sustainability goals; and

  • Costs for disposing of or recycling different types of material.

The Benefits

Aside from earning points toward LEED EBOM certification, there are other benefits to improving a business's waste stream management. These include contributing to corporate and local sustainability goals, increasing employee morale and engagement, and reducing operational costs. Achieving sustainability goals, whether set by an organization or defined by a local government, is an environmentally responsible step and central to being a good corporate citizen. Pursuing sustainability also engages employees in improving their work environment and yields a sense of heightened social welfare in the workplace, which may lead to increased productivity and job satisfaction.

In addition, improving waste stream management can reduce operational costs. Audit findings can identify ways to trim collection- and disposal-related costs. Employees will be more aware of their consumption and waste generation habits through participation in the audit and management plan development, likely fomenting behavioral changes that result in less waste. And simply producing less waste may yield the biggest cost savings of all.


Sarah Kutnink, LEED AP, is a consultant and civil engineer at R. W. Beck, an SAIC company. Raymond Randall, LEED AP, is a senior consultant and project manager at the firm.

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