Sustainability. You keep hearing the term. It combines many items such as energy, water, waste, air emissions, psychological and physical health, and our impact. More companies and property owners in Wisconsin are signing on to personal or public goals to improve the performance of their operations and their assets. Wisconsin is following a global trend for a good reason: it’s becoming more expensive to be wasteful.
In 2012, 93% of CFOs surveyed by Deloitte saw the link between their companies sustainability programs and business performance. Measuring and reporting methods increased so that management methods could be put in place. Large corporations have systematically incorporated these practices, but small business hasn’t lagged far behind. By 2015, small business disclosure rates of sustainability metrics were already accelerating rapidly, up to 25% from 15% the previous year.
A cornerstone of these corporation’s and property owner’s sustainability goals is a waste diversion target. This is usually defined as preventing waste to landfill from construction projects or ongoing operations. While landfill costs in Wisconsin are relatively inexpensive (about half the cost of the northeastern US, and still 40% lower than California), Wisconsinites can foresee a similar future.
The good news is that as landfill costs rise, the gap between landfill and diversion costs (through salvage, recycling, compost or waste-to-energy) will increase. For instance, in California it costs roughly $6 (60%) less per cubic yard to send “waste” to a mixed recycling facility rather than a landfill, whereas Wisconsin it costs closer to $1 (20%) less per cubic yard. The greater the difference, the more incentive there is to make the effort to divert more.
In order to prepare for this future, companies and property owners are moving past basic recycling practices and looking towards zero waste goals for demolition, construction and the operational output of their businesses or properties. As the targets get higher, achieving them becomes increasingly difficult.
Hitting a high diversion rate starts with solid planning. Setting up a program and thinking about your waste stream (what types of materials come in the door and how they go back out again) seems like a no-brainer, but taking the effort can focus your diversion efforts. Creating a waste management plan, a written record of what must be down to achieve diversion efforts, is a critical component. The following steps should be documented in a waste management plan:
The first steps should include analysis of the materials going out the door to understand volumes and the origins of the waste. Awareness of the materials going out the door can help inform decisions later on about what is allowed to come in, either by changing purchasing programs or placing restrictions on materials brought onto the site.
- Key strategy: The processes of waste collection is also critical to document early on. Interviews of employees or other waste generators can identify if people know how to use the diversion options available to them.
With this information, the biggest waste streams can be targeted to reduce volume and the most valuable ones to identify potential revenue.
- Key strategy: After reviewing the available waste handling vendors and their costs, set up an efficient arrangement of containers. Providing too many options can eat up any savings by taking more time to process. Centralization works best, but providing too few options will limit diversion rates. Right-sizing containers to average load rather than peak load can cut costs 10-20% with occasional need to order additional service, but service fees are also often higher per cubic yard with smaller containers.
Habits are hard to break, which makes communication critical. The waste management plan needs to be put in the hands of all critical stakeholders, accompanied by repeated verbal promotion over the course of a few months to permanent and temporary users. Appropriate signage is important because it speaks when others can’t. Acceptable and unacceptable items vary depending on the waste hauling vendors, so it’s critical to note that it may not be the same as what users are used to. Signage should be clearly visible on the container or directly above it, preferably in a large format, and preferably using pictures of the actual products to be recycled or salvaged.
- Key strategy: Recycling and reuse are unique among sustainability strategies, in that they are the only efforts that actually make new things, and it turns out that imagery showing the potential products made from recycled or salvaged materials increased recycling rates by 4% and reduced contamination by 9% over standard text instructions.
These first stages cover planning and implementation, but would be incomplete without a process of verification and reaction to improve performance.
To verify the actual quantities of waste diverted, the management team will need to work with available metrics. Counting pickups won’t tell you how much is in the containers, so at a minimum, a method of recording each container’s percentage full will be needed. This can be accomplished by the waste hauler or an on-site team. The best data is actual weight or volume numbers.
- Key strategy: Contamination is a big problem in a compost, recycling, or waste to energy stream. Reports from the waste management company should state the amount recycled, or their facilities average. Facility averages tend to be above 95% for single material recyclers, but usually closer to 85% for municipal recycling and 75% for construction and demolition recycling. If the goal is a 90% diversion rate, sending the recycling to a mixed recycling facility may not be sufficient.
Lastly, acting on the information by locating the programs weaknesses, adjusting strategies to improve cost savings and taking the next steps to expand the scope of work into less profitable areas completes the cycle of plan/do/check/act.
- Key strategy: The most efficient means of improvement is by establishing and understanding a baseline waste and diversion rate, then putting in measures to improve. If a location has a steady operating stream with no anticipated peaks and lulls, three months of data should be sufficient to establish a baseline. Most locations will need about a year’s worth of data to better understand trends and set a performance comparison. One time projects, such as construction jobs, don’t get the opportunity to benefit from baselining trends and incremental improvement. For these it is critical to put more effort into initial planning, provide the ability to preempt changing conditions and react to each monthly data cycle in order to achieve targeted rates by the end of the project.
It’s possible to meet stringent diversion goals, and even reduce disposal costs along the way, but the effort increases exponentially as one gets closer to 100% diversion. Soft costs to set up a successful program are likely to far outweigh initial savings. Like other efficiency efforts, the supporting rationale often comes with a big picture view. Marketing of “good neighbor” practices improves internal morale as well as public image, stock prices are increasingly influenced by the achievement of (or failure to) meet published and verified sustainability goals, and the long term costs of landfill disposal continue to increase. However, the most forward thinking companies and owners understand the length of the investment needed to change their culture, and realize that to prepare for tomorrow it doesn’t save to be wasteful today.