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Bins with brains: Microsoft’s Method to achieve zero waste with InSight

Written by Microsoft New Zealand - Original posting on Microsoft New Zealand News Centre

We all want to do our bit for the planet, but sometimes it’s hard to know how. After Microsoft introduced a Zero Waste commitment, its Australian and New Zealand offices knew they had to get on board. A pilot was launched with waste reduction expert Method Recycling, trialling smart bins to equip teams with the knowledge to make a change to their waste disposal behaviour. And it’s proved a “not-so-rubbish” method, diverting tonnes more trash away from landfill into the circular economy.

As an organisation, Microsoft has made some pretty major sustainability commitments. There was its announcement that its global datacenters would be using 100 per cent renewable energy by 2025. Its pledge to go carbon neutral by 2030. Then the landmark commitment to remove all the carbon ever produced by the company from the environment by 2050.

Compared against that, there’s not a lot individual employees at Microsoft’s local offices across Australia and New Zealand can do to make a difference to the planet – or is there?

Think about it. A banana peel flung into the bin after lunch, landing on a bunch of handouts from last week’s conference and an empty juice bottle. Now think about how many banana peels, how many documents, how many containers, are generated by each person working at each office, each year. Perhaps it’s not a banana, but a sandwich crust – or it could be both. You get the picture.

Multiplied by the number of people working for a major organisation like Microsoft, that’s a mountain of waste. And if every person at its offices could be made aware of just how much they were putting out – and if they could be given tools to do something about it – that’s also a mountain of impact.

Meanwhile, Microsoft had made another very important commitment – to become a zero waste organisation by 2030. Local subsidiaries were potentially facing contamination fees according to the weight of waste they generated. The problem was, teams had no way of accurately tracking their rubbish, let alone in real time. While local waste providers shared information about overall weights collected at some of Microsoft’s offices at the end of the month, that isn’t the kind of data that inspires or empowers the average person to take action.

Something needed to change. And friends of Microsoft at The NZ Sustainability Community knew the right people for the job. Waste experts Method Recycling had the one-of-a-kind solution to help, using smart sensors in waste bins. The NZ Sustainability Community worked with the Method team on a Proof of Concept that supported Microsoft’s sustainability initiatives and move to zero waste in the office.

Creating a big diversion

After five years of research and design, Method had developed a new platform, Method InSight, to help people understand their waste patterns – what they were throwing away, when they were doing it, and how to swap items destined for landfill for more sustainable, recyclable options. As the name promises, they knew that these were the kinds of insights that could create real behaviour change.

The goal was to increase the rate of diversion – in other words, diverting the amount of waste that would have gone to landfill into recycling. And of course, to reduce the amount of waste going into the bin at all!

“Data doesn’t exist in a vacuum and the Method Waste Success Team engaged to work with Microsoft to understand why the data changes and how to implement solutions to fix it. Progress is never a straight path and there are going to be dips in the waste diversion rate. But with Method, you can pinpoint exactly where those drops happen and why,” explains Steven Korner, Co-founder and CEO at Method.

In 2021 and 2022, Method InSight was deployed at four Microsoft offices across Australia and New Zealand – Brisbane, Perth, Auckland and Wellington. Method Sixty bins were sent with discreet IoT weight sensors sitting underneath, designated for organic waste, different recyclable materials, paper and landfill.

A single rechargeable battery powers each station, designed to last 6-12 months. The stations check for significant weight changes every five minutes and then upload these to the cloud about an hour later.

All of this data is then presented in a PowerBI dashboard. This provides daily telemetry on each bin enabling Microsoftees to take action by understanding what they are wasting in each office, creating some healthy competition between cities and inciting effective action to reduce waste.

Tracking the ways – and whys – of waste

With the bins in place, Microsoft’s teams in each office immediately started seeing patterns appear. As you might expect, lunchtime was rush hour at the bins, generating the highest rates of waste of all kinds, but especially the non-recyclable kind destined for landfill.

Individual offices showed unique patterns. For example, Perth saw a spike in organic waste first thing on a Monday. Method’s customer experience team worked with Perth to determine that this particular spike was due to tossing fruit from the week before.

September at the Wellington office saw a brief drop in waste diversion while the office was undergoing renovations and overall, the Auckland office had a much higher volume of landfill waste than Wellington. Upon further bin-vestigation, inspecting the landfill bins over a period of days, the team discovered the cause was the popularity of sushi from the local shop. The packaging, little wasabi packets and plastic fish filled with soya sauce were all ending up in landfill.

Waste-busting that worked

All this data allowed Method to craft waste-busting solutions. To combat the Monday morning fruit dumping, its teams suggested adjusting Microsoft’s fruit order so less got wasted each week, or encouraging workers that came into the office on Thursdays or Fridays to take the fruit home, so it still got eaten. So far, Microsoft and Method have seen a 40% reduction in these organic waste spikes and are continuing work to reduce this further.

Meanwhile, the Facilities team took action in the Auckland office, purchasing reusable dishes, bottles of soya sauce and wasabi for staff to use so they didn’t need the disposable versions from the shop, resulting in a dramatic drop in landfill waste. The Wellington team were also gifted some new keep cups, resulting in a lot less waste going in the bin.

“And the data from the renovation showed how useful it is to know when there’s going to be external contractors or visitors on the premises that may not be familiar with zero waste goals, so Microsoft can now introduce clear signage to educate them in future,” says Steven.

“The other thing we learned was the importance of having strong changemakers in the office that can promote InSight and provide support to their peers in the day-to-day.”

Well on the road to zero waste

InSight has already created serious inroads into Microsoft’s waste. With its help, Microsoft ANZ has moved waste diversion up to 82-84% across sites.

After the hugely successful pilot, there are now plans to deploy Method’s smart bins across all of Microsoft’s ANZ offices.

Through the pilot project, Microsoft also learned that staff often didn’t know which bin to put their waste in. So, in true Microsoft style, the sustainability team are at work on a project with Method to build a Custom Vision bot. This will use machine learning and artificial intelligence to determine which bin they should use for which item. Once complete this will be rolled out across offices to help reduce the co-mingling of recyclables and landfill, educate staff on where to put their waste and hopefully, influence staff on future buying decisions.

But the journey to zero waste doesn’t end there. With the support of the Method Waste Success Team, future improvements include installing dashboards on screens above each bin station, training sessions and work with site managers on resolving issues.

“We know we still have a long way to go to reach our zero waste target, but this has given us the tools to get there. We now have the means to educate all our people on how, individually, they can make a difference to our organisation and our planet, and that’s been hugely motivating. It’s not just about the ‘big stuff’ like datacenter cooling technology, we all have the power to make a change,” says Roseann O’Hare, Microsoft ANZ Sustainability Lead.

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