Towards a Zero Waste Workspace: Practical Strategies and Insights

Towards a Zero Waste Workspace: Practical Strategies and Insights

How much waste is produced in an office? According to recent studies, the average office worker generates 2kg of waste each day, 0.9 kg of which are paper-based products and disposes of 156 plastic bottles each year. Whether we will see future waste mandates is unclear, but what we do know is that in support of corporate sustainability agendas, green lease clauses covering detailed waste management, including recycling obligations, are increasingly becoming the norm. But how do you implement a zero waste office? From working alongside offices in big tech to universities and airports, our team have years of experience in implementing successful initiatives and achieving ambitious waste reduction goals for those ready to approach the challenge.

There are different definitions for zero waste; for most, they’re looking at achieving 90% diversion. For others, it's 0% avoidable waste. The important part when setting a waste goal for your business is to consider what is realistic for your business. For the average corporate office, 90% diversion is a great goal. On the other hand, a doctor's office is going to have medical waste to contend with, and a 0% avoidable waste goal will make more sense. While we encourage you to challenge the status quo and find new ways to avoid waste, goals need to be achievable to be motivational. Your team can be a great way to test your goal to see if you're doing enough to reduce waste.

Here, we look at eight steps towards a zero waste office

How do you manage and then reduce office waste?

1. Perform a waste audit and get a breakdown of materials

Your starting point. A waste audit is a formal, structured process, usually over a week, that identifies and quantifies the types of waste being generated. Assessing your current office waste footprint will identify problem areas and highlight your opportunities to improve, which is critical when aiming for zero waste. When commissioning or performing a DIY audit, you want to find out:

  • What are your current stream weights and percentages?
    • This will be a reference point for the start of your project
  • What percentage of each bin is contaminated?
    • This lets you know how well your team are currently separating waste
  • What are the most common contaminants?
    • These are the items you can first educate your team on
  • What reusable solutions can you explore?
    • Are there any materials that have circular alternatives that can be implemented to avoid adding to the bin in the first place?

2. Look at your procurement

What comes in must go out. The procurement process is essential to removing waste from your organisation. Office policies and practices have the capacity to catalyse environmental and social change in supply chains. For example, instead of paying for specialised recycling solutions, can you find circular alternatives or materials that are more commonly recyclable? For example, if you use whole-bean coffee, could you organise a bucket swap system with your coffee supplier to avoid packaging entirely?

READ, Reducing Waste From Office Supplies, published by The New Zealand Government.

3. Add up the numbers until you’re over 90%

If 90% diversion is your goal, use the data from your waste audit, and the avoided waste from procurement changes to add up the material volumes that you'd need to eliminate until you’re over 90. These are the items you will need to eliminate, replace or recycle to achieve your goals. Assuming you've already eliminated what you can through procurement, look at:

  • Behavioural changes - e.g. starting a coffee cup library if single-use coffee cups are prevalent
  • Custom recycling programs - e.g. a specialised collection for oat milk containers if they're not collected by your waste provider
  • Eliminating needs - e.g. if there are a lot of plastic soy sauce packets, provide soy sauce in your cafeteria

Consider the one-percenters

With ambitious waste goals, reducing all materials matters. Consider the incremental improvements that will remove even a kilogram from your bins. These materials vary from business to business; for some, it's swapping out plastic pallet wrap for reusable solutions, reusing packaging (shredding paper to use in place of foam chips) or recycling soft plastics. Incremental improvements will help to future-proof your goals.

4. Make sure your stations are consistent

A common pitfall we see is inconsistent access to stream availability, for example, organics only in the kitchen. Unless a material is only in one space, it's more impactful to have stations consistent throughout your building. Imagine someone eating an apple at their desk; if there is no organics bin at their closest bin station, it is likely to end up in the landfill. In the workplace, people are distracted, and the best outcomes are achieved by making it as easy as possible to do the right thing.

5. Educate your team

Education is paramount to success. Start with the basics of having clearly labelled, colour-coded bins with easy-to-understand signage. Then, continue to introduce initiatives or programs that educate and engage your team.

For example - host a recycling awareness day when installing your stations, talk through each bin, the labelling system, where these items will go and who collects these materials. With food waste collections now activated in most of the major cities, more people are aware of the cities' waste reduction efforts. Explain why you are prioritising waste, how you are measuring it and at what frequency you will be publishing the results. If your organisation is required to report under The Financial Sector (Climate-related Disclosures and Other Matters) Amendment Act 2021, then explain what this is, or if you are seeking NABERS or Toitū certification, explain how these add value to your organisation.

6. Continue to measure, manage and improve.

As with any goal, data is critical to success—especially a goal as lofty as zero waste. Centred around elimination, or close to it, there is no room for assumptions when aspiring for 100% diversion from landfill, and it takes an ongoing commitment to change.

The best practice would be to follow a comprehensive reporting framework. For example, in Australia, NABERS developed a national standard waste reporting format which allows waste producers to become more consistent across the sector, benchmarking waste performance improvements. Accurate waste management data is a prerequisite.

We created InSight to provide accurate waste management data and reporting tools that make satisfying requirements for green accreditations easy. Method InSight is NABERS-compliant and accredited for the Green Star Certification in Australia, and we are in the process of acquiring further applicable accreditations.

Start tracking your waste with Method InSight.

View office recycling bins.

7. Report on your wins

In the workplace clear leadership and commitments are essential to the adaption of new programs. So communicating clearly and regularly about what the program is achieving helps to boost morale and employee engagement. You can communicate on more than just the waste benefits to show how the program is helping your business. Internally and externally. Benefits of waste tracking and reporting include:

  • Achieving regulatory requirements: ESG reporting provides stakeholders with insight into a company's ethical practices, and waste management reporting sheds light on the steps taken to minimise waste, reduce environmental impact, and contribute to a circular economy.
  • Stakeholder engagement: According to Planet Ark, 80% of employees want to see more recycling in their workplaces, and 71% see recycling facilities as a sign of a responsible employer. Comprehensive waste reporting provides stakeholders with a clear view of a company's commitment to waste reduction and sustainability and, increasingly, with pressures to reach net zero, every bag of trash landfilled has an associated carbon cost that must be accounted for.
  • Drive competitive advantage: Corporate occupiers are already looking to prioritise carbon-centred criteria in their next lease. Landlords that prioritise ESG can expect higher rents. Companies that pivot to focus on developing sustainable initiatives will attract customers, investor capital, corporate tenants and talent, benefitting from Public Relations. “Going green” is paying off.
  • Risk management: Increasingly, investors and banks are taking a portfolio decarbonisation approach to mitigate risk exposure. Important if you are the owner of a commercial asset or assets.
  • Long-term cost savings: Waste tracking software and reporting systems are investments with long-term payoffs. Cost savings more frequently arise from reduced waste disposal, optimised resource allocation, reduced purchasing and elimination of costs entirely in some instances.

Prioritising waste reduction presents value-creation opportunities for your organisation and, beyond being a signifier of corporate responsibility, is a requirement for NABERS, Toitū and similar certifications. Waste accounts for 5% of a commercial building's carbon footprint, and increasingly, carbon-centred criteria are being adopted in leases, including waste monitoring, to attract investor capital, corporate tenants and talent, delivering competitiveness in a tight market

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