How to Plan and Conduct a Successful Waste Audit

Blog | Read Time 13 min
See All Insights
Waste Audit
Waste Management
Waste Compliance

How many times a day do you consider your company’s trash? For most of us, it’s not very often, mainly because it’s something that doesn’t necessarily affect our daily work, it’s hidden away, and removed regularly. But waste diversion and optimization should be one of an organization’s top business objectives to capture savings, reduce risk and support sustainability goals. Not only have waste disposal costs increased by more than 28% over the last 10 years, regulations and fines are increasing and zero waste is becoming a significant pillar in reaching sustainability goals. In addition, although the COVID-19 pandemic sidelined many waste diversion programs with an increase in non-recyclable, single-use materials and medical waste, the lessons we’ve learned will also reshape several factors that influence how corporations behave with respect to sustainability. The way we start down this path is through a waste characterization audit.

Before we dive into the details of how to plan and conduct a successful waste characterization audit, let’s take a step back and articulate what a waste audit is and what benefits performing an audit can provide.

How Do You Perform A Waste Audit?

What is a Waste Audit?

A successful waste management program starts with a waste audit to collect data about what’s in your trash. It’s a physical analysis of your facility’s various waste streams, such as paper, cardboard, aluminum, plastic wrap, food, and more.

Yes, we are talking about a sophisticated, measured dumpster dive. Auditors safely sort through, divide and weigh a representative sample of trash bags or recycling bins to identify, measure and record the types and quantities of waste produced during typical daily or weekly operations at a facility.

With this tangible and quantifiable waste audit data in place, businesses can evaluate and drive waste reduction and sustainability goals. It also helps to identify potential cost savings related to additional diversion streams or from avoided contamination fines and penalties.

For example, as a result of a waste audit that ENGIE conducted for Alaska Airlines, the company was able to recognize where to focus waste diversion and reduce waste expenses by more than 73% and reduced annual trash volume by 830 cubic yards. That’s nearly three full 727-800 passenger planes.

Alaska Airlines 3 Step Approach to Reduce Waste Expenses. View Case Study →

Benefits of a Waste Audit

The two core benefits of a waste audit are cutting waste from landfills and diverting it to other outlets, such as recycling, composting, fuel sources or even new income streams; and cutting the costs related to waste hauling. Beyond that, data from waste audits help inform a long-term waste management program that supports your sustainability goals.

An increasing amount of industries are also prioritizing waste audits to help navigate complex regulatory landscapes. Waste audit data that is collected on a continual basis can be used to pinpoint training needs and to track waste compliance. It’s a targeted way to stay on top of proper disposal of hazardous waste like batteries, electronics, fluorescent bulbs, cleaning products and medications. In some states, such as California with rigorous aquatic toxicity testing, hazardous waste violations have tripled and can cost up to $70,000 per finding per day.

As many proactive businesses prepare to go zero waste and carbon negative within the next five to 10 years, waste audits have become an invaluable first step for capturing baseline information and establishing diversion programs and targets. For facilities seeking their LEED Certification or a TRUE Zero Waste Certification, waste audits are a foundational requirement.

Read on to learn more about the benefits of taking a deeper dive into your trash.

1. Waste Audits Streamline Operations

You can’t manage what you don’t measure. Discovering exactly what and how much your company disposes will prompt you to focus on strategic efficiencies. A waste audit might reveal materials that can be recycled, composted, or otherwise diverted from landfill. You may discover that your bins are being picked up too often or too little, affecting hauler costs.

Once you’ve discovered what you’re throwing away, you can engage your employees to champion waste diversion. Tell your employees about your findings and how it’s affecting your organizations costs as well as your sustainability goals.

Create and share waste education materials and place signage with bins that make it clear which materials can be recycled or composted and what is truly trash.

A waste audit helps you champion the best way to manage waste and will reveal operational and training opportunities. One large healthcare system engaged its staff at over 100 sites to ensure they understood the organization’s high-priority waste management initiative. Through open dialogue, employees were emboldened to become waste advocates and be more accountable for owning the program at their sites. As a result, 10,000+ trash bins were removed to decrease waste to landfills.

2. Waste Audits Help Reduce Costs

There is money in your trash, and waste audits can reveal new savings and revenue streams. For instance, for many retailers, cardboard accounts for nearly 50% of their waste and for fast food, it’s closer to 30%. But if cardboard can be kept out of the waste stream and bundled or baled, it can be resold as a new revenue stream.

Waste audits can also reduce how much you are paying to haul away your trash. You may discover you’re paying full price to haul half-empty bins or are paying for additional pickups of overflowing bins. According to the Environmental Research & Education Foundation, municipal solid waste fees in the U.S. increased by 5.2% from 2018 to 2019 – and typically the more you send to landfills, the more you pay. As your diversion rates increase, waste hauling contracts may be able to be renegotiated with your vendors.

While every industry generates waste and can benefit from a waste audit, some benefit more than others. Hospitals and Healthcare, Restaurants, Retail, Grocery and Manufacturing all generate more waste and typically see exceptional operational and financial gains. They are also more susceptible to targeted regulations and fines. One pharmacy chain was fined $13.5 million for hazardous waste and $2.3 million for disposing of protected health information.

Caesars Entertainment’s Waste Program Saves Millions. View Case Study →

The consistent take-away across industries is that waste audits have the potential to address risk and amplify a company’s triple bottom line.

3. Waste Audits Measure Baselines and Tell Success Stories

The data from waste audits can codify your recycling best practices, measure waste diversion success from year to year, and show your company’s commitment to ongoing data-driven solutions.

As you implement and measure your waste management program, you can also achieve various sustainability certification and reporting goals. Voluntary programs that utilize waste audit data as a baseline for tracking progress and opportunities include LEED Certification, TRUE Zero Waste Certification, EPA’s Waste Wise Program, and the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI).

When your sustainability data speaks for itself the added bonuses are improved business reputation, increased customer loyalty, better brand recognition, employee engagement and greater ability to attract and retain talent.

4. Waste Audits Drive Sustainable Solutions and Waste Compliance

Waste audits provide quantifiable metrics that contribute to a company’s overarching sustainability and compliance goals. The data can be leveraged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through waste diversion, Scope 3 reporting, and to influence upstream value chain changes, such as seeking suppliers with reduced packaging options, take-back programs and Safer Choice labeled products.

In some instances, conducting a waste audit may be a compliance requirement. San Francisco’s Refuse Separation Ordinance (No. 180646) for example, mandates that large refuse generators have a recycling, composting and trash audit every three years.

gradient-quote We have to meet the demands of more and more municipalities and states putting regulations on their waste. For example, the state of California is mandating that businesses separate their organics, their compostable food waste, from their garbage, from their recycling. That’s the next big challenge, making sure our business model can accommodate those changes, and they help drive us even more further down the sustainable road. gradient-quote-right
Roger Goldstein, Executive Director Facilities and Energy, Panda Restaurant Group

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that food, or ‘green waste,’ accounts for approximately 22% of the total waste that reaches landfills and incinerators. In 2015, along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), it implemented the United States 2030 Food Loss and Waste Reduction Goal: to cut food waste in half by 2030. Since then, jurisdictions around the nation have enacted regulations to reduce the amount of food waste that goes to landfills.

  • Seattle passed an amendment to its municipal code prohibiting residents and businesses from putting food scraps, compostable paper, yard waste and recyclables in their garbage. If more than 10 percent of the contents of a company’s garbage (regardless of overall volume) is food waste, they can be fined $50 per collection.
  • Austin, Texas mandated that businesses with food permits compost or donate leftover food. Known as the Universal Recycling Ordinance (URO), the guidelines support Austin’s plan to reduce the amount of trash it sends to landfills by 90% by 2040. The city will manage compliance and enforcement by performing site visits. Businesses will receive two written notification letters and then a citation if they are still not in compliance with the ordinance. The fines are not to exceed $2,000 per violation.
  • California requires any business in the state with four cubic yards of organic waste per week to arrange for composting service.

Many states and municipalities, including California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have also enacted other forms of waste regulations, from mandatory recycling to complete bans on single-use plastics.

  • Assembly Bill 341 (AB-341) is designed to help meet California’s recycling goal of 75% by the year 2020 and requires all commercial businesses and public entities that generate 4 cubic yards or more of waste per week to have a recycling program in place. July 1, 2020 was the final deadline for covered businesses to provide organics and recycling containers at front-of-house to collect waste generated from products purchased and consumed on the premises.
  • In Connecticut, mandatory recycling is a state law and applies to residents, businesses, non-profits and all public and private institutions. Mandated items for recycling include bottles, cans, plastic containers, paper, newspaper, cardboard and more. Even grass clippings are banned from disposal. If a garbage load is inspected at a solid waste facility and found to have a significant amount of recyclables, it may be rejected and then the cost passed back to the customer from the hauler.
  • Just this year, governors in Maine and Maryland signed the first-ever bans on Styrofoam take-out containers, which applies to restaurants and grocery stores. California and New York and Hawaii have bans on single-use plastic bags.

The European Union has developed and applied a number of environmental directives relating to waste management to all 27 of its member state territories.

  • Entering into force in January 2014, the Environment Action Programme (EAP) to 2020 tasks EU institutions to ensure that priority objectives set out are met by 2020, with “a special focus on turning waste into a resource, with more prevention, re-use and recycling, and phasing out wasteful and damaging practices like landfilling.”
  • Across most European countries, companies are obliged to set up separate collection of at least five waste streams: paper, plastic, glass, metal, wood, and food waste, as well as for printer toners, batteries and electronics waste (WEEE).
  • EU recycling targets as shown in Directive 94/62/EC on Packaging and Packaging Waste state that by 31 December 2025, at least 65% by weight of all packaging waste must be recycled, including recycling targets per material:
    • 50% of plastic
    • 25% of wood
    • 70% of ferrous metals
    • 50% of aluminum
    • 70% of glass, and
    • 75% of paper and cardboard.
  • Directive (EU) 2019/904 on the single-use plastics ban sets a plastic bottle recycling collection target of 77% by 2025 and 90% by 2029. These bottles should contain at least 25% recycled plastic by 2025 (for PET bottles), and 30% by 2030 (for all bottles).

France has also implemented specific directives on organic and plastic waste.

  • Quick-serve companies are obliged to implement a switch to reusable cups and cutlery prior to 2023, and France has also made it obligatory for all large producers of organic waste (beyond the threshold of 10 tons per year) to sort and recycle or compost organic waste or donate unsold food products that may still be good for consumption.
  • The country also passed a law in December 2019 (Loi anti-gaspillage) to phase out single-use plastics and packaging as of January 2020, including a ban on plastic bottles, plastic cups, plastic plates or straws, single-use food boxes, ice-cream cups, and salad bowls for ready-made meals, and drink lids.

Waste Audit Checklist

Now that you have the business case to conduct a waste audit, it’s time to get started with planning and implementing your own. Here is a high-level checklist for performing a successful waste audit at your business site(s):

1. Conduct Pre-Audit Planning

Assemble an audit team of key members from across your organization. This can include senior leaders, the safety & compliance team, and environmental services or janitorial staff. Never assume anyone in your company is “too important” for this task, because it reveals important insights that can impact your company’s sustainability goals and bottom line.

Next, decide where the waste audit will take place and what you will be looking for. If you have multiple sites, maybe choose two locations separated geographically or by revenue to represent a full scope of the organization.

Confirm logistics with the team, such as time and location to ensure operations are at a standard or normal level. Before the waste audit, it’s a good idea to tour the facility to observe workflow, bin placement, signage and general operations. This gives you a sense of who is working on site, how they move throughout the site, and at what point they generate waste.

2. Adhere to Audit Safety Best Practices

Procure sorting tools such as grabbers or tongs and personal protective equipment (PPE) such as N95 face masks, disposable coveralls, goggles and tear-resistant gloves. PPE is required when working with trash, as you may encounter everything from tissues to food to heavy or sharp objects. Dress in long sleeves, long pants, and sturdy, non-slip closed-toed shoes. As you sort through waste, move everything with care and avoid lifting and moving heavy bags and boxes alone. Have plenty of hand sanitizer or wipes on hand and wash your hands and arms thoroughly with soap and water when you are finished.

3. Sort Waste and Audit

Recruit custodial or janitorial staff to collect and set aside several days’ worth of waste from various areas in a secure location. The most ideal days to collect waste are Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday when more people tend to be on site. If you want specific data by department or site location (e.g., kitchen vs. front of house), label bags with where it came from. Weigh all the trash first, then suit up and dig in! Sort trash by category (food, cardboard, paper, aluminum, glass, plastic, etc.) and weigh each category in a well-ventilated area. Document the audit on paper and with video or photos as well.

4. Share Audit Findings

Record and analyze the results by weight and volume. Note whether there were recyclables mixed in with trash and call out which categories were the highest. Visualize the data through graphs, pie charts and exportable spreadsheets to share results via a reporting dashboard or slide deck. Based on the findings, appoint a champion and team to set diversion and reduction goals, issue recommendations to management, and engage staff to drive implementation. Regularly share progress and celebrate successes.

5. Schedule Your Next Audit!

Many variables may exist from one site to the next, so now that you’ve got your feet dirty, choose more sites to conduct audits. The more data you collect, the more complete a picture will emerge of where you are now and what waste management opportunities exist.

Sustainable Waste Management Solutions

A waste audit is essential for implementing a holistic waste management program, through which your organization will maximize operations, reveal cost savings and measure and report the success of your sustainability and compliance programs.

You can’t manage what you haven’t measured. Take away the guesswork and uncover exactly what is and isn’t working in your current waste management system by performing a waste audit.

Daunted by the idea of diving into your trash? ENGIE Impact’s waste team would be glad to suit up and jump in. Learn more about ENGIE Impact’s unique approach to waste audits, and contact us today to get started.

Get In Touch

Let’s work together to conduct a waste audit to inform a holistic waste management strategy.