Business Fact Sheet for Reducing Solid Waste: Conducting a Waste Assessment

Having established the framework of your company's waste reduction program, the next step for the waste reduction team is to consider conducting a waste assessment.

Some teams, especially those planning very limited programs or in companies where the waste stream is well understood, might opt to forego a waste assessment. In fact, many effective waste reduction measures can be adopted without the help of an assessment. The data generated in an assessment can, however, provide your team with a much greater understanding of the types and amounts of waste your company generates. These data can be invaluable in the design and implementation of a waste reduction program. The key steps to conducting a waste assessment are:

  • Understanding the purpose of the waste assessment.
  • Determining the approach.
  • Examining company records.
  • Taking a facility walk-through.
  • Conducting a waste sort.
  • Documenting the waste assessment.

The Purpose of the Waste Assessment

The waste assessment serves two basic purposes:

  • To establish a baseline of data by collecting background information on a facility and its current purchasing, waste generation and management practices.
  • To identify potential waste reduction options for further evaluation.

The data you collect in the waste assessment can be used to identify and evaluate potential waste reduction options, including alternative purchasing practices, reuse, material exchanges, recycling and composting. The waste assessment also will enable you to examine current waste reduction practices and to quantify their effectiveness. Furthermore, information generated by the assessment can act as baseline data against which the effectiveness of the waste reduction program can be evaluated.

If you do not have the time or resources to conduct a waste assessment, you might consider using industry averages of the amount of waste generated by companies in your field to approximate the amounts and types of waste your company generates. Often, waste generation estimates by general waste category can be obtained for a company's specific type of business and used as the basis for designing a waste reduction program. While this may be the easiest way to approximate your waste generation rate, these estimates are unable to account for specific conditions and may therefore result in inaccuracies. In addition, these potentially inaccurate data can hinder the evaluation process, since measuring waste reduction progress depends on comparing current waste generation data with information regarding the amounts and types of waste produced before program implementation.

Determining the Approach

Planning and executing an appropriate waste assessment involves determining its scope, scheduling the different assessment activities, communicating the necessary information to employees and performing the actual assessment. Depending on the objective of your waste reduction program, a waste assessment can involve:

  • Examining facility records.
  • Conducting a facility walk-through.
  • Performing a waste sort.

Your assessment may require just one of these activities or a combination of approaches.

The team should determine what type of assessment is best for your company based on such factors as the type and size of the facility, the complexity of the waste stream, the resources (money, time, labor and equipment) available to implement the waste reduction program and the goals of the program. For example, if your facility generates only a few types of waste materials, your team might only need to review company records and briefly inspect facility operations, On the other hand, if your company generates diverse types of waste and has established a goal to cut waste disposal by 50 percent, the team will need to thoroughly examine and quantify the wastes generated in most company operations by performing a waste sort.

Records Examination

Examining company records can provide insight into your company's waste generation and removal patterns. The types of records you might find useful include:

  • Purchasing, inventory, maintenance and operating logs.
  • Supply, equipment and raw material invoices.
  • Equipment service contracts.
  • Repair invoices.
  • Waste hauling and disposal records and contracts.
  • Contracts with recycling facilities and records regarding the physical layout of your facility and of earned revenues from recycling.

Facility Walk-Through

The walk-through involves touring the facility (and its grounds), observing the activities of the different departments, and talking with employees about waste-producing activities and equipment. A facility walk-through is a relatively quick way to examine a facility's waste-generating practices. Specifically, the walk-through will enable the team to:

  • Observe the types and relative amounts of waste produced.
  • Identify waste-producing activities and equipment.
  • Detect inefficiencies in operations or in the way waste moves through the organization.
  • Observe the layout and operations of various departments.
  • Assess existing space and equipment that can be used for storage, processing recyclables and other activities.
  • Assess current waste reduction efforts.
  • Collect additional information through interviews with supervisors and employees.

While a records examination provides the team with data (such as estimates of the types and amounts of waste generated by your company), the walk-through is an opportunity to observe the connection between the types of waste generated and the actual waste-generating activities or processes. In addition, a facility walk-through that includes interviews with grounds keeping staff is a good way to assess the amount of yard trimmings generated by your company. The team should be careful during the walk-through not only to record the types of waste observed and the ways in which waste is generated, but also to consider the potential waste reduction opportunities that lie in increasing the efficiency of these operations.

Before conducting the walk-through, the team leader should check with the managers of the departments that will be toured to avoid disrupting special deliveries, rush orders or other department functions. He or she also can request that the supervisor and employees of each department be available during the walk-through to answer questions or describe operations. These interviews can offer important additional detail on waste generation and removal practices. Moreover, interviews help keep employees informed and interested in the evolving waste reduction program, and offer an opportunity to ask questions. Employees also can be a valuable source of ideas for reducing waste.

Waste Sort

If you need more data than company records or a facility walk through can provide, a waste sort can be conducted. A waste sort involves the physical collection, sorting and weighing of a representative sample of the company's waste. The goal of the sort is to identify each waste component and calculate as precisely as possible its percentage of the waste your company generates. Depending on your needs, a waste sort can focus on the entire company's waste or target certain work areas. If the team believes one or more specific functional areas are responsible for much of the facility's waste, it may choose to concentrate its waste sort accordingly.

For some companies, it will be feasible to assemble and measure one day's worth of waste. In larger firms where this is impractical, team members might choose instead to assemble a portion of the waste from each department for measuring. However you choose to structure the waste sort, consider whether waste generation at your company varies significantly enough from one day to the next to distort results. Seasonal and periodic variations in waste generation are also common. If the potential for inaccuracy is large enough, the team might want to sort samples on more than one day. Multi-day sampling might provide a more accurate representation of the waste generated at your company. Since the data gathered in the waste sort will be used as the basis for key waste reduction program decisions, it is important that you obtain a truly representative sample of your company's waste. If a representative sample is not obtained, calculations on waste generation, waste composition and waste removal costs can be skewed significantly.

In addition, waste reduction teams in companies with active recycling programs will need to decide whether their waste sort should measure all materials or target just the portion of the waste stream that is not currently being recycled. For a complete assessment of the types and amounts of waste being generated, the waste reduction team should locate all recycling collection areas and measure the contents to be sure that all waste components are included in the sort. If your company is more concerned with finding ways to reduce just the materials that are not being recycled, it can focus exclusively on the waste collected in company dumpsters. This might also help companies with existing recycling programs to identify the amount of materials that could have been recycled under the current program but ended up being thrown away.

To organize a waste sort, you will need to determine which waste categories to quantify. Typically, the major components of a business' waste include paper, plastic, glass, metal, and organic material such as yard trimmings and food scraps. A range of other types of waste also can be generated by a company depending on the nature of its operations. The team also should choose whether to limit its waste sort to identifying and measuring these major waste component categories or further sorting the waste into subcategories (for example, sorting paper into such subcategories as high-grade, low-grade, newsprint, corrugated cardboard, magazines and other). If possible, the team should strive to separate and measure the waste sample as completely as possible. These precise measurements will be useful later on when the team is determining which materials can be exchanged, reused, sold or recycled. Also, consider whether a particular waste component needs to be measured. For example, if you know that a market for recyclable, high-grade paper exists in the area, team members might want to design the sort to ensure that this waste type is quantified accurately.

Documenting the Waste Assessment

Once the team has determined the approach to use, it is time to perform the actual waste assessment. While examining the company's waste generation and management practices, team members also should search for opportunities to reduce waste and increase efficiency. Be sure to document all information gained through the waste assessment. Documenting your findings serves several purposes, including:

  • Providing a record of the company's efforts to reduce waste.
  • Developing a recordkeeping system so that costs, savings and waste reduction quantities can be more easily tracked.
  • Obtaining baseline data from which to investigate economic and technical feasibility of waste reduction options.
  • Obtaining baseline data from which to evaluate the impact of these options once implemented.

In addition to guiding the waste assessment process, the worksheets will function as a record of your waste assessment activities and the data generated. Be sure to keep with the worksheets any related information you recorded during your waste assessment.

The fact sheet, from EPA, is the second of a three-part series on how businesses can develop and implement a waste reduction program. The first part was Business Fact Sheet for Reducing Solid Waste: Getting Started.

This article originally appeared in the 06/01/2006 issue of Environmental Protection.

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