What to do if your office doesn't recycle

by Kim   |   June 9, 2009

Many of us have been there. Staying late in the office, we've chatted with the cleanup crews emptying the office waste cans when the thought occurred to us: "Where do those recyclables really end up?" At one previous job it suddenly struck me that all waste--whether from blue recycling bins or trash cans--was being dumped into the same garbage bag. Surely there were no elves waiting in the basement to sort the lunch wrappers and dried-out pens from the perfectly-recyclable copy paper?

Some office buildings are relatively honest when pressed about their (lack of) recycling habits, citing costs or lack of bins and additional storage space for the separated containers. Others, like my former employer mentioned above, go through the show of setting out designated bins which are really dead-ends for recyclables. Still others point the blame at office inhabitants themselves, claiming that poor adherence to recycling guidelines makes building participation a moot point: when someone throws a coffee cup into the container and the dregs make the paper all soggy, all previous participants' good green intentions are rendered null.

There are powerful reasons for all office buildings to recycle, especially paper. According to the EPA, For example, "by recycling all of its office paper waste for one year, an office building of 7,000 workers could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 546 metric ton carbon equivalent, when compared to landfilling. This is the equivalent to taking nearly 400 cars off the road that year."  The average office worker uses 10,0000 sheets of copy paper every year, or about 2 pounds of paper and paperboard a day.  And that's just paper...not cans, bottles, and other waste generated by workers living in a space 8+ hours a day.

Suddenly feeling those 2 pounds of paper weighing on your conscience? Here's some steps to take towards making your office a more recycling-friendly place.

  • If your office does provide bins, gently inquire with your building manager about what recycling service they use. (As in the case of restaurants, asking the front-line employees about the whys and hows of operations is usually a bad idea. Ask the people who have more say in how things are run.)

  • If it seems like your recycling really is going somewhere, congratulate the building manager/management company for a green job well done. You can even offer to calculate the GHG (Greenhouse Gas Benefits) of their efforts using the EPA's online calculator. That way the building will have some green stats to advertise and you will build a recycling ally.

  • If you suspect the building's recycling compliance is not what it should be, use the above tool and argument to explain why recycling is good PR.

  • Look into your local commercial recycling ordinances to find out what office buildings of your size are required to do.

  • Inform your building of the recycling laws it's expected to live up to, and offer to help...making the necessary arrangements to acquire bins, for example, and setting up recycling teams in each office to assure compliance.

  • A little enthusiasm helps a lot. Nothing says "we don't care about the earth" to a maintenance team like an office that routinely throws trash where the recyclables belong and vice versa. Create a (friendly) office recycling team that takes turns educating the group about recycling compliance. (Nobody wants to be pilloried for absentmindedly chucking a paper in the wrong place).

  • Get to know your maintenance staff and how you can help them. Believe me, these folks work very hard, and when they're greeted with masses of boxes to break down or heavy mounds of bottles that haven't been rinsed or de-capped, their recycling fervor is naturally dampened.

  • Since rules change, check up with your municipal authority occasionally to make sure your practices are still in line with current procedures

  • Reward progress! Whether it's a week with no banana peels in the blue bin, or your building has documented better adherence to recycling statutes, a well-placed note or email is always appreciated.

  • Got the basics down already? Consider composting in your office kitchen, as New Dream does. Download this pdf from the City of Portland for starters.

  • In need of support or inspiration? Check out the additional resources and case studies below.

  • Recycling: It starts with you - A Guide to Recycling at Work (Paperrecycles.org - pdf)

    The Eco-Friendly Office - Recycling Finds its Niche in the Commercial Space (Atlanta Business Chronicle, October 2008 - pdf )

    Office Recycling Woes (Plenty Magazine)

    How One Man Started a Recycling Program (Earth 911)

    When your building doesn't recycle (Baltimore Examiner.com)

    Stash or trash? Recycling challenges offices (Pacific Business News)