How office workers can step up their action on waste
Article3min03 July 2018
Australia is facing a tsunami of trash, and the trendline is pointing in one direction – towards responsible reuse and recycling.
When China stopped taking most of Australia’s recyclables in January, it threw us into the middle of a very big mess.
China had imported nearly half the world’s scrap plastic and paper for two decades, including more than 600,000 tonnes each year from Australia.
But after years of trying to turn trash into treasure, the Chinese government has restricted the importation of low-grade rubbish. And that means Australia must now take responsibility for cleaning up its own backyard.
Meanwhile, a senate inquiry into the nation’s recycling crisis has recommended a ban on single-use plastics – from chip packets to coffee cup lids – by 2023. A national container deposit scheme is on the cards, the Queensland Government has introduced a waste levy aligned with other states, and Australia’s largest supermarkets have stopped offering customers single-use plastic bags.
"The biggest step that businesses can take is to reduce their recycling contamination rates."
Cut out the coffee cups
China hasn’t stopped taking recyclables all together – only the low-grade, highly-contaminated waste that we’ve been shipping for years. And this fact alone reveals a critical vulnerability in Australia’s current recycling approach: we toss anything and everything into the yellow bins and hope for the best.
“The biggest step that businesses can take is to reduce their recycling contamination rates,” says Zoe Baker, the Sustainability Engagement Coordinator for CitySwitch, which works with businesses to improve energy and waste efficiency in office buildings.
“Managing waste may seem to be all about putting stuff in the right bins. But there’s also a whole supply chain that responsible companies and people need to consider,” she says.
Take coffee cups, for instance. Australians consume three billion disposable coffee cups each year.
“While all coffee cups have the potential to be recycled, they require special processing, so should never be thrown in the regular recycling bin where they actually devalue the recycling stream,” Baker explains.
Even compostable or biodegradable cups are only recoverable if they find their way to an organic recycling facility.
Baker says awareness helps, but avoidance is even better. CitySwitch has created a coffee cup tool kit to help people measure their office’s coffee cup waste, set goals and help change habits.
No opportunity to waste
Matthew Ahmadi, Executive Manager at DIMEO Cleaning Services, also has coffee cups in his sights.
“Coffee cups are one of the greatest contaminants of office waste streams,” he explains. “But there is a lot of misunderstanding about what is and isn’t recyclable.”
Whether it’s plastic bags or paper, Ahmadi says people are often confused about what goes where.
“Engaging with the people who work in the buildings is the biggest challenge we face,” he adds.
“It's not up to cleaning staff, building maintenance or waste material contractors to sort out the problem. It's something that everyone in the building is responsible for.”
So, what can businesses do to reduce their waste?
1. Choose a recycling champion
“Appoint someone who has the authority to make decisions about where bins and signs are placed, who will be responsible for weighing waste, and sharing progress against performance targets,” Ahmadi suggests.
2. Centralise your recycling
“Eliminating personal desk bins is the easiest way to reduce the amount of rubbish your office produces,” Ahmadi advises. DIMEO recommends one recycling station in each office kitchen, and then three to four additional bins per 1,000 square metres, meaning we all need to get up from our desks more often.
3. Work on one waste stream at a time
Baker says 10 streams of waste are ambitious but achievable in most offices, so look beyond paper and hard plastic to composting, soft plastics, battery buckets and MobileMuster. “There are a range of schemes for difficult-to-recycle items, and the most effective way to work on those less frequent waste streams is for everyone to concentrate their effort. So, the office might clean out its files one month, and tackle e-waste or old pens and office supplies the next.”
4. Know your waste
Remember, measurement leads to better management. “Weighing your waste stream gives you accurate data that can then be used for education and to drive behavioural change,” Ahmadi says.
5. Work as a team
“The best results are always achieved when everyone works together – building owners, tenants, cleaners and waste contractors,” Ahmadi says. “Working together ensures continuity and accountability, which are essential ingredients in controlling waste from the point of origin through to the point of collection.”
A bit of healthy competition doesn’t hurt either.
“Some companies now identify the top performing teams and share their success to increase recycling rates across an organisation,” Ahmadi explains. It’s the opposite of the ‘name and shame’ approach, and it works. Most office workers aren’t resistant to change and usually do care about recycling, Baker adds. They just don’t know where to start in the office.
“Once you start the conversation, people begin asking more questions. And those questions lead to more action.”