Recycling: 9 Steps to Success

As recycling evolves and expands, managers can use these strategies to improve the performance of their organizations' programs

By Alan S. Bigger  

Recycling has evolved in the last decade from a good idea to, in many cases, a regulatory requirement. Institutional and commercial facilities now regularly collect and recycle electronic waste, fluorescent lamps and batteries, in addition to long-time staples of recycling, paper, cardboard and aluminum.

Regardless of the items to recycle, however, housekeeping managers can benefit their organizations by regularly revisiting programs for handling recyclable materials. Delivering these benefits means paying attention to key tactics and strategies for efficiently and cost-effectively managing a recycling program.

1. Set Realistic Goals

This strategy could be reworded, “Do not bite off more than you can chew.” For instance, programs should start simple by focusing on products that are easier to collect and represent a significant diversion from the waste stream.

If a manager analyzes the trash flow and determines that 50 percent of the waste stream consists of paper and only 5 percent is polystyrene, start by recycling the paper. Several college campuses learned this lesson the hard way. They started recycling batteries, such as those from cell phones and cordless power tools, but they eventually stopped because batteries represented a small portion of the waste stream. The need to recycle paper products often overshadowed collecting the additional items.

At the outset, managers should plan to recycle the maximum amount of a product generated at a facility that requires minimum effort. A classic example of this is waste paper generated at printing plants. Concentrate on the off-cuts of waste paper that cannot be reused, rather than on a lesser item.

2. Pick ‘Low-hanging Fruit’

Programs should collect items that are easy to recycle. The largest expenses in recycling efforts often are labor costs and costs for hauling recycled products.

For example, plastic drink bottles are invading a growing number of work places, but if a department cannot collect this plastic easily — it is bulky, has many plastics designations, is very volume intensive, and is not weight-diversion sensitive — recycling it might cost more than it is worth.

On the other hand, if the same office space generates large quantities of mixed paper, programs should concentrate on collecting that product first. Many people want to recycle glass, and if the glass represents a large percentage of the waste stream, it might be viable to recycle it. But managers need to remember that workers might have to sort glass by color to recycle it properly. Workers should concentrate on glass colors that maximize recovery quantities with minimal effort.

Finally, it might be relatively easy to recycle such items as pallets and inkjet cartridges. These commodities generate revenue with little or no effort.

3. Location, Location, Location

Programs should allow workers to collect and sort items close to their source of generation. Advocates of recycling have long stressed source separation, which refers to sorting materials before collection for recycling.

In an office setting, for example, the best place to start recycling is right at the desk where it is generated or at photocopy centers. Encourage people to sort paper into appropriate bins, which then can be emptied regularly. Workers can place inkjet cartridges in envelopes provided to every office and drop them in the mail. The processor of the cartridges then refunds a check to the organization.

Managers should locate recycling containers as close as possible to the source of the product to be recycled. If the location is right, it is much easier to sell recycling than if containers are located at a distant location. Do not expect people to walk long distances to recycle. If you do, then expect disappointment, as they are likely to drop the item to be recycled into the nearest trash container.

4. Watch the Markets

Managers will be more likely to achieve the program’s goals by develop markets before collecting material. An organization might have the maximum potential for recovering a certain recyclable material, but is anyone willing to take it away and reuse it?

Newspaper is a common recycling commodity, but do markets exist in a particular area for recycled newspaper? And what costs are involved in getting the merchandise to market?

Managers can tap into states agencies that are in position to assist in marketing these materials. Such agencies usually fall under the departments of natural resources or environment management. Check with these agencies for viable outlets to market collected materials.

5. Attend to Packaging

Programs also should focus on collecting items that can be easily prepared for the market place. For instance, facilities can collect and market old corrugated containers or cardboard, either loose or baled. While loose cardboard might sell for $20-50 a ton, baled cardboard might sell for more than $50 per ton, depending on the location of the facility.

Managers who opt to bale the cardboard should know that it needs to be baled in industry-standard-sized bales that can be used by the end processor. Different recycling brokers and mills might have specific requirements, so managers should check with outlets before they collect materials and prepare them for market.

6. Keep it Clean

Stress the quality of the material to be recycled. The marketplace for recycled materials is a buyer’s market, and the single biggest element that will destroy the marketability of products is contamination.

Facilities might collect a large barrel of beautiful recycled white paper, for example, but if someone drops a cup of coffee into that barrel, the paper’s market value drops. Contamination is a major element in the marketing of products destined for recycling.

If a facility tries to recycle contaminated products, the ability to market the materials might drop, and the price will be minimal. If the products are too contaminated, the product will end up in the landfill. And the facility might end up footing the bill to have it hauled there.

In particular, collected fluorescent light must be packaged and labeled carefully. Failing to do so could lead to breakage, cleanup fees or fines.

7. Pick Partners Wisely

Carefully select the companies that collect or purchase recycled products. It is worthwhile to search the market area for reputable companies that can handle recycled products. Selected companies should be professional and offer a fair market value for the product based upon the way the facility prepares it.

If a facility packages or bales the product as required with minimal contamination, then the price should be higher than the price paid for loose or unsorted products.

Managers also should check the price received for end products with a reputable industry journal. Competition is healthy, so request price quotes from several recycling companies in the area, and compare that price, taking into consideration the amount of preparation each company expects to accept the product.

8. Beware of market shifts

Managers also will benefit their organizations by being flexible as the recycling program develops. Items that were not recycled yesterday might be the hot recycled product of tomorrow.

For instance, 10 years ago, few companies considered recycling fluorescent bulbs, computers and computer peripheral devices. Today, however, most companies have an active program for handling fluorescent light bulbs but might not have implemented an aggressive computer-recycling program. Yet the National Safety Council estimates that businesses and consumers will take 500 million computers out of regular use by the end of 2007.

In response, some recycling companies specialize in collecting electronic waste. And some generators of so-called e-waste have launched programs with the goal of selling surplus computers to employees and the general public or donating them to schools or charities.

9. Keep Good Records

Managers need to keep detailed records from the beginning of the recycling program and keep good notes that document the program’s progress. For example, before the start of the recycling program, how much solid waste did the organization dispose of?

As the program grows, reports should track the types of commodities that are being recycled, the money received for such products, the source, and the diversion rate from the landfill.

Record keeping is critical. Since many states and solid-waste districts require that organizations meet recycling goals, managers might be called to justify their programs, and quality documentation and records will provide support. Managers also might consider commercial waste-tracking software to track such information. In most instances, however, a standard spreadsheet program should suffice.

In general, managers must be aware that pressure to reduce solid waste will continue to increase. These pressures include:

  • escalating costs for disposal, including hauling and environmental fees
  • landfill bans on certain categories of items
  • litigation that might change the definition of an item from acceptable in a landfill to no longer being acceptable, or that might redefine a non-hazardous commodity to a hazardous commodity.

In order to survive the economics of the marketplace, organizations will have to recycle more, and the best time to start is now by developing a strategy that over the next 10 years or so will minimize material disposed of into the landfill. There is no doubt that most materials that facilities discard today will have to be recycled tomorrow.

Alan S. Bigger is director of building services at the University of Notre Dame.

Let the Customer Beware

Managers overseeing recycling programs need to be wary of companies offering deals that seem too good to be true: They probably are.

For example, a large New England hotel instituted an aggressive recycling program that included cardboard. A vendor agreed to install a free baler in the hotel and, in return, dispose of the baled cardboard free of charge.

A vertical baler used in many institutions costs less than $10,000 installed. The hotel generated literally hundreds of tons of cardboard annually. Hotel workers baled the cardboard and left the bales where the vendor could easily pick them up.

Here is the catch: The going price for baled cardboard in that market at that time was more than $100 a ton. Had the hotel bought and installed a baler on its own, it would have been able to pay for the baler in less than a year and start reaping the profits of its recycling efforts.

Instead, the vendor pocketed the profits.

Alan Bigger

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  posted on 10/1/2005   Article Use Policy

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