Waste Auditing: How well do you know your waste?

I recently participated in a LEED waste audit training at an office complex in Broomfield, CO. Conducted by Ampajen consulting in cooperation with the Colorado chapter of the USGBC, the audit enabled approximately 10 participants (including myself) to analyze the waste stream of a commercial building pursuing LEED certification. If you’ve never conducted a waste audit and can handle the sights and smells that accompany the sorting of garbage (all participants wore protective gloves), I highly encourage you to do so. The audit results were both revealing and thought provoking: 80% of the waste generated at this particular office complex is currently sent to a landfill. Yet, 80% of that (nearly 65% of the office’s total waste stream), could either be recycled or composted.

This is what a waste audit looks like!
Carefully sorting, weighing, and recording…with smiling faces (and some crinkled noses!) — this is what a LEED waste audit looks like.

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Although this LEED O+M (LEED for Building Operations and Maintenance) training specifically addressed waste at commercial buildings, the basic approach is consistent with methods designed for other industry sectors, including food service. The sobering results support the perspective that real challenges to reducing landfill waste, and to improving the performance of waste management practices in general, exist and are shared by organizations across the country. The fact is that while our nation’s waste management practices have improved significantly over the years, overall performance remains poor: Collectively, Americans recycle and compost less than 35% of the more than 254 million tons of trash we generate annually (US EPA). This has serious implications for resource efficiency, environmental, and human health.

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US EPA: Total MSW Generation (by Material), 2013 254 Million Tons (before recycling)

As a business consultant with a strong interest in food sustainability, the extent of food waste is particularly troubling. In the United States it is estimated that between 30% and 40% of all the food produced is wasted. That equates to approximately 40 million tons of food wasted annually. In the restaurant sector, research conducted by the NRDC in 2012 revealed:

  • US households and food service “lost 86 billion pounds of food in 2008, or 19 percent of the total U.S. retail-level food supply”
  • Between “4 to 10 percent of food purchased by restaurants becomes kitchen loss, both edible and inedible, before reaching the consumer”
  • In addition, diners on average “leave 17 percent of meals uneaten and 55 percent of these potential leftovers are not taken home”
  • Other factors contributing to food waste at restaurants include: “large portions, inflexibility of chain-store management, and pressure to maintain enough food supply to offer extensive menu choices at all times”

Analysis by the Food Waste Reduction Alliance, an association of major grocers and food service companies, shows that significant barriers to food donation, recycling, and composting exist. But, restaurants and other food service companies can and should play a major role in addressing this problem by:

  1. Verifying their facility’s performance by conducting a waste audit
  2. Implementing measures to address food waste strategically (actions should be prioritized: see EPA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy below)
  3. Tracking waste performance using spreadsheets or more sophisticated technology (e.g. LeanPath) and managing for continual improvement
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US EPA Food Recovery Hierarchy (http://www2.epa.gov/sustainable-management-food/food-recovery-hierarchy)

Related free tools and guidelines for waste management at restaurants are available at:

Both individually and collectively, we need to get a better handle on our waste problem, including food waste. The good news is that society’s awareness of the problem is increasing as are cost-effective options to address it. Please contact PIK Sustainable LLC to learn more about the best strategies and tools available to optimize waste management at your business and to improve the overall sustainability of your operations.


One thought on “Waste Auditing: How well do you know your waste?

  1. A great informative article! Among the barriers to “food donation, recycling, and composting” transportation and liability seem to me to be the most challenging as they present significant additional costs with no financial incentive/benefit to companies.

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