Starting a recycling program at work "isn't rocket science," says Sam Cole, community outreach coordinator at EcoCycle, a recycling nonprofit in Boulder, Colo. But it does take planning, cooperation, self-education, and monitoring.
For employees who want to change a firm's waste practices - or simply find out what practices are in place - where to begin?
Here are a few suggestions, culled from various waste-oriented nonprofit organizations:
Get support. "You need to have committed folks who are employees who want to [recycle and reduce waste], and then you need to have committed folks in the upper management," says Mark Ruzzin, community outreach director at EcoCyle.
Look for outside help. Often a local nonprofit, like the Boston-based WasteCap or the Boulder-based EcoCyle, is already set up to help businesses through just this process. Nationally, the EPA's WasteWise program can be a good place to start (www.epa.gov/wastewise).
Identify the waste. Once you have top management behind you, you'll also need a waste assessment. What are you throwing away? What are you recycling? What could you recycle? Think creatively: office furniture, building materials, food waste, etc.
Identify the vendors. Once you know the types and volumes of materials you generate, call several vendors and compare costs and services. If you're in a multitenant building, talk with building management and try to get other tenants on board.
Form a "green team." Find several committed employees willing to sustain recycling and waste-reduction efforts and act as point people for employees with questions.
Buy recycled. This is often referred to as "closing the loop" in recycling jargon. For everything that's recycled, buyers need to be found for the recycled products. Try switching to post-consumer recycled paper, or remanufactured toner cartridges.
Reduce waste at the source. Does everything need to be printed out? Can you eliminate paper plates and styrofoam cups in your cafeteria?
Educate custodial staff and other employees. Make sure cleaning crews - which often have high turnover - know how to empty recycling bins. And tell other employees what the bins, which should be larger than trash cans and easily accessible, are meant for.
Organize special events. Try a bike-to-work day, or reward employees who recycle the most.
Remain vigilant. It's often several years after recycling infrastructure is put in place that things start slipping, experts say. A new cleaning crew may not understand the program, or new employees may not know how to recycle. Staying on top of efforts can prevent those problems and keep people looking for new ways to reduce waste.
Many businesses recycle the basics: office paper, cans, bottles. The more proactive may buy recycled products, recycle office furniture, or establish a "green team."
But few companies - just 13 at the moment - can claim a listing under the GrassRoots Recycling Network's "Zero Waste Businesses." These are the leaders of the pack when it comes to waste generation; in order to qualify, they need to have diverted more than 90 percent of their waste out of the waste stream.
The fact that there are any shows that the idea of zero waste is not a pipe dream, says Gary Liss, a zero-waste consultant in Loomis, Calif., who compiled the list for the GRRN and is now developing more extensive standards. "It's not a theory, but a practice - as long as you accept that it's 'zero waste, or darn close.' "
"When we talk about zero waste, people think about that as radical or beyond the pale," he adds, "but in fact, it's in most companies' best interest, financially."
Take Xerox Corp., one of the first zero-waste companies. When it took back old products from customers who no longer needed them, it had the choice of either paying to throw the products out or finding ways to reuse and recycle them, salvaging the parts. The company estimates that it saves several hundred million dollars a year through the remanufacture and reuse of those old products - plus an additional $45 million a year stemming from recycling within its plants.
Hewlett-Packard is also on the list. The Roseville, Calif.-based company estimates that it diverts 92 to 94 percent of its solid waste, saving almost $1 million a year in waste-disposal costs. Other zero-waste companies include Pillsbury, Mad River Breweries, and Epson Inc. According to Mr. Gliss, achieving that level is "one step at a time. They don't [all] have an adopted zero-waste goal. They have a goal to improve their waste-reduction levels 10 percent a year."
In the end, he says, it's a combination of reduction, recycling, and composting that works. And he shies away from calling zero waste radical. "Really, it's conservative."