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WASTE WATCHERS BLOG

Helping businesses improve their waste diversion & recycling efforts, one post at a time!

The Facts: Office Workers & Their Waste Generation

From 10,000 sheets of office paper to 500 disposable coffee cups, the average office worker generates a substantial amount of waste every year. Considering the majority of our days are spent in the office, it’s very important to focus on recycling there! Read on to find out how much waste the average office worker generates.

This article was originally published June 2019 and has been updated. The concept of working a 9-to-5 office job often evokes memories of spending more waking hours at your place of business than in your own home. Inevitably, in being more active at work, the average American office worker generated a substantial amount of waste—from 10,000 sheets of office paper to 500 “disposable” coffee cups. When the COVID-19 pandemic sent many workers home, all of our wasteful behaviors followed us to the kitchen, couch, and bedroom. But now, as the economy reopens and companies like Google and Goldman Sachs act as bellwethers leading the nation back to their second homes, the time has arrived to reset how offices think about waste and recycling. With sustainability, efficiency, and employee well-being top of mind, we discuss five materials responsible for the disproportionate waste generation in the office setting, as well as ongoing considerations for a zero-waste future. Let's dive deeper into just how much waste is created in the office...

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These Items Don’t Belong In Your Recycling

While MRFs seem powerful and reliable, in reality, the American recycling system is incredibly fragile. And for a country that collectively throws away 804,090 tons per day without full knowledge of what is and what isn’t recyclable, we constantly break it.

  The standard compactor truck (aka “garbage truck”) will crush anything at approximately 2,750 psi—enough pressure to pulverize a pickup truck—while its mechanical arms can lift up to 1,000 lbs. Those compactor trucks then deliver our waste and recyclables to materials recovery facilities (MRFs), the centerpiece of the American recycling system. The largest MRFs can process up to 700 tons of material per day or more, with recyclables whizzing past at nearly 20 mph. While all of these specs would make you believe in its strength and reliability, in reality, the American recycling system is incredibly fragile. And for a country that collectively throws away 804,090 tons per day without full knowledge of what is and what isn’t recyclable, we constantly break it. While we’ve recently covered the types of valuable recyclables we tend to throw in the trash during spring cleaning, the COVID-19 pandemic, and beyond, this is a case of the opposite. Through contamination and the act of “wishcycling”, we’re tossing nonrecyclable items known for their troublemaking into our recycling bins. Plastic bags, leather belts, and more—we’ll cover the often-recycled (yet nonrecyclable) items that break the system, endanger its workers, and spike your business’s waste bill.

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What Office Junk is Recyclable?

It’s important that your staff and coworkers are educated and up to date on what materials are accepted for recycling. To help make it easier, we’ve identified which materials your office should recycle, and which ones should be tossed.

  When spring finally arrives, all of the things occupying the back of a warehouse, back of a refrigerator, and back of the mind come back into focus. To the untrained eye, it’s junk—material you’ve put off removing or completely forgotten about. And now that you realize it, you know it belongs anywhere but there. While Americans have shown a strong desire to recycle—over 90% support recycling efforts—it’s not usually the first action that comes to mind when clearing out something unwanted. That’s why, outside of loss caused by contamination and operational inefficiencies, our “throwaway culture” is to blame for poor national recycling rates. But know this: Not all junk is trash. Reflexively, during spring cleaning or not, businesses send valuable, reusable materials like paper, cardboard, plastic, and glass to landfill. But if these companies, and the individuals within them, saw the positive impact on their supply chain, their waste bill, and the environment, they might rethink how they tidy up.

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What is Wishcycling?

When you try to recycle a “disposable” coffee cup, greasy pizza box, or the ink cartridge from your office printer, wistfully expecting them to embody the next new product on the shelf—you’re actually an unknowing participant in the act of wishcycling. And the practice is one of the biggest challenges facing the recycling industry today.

This article was originally published March 2020 and has been updated. Americans are united in the urge to recycle. About 90% of U.S citizens support the practice of recycling, and for 28% of the country, their communities consider it an important civic duty. It’s actionable, too. Amid heightened interest in the environment and enlivened participation in the nation’s sustainability efforts, we’ve been given an avenue to curb our wasteful ways. An estimated 94% of the population has access to forms of recycling like curbside bins, commercial dumpsters, or drop-off centers, which mollifies many of our concerns. For the majority of businesses and individuals, the ends justify the means. The thought is if you do your part—putting an item you hope can be reused or recycled in the bin or dumpster instead of the trash—the collectors will somehow find a way to recycle it.  However, expectations and reality are very far apart. When you try to recycle a “disposable” coffee cup, greasy pizza box, or the ink cartridge from your office printer, wistfully expecting them to embody the next new product on the shelf—you’re actually an unknowing participant in the act of wishcycling. And as you’ll see, you’re not the only one who’s crossing their fingers.

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APIs: How Your Waste Bill Can Double in 5 Years

Trash and recycling services might be an afterthought—as routine as keeping the lights on and water running. But, unless you understand the traditional waste industry’s concept of APIs (annual price increases), and the forces that drive them exponentially higher, your waste bill could double in just five years’ time.

  No company can make significant progress by accepting the adage “it’s always been this way.” And at face value, the statement “that’s just the way it is” is rarely a justified defense. However, even the most forward-thinking businesses can be lulled into complacency by something as mundane as a waste bill. Trash and recycling services might be an afterthought—as routine as keeping the lights on and water running. But, unless you understand the traditional waste industry’s concept of APIs (annual price increases), and the forces that drive them exponentially higher, your waste bill could double in just five years’ time.

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How to Sort Common Recyclables

  The biggest myth of the entire U.S. recycling system is that it works like the postal service. For mail, your carrier makes the drop-off at a sorting facility, where orderly conveyor belts and slides filter envelopes and packages, ensuring they find their way to the right destination. For the centerpiece of the American recycling effort, MRFs (or materials recovery facilities), it isn’t so fine-tuned.

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How Clean Do Our Recyclables Need to Be?

  When you accidentally throw something away that’s valuable, why is it that you hesitate to retrieve it? Is it because it’s gross to dig in rotting food and filthy packaging? Or is it because you may believe the very thing itself will already be ruined? This is the challenge of the U.S. recycling stream in a nutshell and what leads to 25% (or more) of our recyclables being lost and landfilled due to contamination—a total that would otherwise garner billions of dollars. 

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How to Read Plastic Recycling Symbols

Have you ever wondered what the numbered recycling symbol on a plastic product stands for? Most people assume it means "recyclable", but that is not always the case. Understanding the plastic recycling symbols will help your business recycle smarter! Check our our post to learn how, and share our infographic with your colleagues who may be interested in learning more about this.

  **This post was originally published September 2019 and has been updated for accuracy. Calling a water bottle, a grocery bag, and your phone case all “plastic” is like naming a wolf, coyote, and your pet yellow lab all “dog.” Plastic is a family of materials, each with different qualities, uses, and avenues to recycle.  To alleviate our collective confusion, in 1988, the Society of the Plastics Industry implemented the Resin Identification Coding system—a designated number that manufacturers could stamp on their product (usually molded on the bottom) to indicate what type of plastic it was. Their hope was to raise our dismal national recycling rates for plastic from less than 1% (1980). Unfortunately, this system relied on a knowledge that American businesses and consumers didn’t have. Counting from one to seven was something we learned in grade school; attributing them to plastics was not. The symbols have no meaning to us—telling polyethylene apart from polypropylene doesn't matter if you don't know which your waste service will accept and recycle. That’s where we can help. Even if you never learn their names, their chemical makeup, or the recycled products they can return as again and again, knowing the numbers is the easiest way to become a better recycler. So, print and hang this infographic in your office kitchen or above the bin, and read on as we demystify the seven plastic recycling symbols.

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How to Recycle in America

  In the United States, we believe in a magic bin that graciously accepts our best guesses on numbered plastics, grease-soaked cardboard, and Styrofoam tailgate coolers.  Once per week, or sometimes more, that recycling bin on your curb or dumpster in your company’s alleyway is emptied and whisked away, readied for you to fill it with more. However, there’s a common misconception that we as Americans share about recycling: No one said you’re doing it incorrectly, so you must be doing it right. The sad truth is... you’re probably not.

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