Waste Audits: Do You Know What You're Throwing Out?

Coming into the year 2020, Plant Chicago set a goal of diverting from the landfill 90% of the ‘waste’ generated across its programs. This means that for all outputs of an activity - everything from education programming and stocking the Firehouse Market to feeding the chickens and staff lunches - 9 out of every 10 pounds of ‘waste’ generated should be going somewhere other than a landfill.

2020 of course was not a normal year, and measuring our outputs each month resulted in us accomplishing a 76% diversion rate. We knew we could do better, and so we kept our goal of 90% going into 2021, and have been so far averaging 82%! This is better, but we needed some extra help in reaching our goal. For that, we turned to waste auditing.

For the entire month of April, we audited every receptacle and every item that left the firehouse. This meant taking a wastebasket/recycling bin/etc., dumping it out on a tarp, categorizing, photographing, and weighing all the contents...22 times.

Waste audit mixed materials on tarp next to waste receptacle
April 21's contents of our kitchen trash

Some results of the audits are shown in the graph below. A reminder that we have a waste diversion goal of 90% for our organization - meaning that if we generate 100lbs of ‘waste,’ we’re sending only 10lbs of that to a landfill.

Based on the weights from the containers, we achieved a 79% diversion rate for April, but also note that over 10% of our material was placed in the wrong container! After re-sorting by category, we would have achieved an 86% diversion rate - much closer to our 90% goal. So what can we improve on going forward?

Beyond making sure items are sorted properly, the easiest location to tackle for further reduction is employee-generated waste. For us, that is in the kitchen, which means food related packaging waste from staff lunches. Another improvement we can make is to identify and better track our other outputs. For example, we often hold on to and return the boxes that vendors use to send us their products, allowing them to reuse if possible. This is actually an output, but can be counted as ‘reuse’ instead of any of the other above categories.

Another piece in the puzzle of our overall diversion is what we facilitate among our stakeholders. By collecting compost, batteries and lightbulbs, or through our various drop-off and swap events, we are enabling the community to divert items they might otherwise throw away. We don't count this in Plant Chicago's diversion rate because this is material that is coming to us specifically to be diverted, but we will report on it throughout the year.

To check our progress, we'll repeat this waste audit process every quarter. Look for future developments coming soon!