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Successful Recycling: Achieving Sustainability Goals


To ensure a recycling program maximizes its cost-effectiveness, maintenance managers must make certain their staffs perform recycling activities in the safest, most cost-effective manner possible. Achieving those goals means minimizing the work required to meet the organization's recycling target and maximizing the return on investment with the sale of these commodities.

The best way for managers to create, implement and oversee successful recycling programs is to focus on four primary issues.

Materials Matter

Managers first need to target their resources and attention on those materials that will provide the greatest return, such as:

Construction waste. These materials are high weight and more easily recycled than ever. They are a good source of avoided disposal costs because recycling is generally less costly than disposal. They are probably easiest to recycle at a special materials-recovery facility.

Scrap metal. If an institutional or commercial facility generates a large amount of scrap metal, managers could simply be throwing money away by not recycling these materials.

Paper. All institutional and commercial facilities generate paper waste, which is very easy to recycle. These materials generally offer a positive cash value, depending on the volume.

Cans and bottles. The ability to recycle most plastic containers has expanded to include plastic numbers 1-7. They have little value as a mix with glass and aluminum, but they do contribute to cost avoidance.

Printer cartridges. These are just a waste to throw away. Indeed, many have monetary value.

Electronic waste. These products are now mandated as a recyclable in many jurisdictions.

Fluorescent lights. Facilities must recycle them under federal guidelines.

Batteries. Facilities must always recycle rechargeable batteries and lead acid batteries. Some vendors will pay for these items.

Plastic film. The market for plastic film is expanding. Facilities that generate large volumes, such as packaging houses and supermarkets, might be able to market this material.

Container Considerations

Recycling programs often fail due to poor container design. To ensure the effectiveness of recycling programs, managers need to specify and purchase recycling containers that are properly designed and ergonomically correct. Containers must be designed with several considerations in mind.

In many programs, the containers are simply an afterthought. In one program, a container looked beautiful — and cost nearly $600 — but it completely confused users trying to recycle materials. The result? Users threw so much trash in the recycling container that all of the contents were thrown in the garbage. To avoid such problems, managers should consider several key elements of container design.

Recycling containers often feature multiple openings that have the same design. This design does not work. To effectively collect paper, the container's opening should have a slot for paper and be too small for anything else. For cans and bottles, a small, round opening is best. For trash, a large opening works.

A recycling container's shape and color can affect the message, as well as the container's effectiveness. The goal is to collect commodities for recycling, so the container needs to communicate this.

One effective strategy is to use green containers for food waste, blue containers for general recycling and black containers for trash. In other words, managers need to think of recycling containers as an exercise in product packaging. Good design generally equals good results. The containers also should use images rather than words. The signage should be visually based.

Ease of use is another critical design element. Are the containers in locations that are easy to use? Do they make it easy for users to understand use requirements — what to put where and how to put it there? Are they easy for department staff to empty? Failure to consider container design and placement is likely to result in cross-contamination, frustration and increased costs.

Safe Collection

Managers also need to establish safe and efficient collection and storage procedures. One worker compensation claim can easily amount to $50,000. Notwithstanding the fact that staff members are human beings who deserve the highest consideration, a well-designed recycling collection and storage program will help to save you money.

Food and paper recycling containers get heavy very quickly, so managers should avoid specifying containers that require workers to lift heavy bags or cans. Specification should take into account ease of handling and safety. In one program, containers were specified that allowed workers to slide out the contents. In another, an automated lift system was employed with wheeled carts.

No matter what staff members must do to empty the recycling containers in your facilities, make certain they know it is not their job to sort out other people's mistakes. It is their job to move the material from the point of generation — a desk, the cafeteria, etc. — to the centralized consolidation point. But it is everyone's job to educate system users to sort material correctly. Think about this from another perspective. Any time spent fixing the generators' mistakes is time taken from other tasks. This scenario is simply not a cost-effective use of limited service staff time.

After staff members have collected recyclable materials, the must store the materials until collection by the recycling company. Unfortunately, too many central collection areas are so disorganized, they present serious safety hazards.

Of equal importance is the manner in which these materials are stored from a marketing perspective. For example, leaving paper stored outside and exposed to the elements destroys its value. No manufacturing facility would store finished products outside, and facilities should treat recyclable commodities the same way.

Making The Right Deal

Managers also must develop a contract for recycling markets that sets fair pricing and exceptional service parameters. This step really should be one of the first considerations for the program. The first move is to review recycling contracts to determine the materials that have true value, such as paper and scrap metals, keeping in mind that recycling markets are moving targets.

The value of commodities is a function of several factors, including volume, cleanliness, material type, availability of markets, and the distance to markets.

The greater the volume of clean, high-value material that has nearby, available markets, the better the opportunity for managers and their organizations to receive a positive value for the commodities. Reputable vendors will offer a fair return on materials, and they will be completely upfront with customers about transportation costs.

Reputable vendors will freely explain the way market value is determined and show managers the market index from which they have derived the price for a given commodity. They also will work with managers to improve their programs to allow for maximum value.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, managers should develop recycling programs so each program element builds on the success of another program element. Comprehensive program thinking is the key to success.

Wayne D. DeFeo, LEED AP, is founder and principal of DeFeo Associates a sustainability consulting firm in Warren Township, N.J.

Successful Recycling with EasyPak™

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