Recycling Audit at the Green Garage

Last Friday we held the first audit of the materials we have in our recycling bins. We were also scheduled to hold our first trash audit that day, and had every detail figured out…except for the one tiny detail that entailed our trash being taken out that morning by well-meaning cleaners. Ah, well.

The purpose of these audits is ultimately to reduce the amount of trash and recycling exiting the building. We also want to determine if materials are being placed in the correct stream.

As it turns out, there was plenty to examine in our recycling audit. We spread out a tarp in the 3-season room, brought in all of our recycling bins, emptied them out and began sorting. Our mixed paper bin looked like this when emptied:

Sorting through mixed paper

We found all kinds of erroneously plaed items, like this envelope (Want to know what’s wrong? The plastic insert had to be removed.)

Envelope with window

When we finished with the paper items, we had 4 piles. Clockwise, from botom left: good, glossy (has to be separate), bad, and questionable items. We are heading over to Recycle Here, where we do our recycling, next Wednesday to meet with Matt Naimi and talk over some of these questionable items.

Paper sorted into piles

Here’s what the plastics recycling bin looked like when emptied:

Contents of plastic recycling bin

Believe it or not, much of this was incorrectly placed. A big mistake is leaving bottlecaps on bottles and leaving liquid in them. Bottlecaps cannot be recycled at Recycle Here (We will be harvesting ours and taking them to Aveda. They use them in their products.). Bottles need to be rinsed out. Plastic bags can’t be recycled unless they have a number on them. The group of small plastic pieces to the right are old plastic casters from our DPS chairs, and since they don’t have a number, they can’t be recycled.

Here’s how the glass recycling bin contents looked:

Contents of glass recycling

And no, we don’t drink that much. We pick up bottles off the sidewalk and recycle them inside. You can see a similar problem as with the plastics – bottles with caps still on that haven’t been rinsed. But for the most part, people correctly placed glass in the right container, as opposed to plastics, which are more complex.

Another easy item to audit was the styrofoam bin (yes, we can recycle styrofoam, although we discourage its use). It wasn’t hard to find the one incorrectly placed item.

Contents of styrofoam container

You would think that the analysis of the contents of the metal recycling bin would have been just as simple, but we found some issues. First, we have been using a particular stain for our desks and tables, and the metal tins were put into the bin without rinsing. We are unclear as to whether or not to throw them out or rinse them all out and add pollutants to our water. It doesn’t seem like a good choice, and we’ll talk with Matt about it. In addition, the paint can needed the lid removed (although interestingly, the paint inside the can, when dried, was fine to remain).

Contents of metal recycling container

When we finished with our recycling audit, we turned to our refrigerator to see if any items needed to be thrown out. We were pretty clean, except for a fermenting yogurt parfait.


Laurie Catey of the Green Garage Sustainability Labs wrote up the results of the audit, including the following chart that graphs the amount of recyclables we are sending out per cubic foot:

Recycling bar graph
You can see that we are recycling more cardboard and metal than other items, understandable considering the fact that we are finishing up construction work in the building.

Laurie also drew up this correct usage chart, looking at the percentage of correctly placed items in the various bins.

Correct usage chart
We have some work to do in the realm of plastics, but otherwise we’re doing pretty well.

So overall here’s what we learned:

  1. Make sure you have notified everyone before a trash audit so they don’t take the trash out!
  2. Measuring recycling items by volume rather than weight is appropriate, as many recycling items weigh too little.
  3. We have 2 sets of bins, one in the kitchen and one in the annex. The usage of the bins appears more accurate in the kitchen than the annex.
  4. We have a lot of items that have an unclear destination, so we have gathered them up and we’ll talk with Matt.
  5. This is a far more complex process than we originally thought. Again, worth a conversation with Matt.

Next up, on the 18th of November, is our trash audit. We’ll be conducting these audits periodically, continuing to measure, with the hope that the volume of products leaving the building continues to shrink.

Trash audit group

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