Recycling paper at your company? How's it going?
If you answered "yes" to the first question and "not so good" to the second, you're in fine company. After years of trying, an astonishing number of outfits both large and small are having trouble accomplishing this seemingly simple task. At least, that's my conclusion after talking with companies -- and hearing from Grist readers.
Why is paper recycling such a challenge? The answers have to do with the natural reluctance of people to change habits, with the designed-to-fail nature of many programs, and with the assumption of managers that such programs will run themselves. None of which bodes well for efforts to move toward recycling other waste materials—not to mention making even more substantive changes to reduce workplace eco-footprints.
In One Bin, Out the Other
If your organization isn't recycling, it's long past time to begin. As a rule of thumb, a typical office generates about 1.5 pounds of waste paper per employee each workday. (Financial businesses generate more than two pounds.) That's roughly 350 pounds per employee a year—or a total of about 2.5 tons for a small, 15-person office. You can do the math based on your own company's size.
In theory, paper recycling should be pretty easy. Think of it as your organization's snail-mail delivery service, but in reverse. Typically, mail arrives from the post office to a central mail room, where it is sorted by building, floor, or department—with luck, ultimately ending up on the right desk. Paper recycling goes in the opposite direction: it typically begins on desktops and ends up at a central location (perhaps not far from the mail room), where it is picked up by a recycling firm.
Of course, it's not quite that simple. A successful program requires that bins be accessible and well marked, that people understand what to do and are reminded of it constantly, and that all players—employees, recycling coordinators, custodial staff, facilities managers, collection companies, and others—are reading off the same (recycled) page.
Figuring out where to start depends in part on your organization's size, structure, office layout, and other factors. Often, the best starting point is the maintenance folks—the ones who deal with trash removal. They'll likely be the ones who implement paper recycling, so they'll need to be involved early on. Whichever company they use to haul away trash probably offers recycling services; most mainstream haulers do. Many haulers also offer in-house expertise to help set up, maintain, or improve recycling programs. Increasingly, companies are making recycling services—including monitoring, measuring, and reporting—part of waste-hauling contract negotiations.
An effective program can pay for itself, and then some, by collecting and separating paper that has resale value in the waste-paper marketplace. Usually, that's clean white paper -- the kind used for letterheads, photocopying, plain-paper faxing, memos, reports, and the like. The more contaminants in a batch—off-white paper, glues, staples, and other non-paper items—the less valuable it will be. (That doesn't mean you can't throw every scrap of paper or cardboard item into a single bin. It's just that its value will be considerably less, potentially making recycling a cost instead of a revenue source.)
When everything comes together, it works. Andrea Asch, manager of natural resources use at Ben & Jerry's Homemade, attributes her company's 55 percent recycling rate to "a good recycling partner, storage capacity for material, and an ingrained internal education that reminds our employees that waste reduction and recycling is the way we operate our business." Above all, she says, the economics make it all worthwhile: "While eliminating waste at the source is a nice incentive, our recycling program made almost $100,000 in 2005."
See page 2 of this article for more information about office paper recycling