Office Waste Reduction

Recycling & garbage cans in a Thailand park.

I am a Quaker and I was going to meeting on Sunday and came in from the cold with a bit of a runny nose. I grabbed a tissue, used it and then threw it into the trash. I didn’t even think about it until a member of our community picked it out of the trash (along with some other garbage) and put it into the compost. She then went on to talk about how discouraged that she was about our ability to do something as simple as manage our garbage. I definitely agreed with her concerns, and yet I had without thinking it just defaulted to adding to our landfills.

I’ve got a bit of a fascination about how people deal with their trash. The photo at the top is from my first holiday to Thailand back in 2013. I have others of recycling/garbage systems I’ve come across.

In talking to at meeting though I was reminded by my earlier efforts to reduce the environmental footprint at OpenConcept. We are already doing quite a lot to reduce our CO2 emissions, but haven’t done much to review our what we toss out on a weekly basis. Our office recycles and composts, but how much more could we be diverting from our dump? What can we do to address our consumption and disposal habits?

OpenConcept is a B Corp, and we just completed our third B Impact Assessment as part of our re-certification. We are also part of Carbon 613, where we were encouraged to set up a waste audit. I think that pulling out all of the waste we put into our various bins and examine it could be useful, but is ultimately a lot of dirty work. Doing this on a semi-regular basis is a great opportunity to raise awareness within an organization and point to trends. It is a good thing to do, but as a small business owner, I’m the one who generally takes the garbage out. I spend enough time looking and resorting the bins and wanted a different approach.

I didn’t think I was looking for something all that unusual and that I’d just be able to pick something up from a hardware store or at least from Amazon. Sadly, nothing quite fit my needs. There were partial systems, but nothing fit together nicely. I didn’t think that there was anything out there that could help shift behaviors.

Let’s Keep Ottawa Clean — Recycling on the Street

I’m quite interested in system and design thinking. I started to apply some of these approaches to making greater and more effective waste reduction.

Everyone is busy. We all resort to the path of least resistance for at least some things in our lives and for most of us, that includes garbage. I got thinking about what type of patterns would make it easier for people to choose to to recycle & compost correctly. These are some of the ideas that came to mind:

  • Make sure that it is no harder to recycle or compost than it is to use the trash. Ideally, the solution you want people to choose should be the easiest.
  • Leverage the color coding that the municipality is using. In Ottawa, most citizens know that plastic/metal is blue, paper/cardboard is black, compost is green. This is something most people will have already learned, don’t mess with it.
  • Insure that the bins look professional and well organized. Ideally it isn’t just a collection of random boxes, but something that looks official.
  • Many garbage cans have a nice way to lift up the lid without touching it. The compost should have this too. If there is a compelling reason for the other to have lids, they should be opened in the same way.
  • Some repository for battery/electronics recycling should be available or instructions on where/how this is managed.
  • Clear instructions (with both icons and text) should be available for every bin.
  • We don’t need a big pamphlet or a PDF to print out, but something that is in an open electronic format that is easy for everyone to modify. Municipalities should be releasing their instructions in a clear open format and clearly licensed under a Creative Commons license so that they can be more widely distributed.
  • Lists of what goes where will change. People will have questions that need to be addressed. Furthermore, the organization may want to add specific instructions, like “please put meat compost directly in the outside bin”.
  • Instructions should be printed on the bin in a way that is easy to update (or clean up). Ideally they would also be at eye level. You may also want to include a QR code to quickly allow to scan it to get more information, or have it available in a more accessible format.

I’m not a behavior economist, but I am an active listener to the Freakonomics podcast know that there are better ways to nudge people to “do the right thing”. There is some indication that even simply putting plastic eyes or photos of co-workers sorting trash can help people be more aware of their impact on others. If we can understand people’s defaults, there are a broad range of ways that we can influence behavior in a way that benefits everyone.

So what approaches are missing here? How do we find better ways for organizations to produce less garbage? What are you doing that is working?

Originally published at

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