Waste Audit 101

By: Kelsey Davis

A waste audit sounds like a thrilling way to spend an afternoon, right? Digging through garbage is a riveting mission that few lucky individuals ever get to experience. The truth is, conducting a waste audit is one of the most insightful ways to understand you or your organization's true impact on the environment. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, each person produces 4.48 pounds of trash per day. This is the equivalent of 1,635 pounds of trash per person per year. Additionally, municipal solid waste landfills are the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the United States. In other words, sorting your trash for recycling and composting is key to reducing your footprint.

For the most part, conducting a waste audit consists of a few basic steps that can be scaled up or down depending on the amount of trash being sorted. First and foremost, you need the necessary supplies., such as glove, bib/aprons, a scale, sorting containers, sorting tables, and a tarp or plastic sheet. 

•    Gloves: Gloves are a must-have when conducting a waste audit. However, the level of protective gear can be altered based on the type of trash being sorted. For instance, when conducting an at-home audit, thick, rubber gloves would likely be sufficient. If the waste audit consists of an entire building site, business office, or similar, then puncture-resistant latex gloves are definitely a recommended precaution to ensure everyone’s safety. 
•    Bibs/Aprons: A full-length protective bib is a great idea if you are uncertain what to expect in the waste that will be sorted. It is not only for protective purposes, but also to keep clean in the case of unexpected spills or leaks. For this reason, make sure to purchase liquid-resistant bibs, such as latex or rubber. 
•    Scale: It is important to get an accurate weight of your sorted items. If a scale is not accessible, it is possible to use the volume of sorted materials, such as in gallons, to convert into pounds based off a volume-to-weight ratio.
•    Sorting Containers: When sorting waste, it is important to have other containers – at least one per sorting category- to place items in as they are sorted. Items such as five gallon buckets, trash bags, trash bins, or even large roll-off containers work great for this.  
•    Sorting Table(s): Having a designated sorting table or surface is very important. Utilizing a surface to dump each trash bag out onto ensures the waste audit is as accurate as possible. Not only is it easier to see and sort the items, but having an elevated surface makes it easier on the waste auditors themselves. 
•    Tarp/Plastic Sheet: Lastly, a plastic tarp or sheet works great to keep the table clean, and protect it from all waste being sorted on it.

Once you have all of the necessary supplies, the next step is to make a plan. It is important to know what categories the waste will be sorted into, and what to do with the items after they are sorted. Generally, the best way to choose the sorting categories (e.g. paper, plastics, organics, household hazardous waste) is to know what options are available for recycling, organics diversion, and disposal in your local area. Check with your local recycling and organics collection providers to learn what items they accept and how they prefer them sorted. This way, after sorting the waste, each category can be properly managed, instead of being thrown away as trash. Recycling convenience/drop-off locations and on-site composting should also be considered as options.

1.  Paper
2.  Plastics
3.  Glass
4.  Cardboard
5.  Metals
6.  Organics
7.  Misc./Inorganics
8.  Household Hazardous Waste
9.  Construction & Demolition

After using the supplies to sort the waste into the designated category, it is important to weigh the containers. This will provide an accurate depiction of current waste totals and opportunities for making decisions to reduce, reuse, and/or recycle your various waste streams.

Hopefully, after conducting the audit, the new knowledge gained will help inform decisions to improve diversion, sorting, and ultimately waste reduction. A full-length guide with more tips and in-depth descriptions can be found here. Happy sorting!