bins for waste

Dumpster Diving for Good: How to Perform a Waste Audit

You can’t manage what you can’t measure. This is true across all walks of life, including in our waste.

While a growing number of businesses have implemented recycling and composting programs, many of these programs aren’t as impactful as they could be due to constant struggles with contamination—recyclable materials are still being placed in bins destined for the landfill, while non-recyclable materials are being found in recycling and compost bins.

Conducting a waste audit of your business, whether you’re a five-person company or a 500,000-person company, is a great way to get to know your waste disposal patterns and to start determining if there is economic value in your waste stream. While your main goal should be to maximize what gets recycled and composted, it’s just as important to ensure that landfill waste isn’t being placed in recycling and compost bins, as this creates recycling contamination which, in many instances, results in the entire load being sent to a landfill, and your diversion rate taking a hit.

In this article, we will explore what you need to do before your waste audit, during your waste audit, and after your waste audit to increase your ability to uncover accurate current and potential diversion rates. We’ll also look at different ways in which you can track materials during the audit, including how you can work directly with Rubicon to make this happen. With our suite of technology-based solutions and our data-first approach, Rubicon stands ready to help you change the game when it comes to recycling.

What to Do Before the Waste Audit

If this is your first waste audit, keep in mind the advice from my Rubicon colleague and co-creator of the RUBICONMethod™, Elizabeth Montoya, who recommends doing an audit before implementing improvements, so you can find your baseline.

You’ll need a number of items to help you with your audit, including a large scale to weigh your waste, large tarps to keep your office clean, and heavy duty gloves, tape, markers, and bin liners ideally colored black for landfill waste, clear for recyclables, and green for compostables.

Before you perform the waste audit, be sure to ask yourselves a number of questions (a more detailed list can be found in the full RUBICONMethod™ Waste Audit Guide), including:

  1. How many people live or work in the space you are performing your audit?
  2. How much time do you have available to perform the audit?
  3. How many volunteers will you need? The less time you have to perform the waste audit, the more volunteers you will need.

Additionally, you will need to look into what materials can or cannot be recycled curbside at your business’s location. For example, while glass recycling is common curbside, you may find that your local recycler does not collect it.

What to Do During the Waste Audit

During the waste audit it’s important to keep track of where each bag was taken from within the building, as this will provide valuable data after the audit.

If your workspace is large and consists of multiple bins, I recommend working on one location at a time, and labelling each bag by stream (trash, recycling, or composting) and location (break room, kitchen, reception area, etc.). Then:

  1. Sort through one bag at a time, sorting items into three piles; trash, recycling, or composting.
  2. Weigh each pile separately and enter the weights into a data tracking table.
  3. Calculate the gross weight of each bag based on the sum weight of the piles.
  4. Calculate the contamination weight by subtracting the weight of the material appropriate to the bin type (for example, recyclable materials in a recycling bin) from the gross weight.
  5. Repeat steps one through four with every bin in your place of work.
  6. Use these figures to calculate your current and potential diversion rates.

What to Do After the Waste Audit

Once you have your current and potential diversion rates, use these figures, as well as your first-hand knowledge of your waste audit, to make a number of core waste decisions for your workplace going forward, including:

  1. Can you eliminate or reduce any materials in your waste stream? For example, if you found a large number of Styrofoam cups in your waste, an item that typically can’t be recycled curbside, can you remove these from the kitchen and replace them with reusable coffee mugs?
  2. Are you currently using colored bin liners? If not, sometimes color coding them can aid the recycling process. Our recommendation: Use black bin liners for landfill waste, clear for recyclables, and green for compostables.
  3. Are landfill, recycling, and compost bins placed side by side? As Elizabeth noted in her blog post on how to improve a university recycling program, “If you have a trash bin on one side [of the room] and a recycling bin on the other, everyone will just use the one closest to them.”
  4. Do you need to install proper signage around your bins to make it clear what goes into each, and educate your employees on the importance of avoiding contamination?
  5. Do you need to sign up for additional waste and recycling services, such as a composting or food waste recycling program? If you do, reach out to Rubicon today—details below.

How to Track Materials

There are a number of ways to track material weights and locations during your waste audit in order to ensure that the current and potential diversion rates that you calculate from this exercise are as accurate as they can be.

Utilizing data tracking tables, as noted above, makes it relatively easy to take note of diversion rates from specific areas of your business, and then combine these figures.

At Rubicon, we also like to implement technology-based solutions to the issue of waste audit tracking. As an example, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF)’s annual RecycleMania competition recently named Rubicon their premier sustainability and technology partner through which they will pilot versions of Rubicon’s waste audit technologies at five schools to help these schools in the measurement and recording of recycled materials during the competition.

Whether you track the materials you find in your waste audit on paper, in a spreadsheet, or by using Rubicon’s waste audit technologies, read our full RUBICONMethod™ Waste Audit Guide to dive into the logistics of your audit in greater depth.

At Rubicon, our mission is to end waste, in all of its forms. If you would like to join us on our mission, download our full RUBICONMethod guide, or reach out to us at any time.


Nick McCulloch is Senior Manager of Sustainability at Rubicon. To stay ahead of Rubicon’s announcements of new partnerships and collaborations around the world, be sure to follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, or contact us today.

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