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This article is part of Rubicon’s Spring Greening series, where you can learn how to green up your cleanup this spring.

You can’t manage what you can’t measure. This is true across all walks of life, including 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 material characterization for your business, whether you’re a five- or 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 material streams. While your main goal should be to maximize what gets recycled and composted, it’s just as important to ensure that non-recyclable materials are not being placed in recycling and compost bins, as this creates recycling contamination. In many instances, such contamination 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, during, and after your material characterization 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 Material Characterization Assessment

If this is the first time you have assessed your discarded materials, keep in mind the advice from the RUBICONMethod™ – do an audit before implementing improvements, so you can find your baseline. 

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

Before you perform the material characterization, be sure to ask yourself these questions: 

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

A more detailed list can be found in the full RUBICONMethod™ Waste Audit Guide. 

Additionally, you will need to confirm which 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 Material Characterization Assessment

During the material characterization it is important to track 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 Material Characterization Assessment

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

  1. Can you eliminate or reduce any materials in your material stream? For example, if you found a large number of Styrofoam cups in your waste bins, 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 materials, clear for recyclables, and green for compostables. 
  3. Are landfill, recycling, and compost bins placed side by side? As noted in our 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 material characterization in order to ensure that the current and potential diversion rates calculated 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. 

Whether you track the materials you find in your material characterization on paper, in a spreadsheet, or by using Rubicon’s material characterization 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. If you would like to join us on our mission, download our full RUBICONMethod guide, or reach out to us at any time. 


Spring Greening icon

This article is part of Rubicon’s Spring Greening series, where you can learn how to green up your cleanup this spring.