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3 strategies for making the most of a retail waste audit

Sponsored: Material characterizations are a foundational tool for shaping effective waste management strategies. Here’s what you do next.

Assorted materials waiting for collection

Assorted materials waiting for collection. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.


This article is sponsored by Rubicon.

For retail stores wanting to improve sustainability performance and lower negative environmental impacts, waste audits are a critical tool. As one of my colleagues wrote in GreenBiz last year, waste audits are an "awesome opportunity" for advancing sustainability goals in the retail sector. 

At Rubicon, we call such audits "material characterizations" because the material generated often is a resource that has options for beneficial reuse – and not necessarily "waste" that needs to go to a landfill or incineration. A simple definition of material characterizations is that they are systematic evaluations of material generated within retail environments. For retailers with diverse operations, they offer insight into their material streams and the types and volumes of materials being generated.

While material characterizations are a foundational tool for helping sustainability professionals uncover data-driven insights to shape effective waste management strategies, it’s important to know what to do after they’re completed. Here are three things to do after you’ve finished your material characterization.

1. Form a long-term strategy for your waste

The main objectives of a material characterization include identifying materials being discarded, assessing the performance of existing material management and recycling efforts and identifying improvement areas. The characterization findings form the basis of a sustainable materials management (SMM) program.

Say you’re the owner of a chain of retail stores — after the initial site assessments that identify the most accessible improvement opportunities and material characterizations, you will have significant data that speaks to material types, volumes, quality and more. When this data is combined with a robust SMM program, your company can begin to form a long-term strategy to shape effective waste management practices.

2. Know what you’re looking to accomplish

Often, retailers will have a reasonable idea of the types of materials they expect to see in their trash in high quantities. Plastic film, for example, is one material with which many retailers struggle. If a significant amount of plastic film is discovered during the material characterization, we recommend that the retailer initiates a plastic film recycling program. Such targeted recommendations are essential for making tangible progress in waste management.

In the case of a retailer focused on reducing plastic usage, the material characterization would not only quantify the amount of plastic waste, but also identify its sources and the feasibility of using alternatives. Similarly, if increasing food donations is a goal, the characterization would focus on the types and quantities of food waste, assessing how much of it is potentially donatable, and setting up partnerships with local food banks or similar organizations.

3. Make it an integral part of your sustainability narrative

Material characterizations allow retailers to develop a comprehensive understanding of their waste streams. This understanding is enhanced by the creation of a robust SMM program, tailored to their specific needs and goals. Such a program not only helps effective materials management but also contributes to the broader sustainability objectives of the company and resonates with consumers increasingly conscious of environmental stewardship.

Sustainable materials management programs are essential for retailers seeking to enhance their environmental stewardship. These programs are not just about waste reduction; they help companies strategically manage resources upstream and downstream in alignment with sustainability goals. This holistic approach transforms waste management into an integral part of a retailer’s sustainability narrative, empowering them to make significant strides in their journey towards sustainability and environmental responsibility.

To learn more about how Rubicon can help your store improve your waste management processes, reach out to our Technical Advisory Services (TAS) team today.

On June 12, I will be speaking at Next Summit 2024 on composting and organics recycling. Tickets are still available to purchase.

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