Dumpster Diving: From Garbage to Gold

Dumpster Diving: From Garbage to Gold

One company's garbage is another's gold. That's what Burt's Bees discovered when workers there donned hazmat suits and jumped into their trash to have a look at what they were throwing away.

Employees waded through two weeks of garbage and found recycling opportunities that cut the company's waste in half while generating $25,000 in estimated annual savings, says John Replogle, president and CEO of the natural ingredient body products manufacturer.

"We found money in the dumpster," he declares. "We've turned our waste stream from a cost center into a profit center."

Burt's Bees is one example of how companies across the U.S. are taking a close look at what's in their garbage bins to make big changes in reducing waste in the workplace. With many corporations setting sustainability goals of curbing trash and improving recycling, the dumpster dive is an instructive way of guiding them to hit those targets.

Businesses are also finding new revenue streams in their garbage by taking items that were hauled away to the landfill in the past and instead selling them to someone else for cash -- a boon in a slow economy. In addition, many companies seeking LEED certification are sifting through their trash as part of waste stream audits to earn credits toward that seal of approval from the U.S. Green Building Council.

Dumpster diving helped move Burt's Bees closer to its goal of sending zero waste to landfills by 2020. Set 18 months ago, the company quickly made great strides at reaching that target and went from producing 40 tons of waste per month down to an impressive 10 tons per month by aggressively recycling and introducing composting at its Durham, N.C., corporate office and manufacturing plant, says Replogle.

"Then we were stuck and needed to reinvigorate the effort again," he recalls.

So the company's green team devised a plan last summer to stockpile all garbage for two weeks, then dump it in the parking lot and enlist a group of employees to pick through it and see what they could divert from the heap. On a steamy summer day, the group sorted the hefty mound of trash into three piles: items they already recycle that shouldn't have been in the trash; things they could recycle if they had an outlet to send them to (such as plastic buckets); and stuff that was truly garbage and couldn't be recycled for sanitary reasons (including latex gloves and hair nets).

"Once you've seen your garbage up close, it's hard to ignore it," jokes Shira E. Norman, a research consultant in the Chicago office of YRG Sustainability, a consulting firm that works with companies applying for LEED certification.

Seeing is Believing

While there may be a certain "yuck" factor to picking through your company's garbage, experts insist the exercise makes a strong impression on employees that can inspire behavior change with far greater impact than any written report or e-mail alert, Norman says.

Burt's Bees' Replogle agrees. He says they used their dumpster diving effort as a teachable moment and urged its 300-plus workers that day to inspect what they were throwing away. The exercise was so visually compelling that the company recorded the event and posted it as a video link on its website's sustainability report. For awhile, the video was drawing rave reviews on YouTube.

"That walk through the parking lot and seeing all that trash translated into a collective 'aha moment' and we all realized we could do a better job at recycling," says Replogle. After that experience, the company quickly jumped from 80 percent compliance in recycling to 98 percent, he says. "Now we have a shared ethos of taking responsibility," he adds.

Even companies with robust recycling programs can find room for improvement in a vigorous search through their garbage, asserts Todd Sutton, who derives his business, WasteSleuth.com, from helping corporations and public agencies analyze their trash and find smart ways to reduce it. He says many people think they're already doing the most with their garbage if they have a recycling bin in the office.


"They have a false sense of success that they've satisfied their need to recycle," adds Sutton, who managed a county-wide recycling program that included Berkeley and Oakland, Calif., for more than a decade before launching his recent venture. In fact, "recycling is the last thing you want to do," he argues. "It's always better to eliminate things, re-use or repair them."

Old Pros Get Results

Bentley Prince Street, a subsidiary of carpeting manufacturer Interface, Inc., is an old hand at dumpster diving. The company has been at it for 12 years and does it on a monthly basis to complement its aggressive recycling program in both the manufacturing and office areas in its plant in City of Industry, Calif., says Judy Pike, director of sustainability and supply management.

Each month, a random department is chosen for the activity. Facilities personnel lay out a tarp near its outdoor recycling area and empty two dumpsters for 20 employees who sift through the trash for about 15 minutes to identify items that could be recycled or re-used in different ways, Pike explains. When they first started picking through the garbage, the company had three types of recycling bins in-house for cardboard, yarn and plastic wrap. Today there are about 20 different containers, including ones for metal buckles and straps, mixed paper, shear lint, twine and wood.

The exercise has resulted in a handsome payoff. By converting all those metal, plastic and paper scraps into recyclables that are sold to other sources, the carpet manufacturer earns an additional $150,000 a year, says Pike. The company also saves about $50,000 annually in waste-hauling costs that would have been spent on shipping those items to a landfill.

"The monetary savings are an important aspect of our program, but equally important is diverting waste from landfills and educating our employees about recycling and sustainability," Pike adds.

Dumpster Diving Tips Decide how long to collect trash before the dive. Many companies can learn enough about what’s in their garbage to improve recycling efforts if they retain at least 24 hours worth of their garbage. What’s most important is to collect a realistic sample of most things the organization throws away. Future dives should replicate the same time period for meaningful comparisons and data collection.

Establish an accurate baseline of the waste stream. In the first dive, it’s important to measure how much garbage is generated by your company during a defined time period -- measured by either volume or weight. Having that baseline data will help companies track their improvements in reducing waste after the first round of information is recorded. Share the good news about trash reductions with employees by posting charts in high-traffic areas, such as the cafeteria.

Be creative when thinking about waste reduction. Identify opportunities for waste reduction by doing more than recycling. Look at the source of the garbage and try to reuse items or eliminate them altogether, such as installing hand dryers in bathrooms instead of paper towels. Also, insist that outside contractors take their trash with them when their job is finished on your premises.

Green team should enlist regular employees to assist. While members of a company’s green team or operations managers are likely to be the ones organizing the endeavor, rank and file employees will gain much from the experience by seeing first-hand what they and their co-workers throw away. Better yet, invite the entire staff to have a look -- at least once -- at the trash they generate to inspire them to change their behaviors.
Finding Markets after the Dive

Once a corporation has identified items in the trash that could be diverted to other recycling sources, managers may be challenged to locate outlets within a reasonable distance that can purchase those items, cautions Sutton. Sometimes just finding an organization that is willing to take materials away for free or for a nominal fee to recycle is worthwhile since the company would otherwise pay a waste hauler to take it to a landfill.

When the environmental committee at Quality Bicycle Parts, a Bloomington, Minn.-based distribution company, conducted its first dumpster dive in 2007, they found lots of shrink wrap and plastic yellow strapping material that came bound with most shipments they receive, recalls Lisa Anderson, QBP's environmental coordinator. And while they figured these were materials that could be recycled, identifying someone who could take it off their hands took some legwork.

Luckily, they found a local plastic recycling company that would take some of their cast-off goods, says Anderson. Since QBP has the storage space to accumulate recyclable items in the back of its building, it has been sending those materials to the recycling company four times a year and earning about $700 to $800 each time, she says.  Anderson adds the effort has cut their overall trash volume by 30 percent. She is planning another dumpster dive in early 2009 to identify further reductions.

LEED Certification Inspires Diving

Some companies launch their first dive after deciding to pursue LEED certification for an existing building. Part of the process often involves a waste stream audit where certification seekers get intimate with their garbage, report on it and identify opportunities for diverting those items from the trash, notes YRG's Norman. For example, if mounds of paper towels from the bathroom are found in the trash, a company might explore the option of installing hand dryers to eliminate that source, says Norman.

In addition, requesting information about weight or volume from a company's waste hauler isn't good enough to meet the LEED criteria because it doesn't address what is and isn't being recycled, she says.

The owners of Northland Executive Office Center knew they had to jump into their dumpster when they began their quest for LEED certification for their two-building, multi-tenant property in a Minneapolis suburb. Before embarking on the dive, managers there reported they already were recycling about 25 percent of all the trash that accumulated, says Maribeth Russell, senior property manager at Northmarq Real Estate Services, which operates the building and is applying for LEED certification.


Russell was surprised at what they found in September when she and others sifted through a 24-hour collection of the buildings' trash. Of the 1,100 pounds of garbage they inspected, Russell and her colleagues determined about 30 percent of it, or about 320 pounds of garbage, could easily have been recycled. The most surprising item they found mixed in was ink cartridges from copiers, which companies typically have been recycling for many years.

"I don't think we would have uncovered something like that just by looking at monthly invoices [about volume] from the waste hauler," she admits.

One of the biggest challenges afterward for Russell was figuring out how to boost recycling in a 165,000 square-foot complex with 30 commercial tenants who don't work for Northmarq and would have to change their ways on a voluntary basis. To that end, Russell hosted a "lunch and learn" to share the dumpster findings with key personnel representing each tenant. She offered tips on how they can enhance their recycling program if they'd like. Russell also promised additional recycling containers and more frequent pick-ups. 

"We got a great response, but all I can do is provide the necessary tools," she says. "I hope it gains some momentum."

Dumpster Diving Elicits Behavior Change

Companies should involve their employees in looking at their trash through an "eco-lens" because workers can be highly creative in coming up with ideas for reducing waste or avoiding purchases of certain kinds of materials, advises Richard Young, president of Environmental Performance Group, a Park City, Utah-based consulting firm.

Kim Matsoukas, Bentley Prince Street's sustainability manager, calls dumpster diving and recycling programs "gateway behavior change" because when employees closely examine their garbage and begin to recycle in earnest, they think about reducing waste in other areas. For example, the company now only orders snacks from vending machine firms that agree to take back all their packaging materials instead of leaving them behind in Bentley Prince Street's trash, she says. Any outside contractor that performs tasks for the company on the premises also is contractually obligated to take away all leftover materials when the work is done.   

Pike notes that coupling searches through the trash with a recycling program guarantees greater success. "It's the premier way for employees to keep recycling in their minds because we do the dive every month and it's highly visual," she says.

Since the big dumpster dive at Burt's Bees last summer, the company has drilled down that initiative to the departmental level. In recent months, management has instituted "green derby day," where a team shows up unannounced in various departments to inspect the local recycling bins to make sure items in the containers are being sorted correctly, says Replogle.

If the department passes the test perfectly, a sticker is placed on the bins as recognition. If employees make mistakes, however, they get a "ticket" on their bin with their name on it. If workers get three tickets, they have to meet with Replogle for remedial training with the boss.

"I'll sit with them and pick through the trash to teach them where everything needs to go," he says. "It's important because my bonus is tied to (our goal of getting to zero waste) and so is everyone else's at the company."

Judith Nemes is a Chicago-based freelance writer and adjunct journalism professor at Columbia College Chicago.