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Practical Magic

Etsy hacked an app to track waste — one you can use, too

The only publicly tech company to be certified under the Living Building Challenge is open-sourcing the system it uses to measure what’s leaving its offices.

They say necessity is the mother of invention, a value embodied by the millions of do-it-yourself artisans and artists that rely on Etsy’s digital marketplace to sell their wares. That same DIY spirit clearly pervades the internet company’s sustainability organization.

We wrote last year about the creative arrangements that Etsy orchestrated in order to source solar energy for its new, 200,000-square-foot headquarters in Brooklyn, New York. That site just became the largest building in the world to earn a certification from the Living Building Challenge for its sustainable use of materials. (More on that in a moment.) The tech company is also thinking out of the box (or is that bin?) when it comes to managing waste.

Exhibit A: several years ago, when Etsy started tracking the waste generated by its offices several years ago — in part to figure out how to reduce it — the team discovered it was difficult to get its arms around a consolidated view of how much was leaving and where it was going. That’s because Etsy didn’t have full control over the hauling organizations carting it away.

We wanted to up the ante and make sure that we were holding ourselves accountable to the impact on the local economy.

To close that information gap, the Etsy team came up with a simple solution. It linked a digital scale that pre-weighs what’s being thrown in trash, recycling or compost receptacles to an Android tablet computer, and uses a mobile application — developed internally — that catalogs the pickup location and the type of waste collected. 

The total cost of the hardware and software that makes up the system, nicknamed DIVERTsy, is about $300, said Devon Leahy, senior director of sustainability and social innovation for Etsy. "It was designed to be as easy to use as possible," she said.

Today, DIVERTsy is a central part of Etsy’s newly declared goal to achieve "zero waste" by 2020, and to its mission of reducing the stuff sent to landfill by the company’s roughly 1,050 employees in 10 cities globally by up to 90 percent. Because local regulations for handing collection differ from city to city — some communities might require separation, some might discourage it — each office embraces diversion policies that are most appropriate for its workforce. In 2015, the latest year for which data was available, the company as a whole cut its landfill diversion rate by 9 percent.

The DIVERTsy app already has been so useful that Etsy has decided to share the software behind it — along with a step-by-step guide to setting up the system. It also plans to advise other organizations on best practices, Leahy said. (I asked for a photo of the technology in action, but Etsy wasn’t prepared to share one just yet.)

Some revelations about diversion

What, exactly, does Etsy do with the data it collects? For a start, it isn’t just the sustainability team that can see it: Leahy said it’s available as part of the same operational database as other corporate metrics, and it can be evaluated alongside those measures. Here are two examples of how having those insights already has reshaped some of the company’s policies:

No deskside baskets are at its headquarters site — Instead, sorting stations are on each floor, where the 600 employees need to bring recyclables, food waste and other materials. This organization decision was in part to make measurements easier for the office cleaning crew, but it also helps the company see whether employees are sorting refuse properly. For example, there have been debates over chopsticks (are they compostable?) and where to bring food waste (is this stuff too old?) If a particular team needs some education, it may be time for a "dumpster dive" exercise. The company has even held "Zero Waste Fridays," closing the bins entirely to remind employees just how much they throw way unconsciously. 

You may need to have a chat with your catering and event partners — The sustainability team was puzzled by a spike in composting rates on certain days, until it connected the dots and realized that the activity was linked to on-site meetings where food was being brought in. Etsy had to compost more on those days, so it negotiated policies to get the caterers to dispose of it — or donate it — accordingly. 

Let’s start at the very beginning

Given Etsy’s focus on managing waste, it shouldn’t be surprising to hear that the company spends plenty of time thinking about the things it brings into its buildings in the first place. That concern is reflected in its new certification under the Living Building Challenge — its Brooklyn headquarters is the largest building with a "petal" recognition for materials. The petal system allows an organization to be rated on certain aspects of a building rather than the whole structure in its entirety. As Leahy writes in a blog post:

To achieve this certification, we vetted thousands of items — from handmade tables to mass-manufactured phones — for toxic or harmful materials that are all too common in many commercial buildings (aka Red List Materials). We only used wood that was invasive, salvaged, reused or sourced from responsibly managed forests (Forest Stewardship Council certified).

Leahy said one thing that made that goal especially tough was Etsy’s decision to prioritize purchases from small, local companies — many of which hadn’t previously thought about these certifications. The team wound up educating many of these vendors and helping some of them earn those credentials. More than 1,500 materials were considered, overall.

"We wanted to up the ante and make sure that we were holding ourselves accountable to the impact on the local economy, the health of the people on the project, so the materials ‘petal’ was a strong fit for us," Leahy said.

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