ESG resource

December 7, 2023


Waste Audit 101: What You Need to Know

Discover what a waste audit is, how to plan and conduct one, and why they are vital for efficient and sustainable waste management.

ESG Illustration
Two Business Women Discussing a Waste Audit

Trash might seem like a necessary evil in doing business, but the amount of trash you generate directly affects your bottom line. The more you throw away, the more you spend on trash collection, landfill fines, and purchasing new materials, not to mention the revenue you lose to more eco-friendly competitors.

So, how much money are you losing to the landfill each month? You’ll need hard data on the amount and types of waste your company produces to find out. A waste audit can show exactly where you’re falling short, how much you could recoup, and where your sustainability efforts will have the most impact.

What Is a Waste Audit?

Waste audits involve careful garbage collection over a specific period, followed by a physical analysis of all items entering your company’s waste streams. These audits are a valuable tool for organizations looking to identify opportunities for improvement and take steps toward more sustainable waste management practices.

The primary goal of a waste audit is to gather accurate data on the types and quantities of waste generated by an organization. Auditors track the full amount of waste, how much was recycled, and the total weight of materials for each disposal method, such as incineration or landfilling. Waste audits are a real-time measurement of sustainability performance, making them the logical first step for any company looking to improve its recycling rates and waste management practices.

How Can Companies Benefit From a Waste Audit?

Waste audits have two long-term benefits: minimizing waste generation and reclaiming materials that would otherwise be thrown away. Reducing waste minimizes the environmental impact of landfilling and incineration, while increased recycling promotes the conservation of resources and energy. However, waste audits aren’t just good for the planet. Regular and accurate waste audits can help businesses:

Reduce Costs

Waste audits can identify key trends in a company’s waste streams, revealing opportunities for cost savings. Organizations can cut waste hauling and disposal costs by recycling materials and reducing waste. Incorporating additional diversion streams can help businesses avoid contamination fines and penalties. 

Waste audits don’t just highlight ways to save money. They can also lead to a new income stream selling recyclable materials. For example, reselling used cardboard avoids landfills and generates profit, which benefits the company. 

Streamline Operations

Once you know where, what, and how much waste is generated, you can find strategic ways to optimize your waste stream. Recycling, composting, or otherwise diverting waste from landfills improves resource efficiency and reduces your overall environmental footprint.

Map Their Progress

Your current waste generation patterns serve as a baseline, allowing you to track how much (and how quickly) your green initiatives are making an impact. This approach eliminates guesswork and allows you to make accurate predictions about carbon-neutral or zero-waste program deadlines. 

You can compile the data from waste audits into reports that display key figures at a glance, including the amount of material diverted from landfills and the net carbon emissions. It demonstrates your ongoing commitment to sustainable solutions, strengthening your relationships with customers and shareholders.

Drive Corporate Sustainability

Waste audits don’t just provide sustainability metrics on your company; they show trends and standards across whole regions and industries. Comparing these numbers encourages investment in greener initiatives. It also pressures underperforming businesses and drives a change for the better throughout the supply chain.

Prove Compliance

Many regions have regulations and policies related to waste management. Conducting a waste audit can help organizations ensure compliance with local and national waste management regulations and properly manage hazardous waste.

Achieve Certification

Businesses that meet certain ecological standards may qualify for governmental or industrial certification programs, such as TRUE Zero Waste Certification, LEED Certification, EPA’s Waste Wise Program, and the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). Many of these programs require regular waste audits to track progress and maintain certification.

5 Steps of What Happens in a Waste Audit

What Happens in a Waste Audit?

While the process varies depending on the type and scope of every business, the five critical  steps involved in a waste audit are:

1. Waste Collection

A representative waste sample is gathered over a specific period, typically a week. Each bag is labeled with the date and the department where it was collected before being stored securely. On the audit day, waste materials are separated into categories, such as paper, plastic, glass, metal, and organic waste. 

2. Weighing and Recording

Accurate waste measurements are essential for understanding the scale and composition of the waste stream. Once each waste category is sorted and weighed, you can calculate your waste diversion rate by dividing the recycled material's weight by the total waste's combined weight. Multiply by 100 to get your weekly waste diversion percentage.

3. Analysis

Examine the data in your waste stream to identify trends, patterns, and opportunities for improvement. This analysis may include determining the percentage of recyclable materials in the waste stream, assessing contamination levels, and identifying areas for implementing waste reduction measures.

For example, if recyclables were mixed in with trash, what recyclable materials were most likely to be thrown away? Are there adequate recycling opportunities for those items? You could also note the location (such as departments or floors) to see how geography affects the waste generated in those areas. 

4. Recommendations 

Based on the analysis, provide recommendations for improving waste management practices. Suggestions may include: 

  • Increasing recycling rates.
  • Reducing food waste.
  • Implementing composting programs.
  • Reducing single-use items.
  • Enhancing waste separation efforts.

Focus on a few highly effective initiatives and set a goal and deadline for each one. Many companies set yearly timelines for waste reduction, measuring progress in an annual audit. Decide how the responsibility for meeting these goals will be shared and implemented throughout the company.

5. Implementation

Act on the recommendations by incorporating changes to waste management practices. These changes could include introducing new recycling bins, educating staff and the community on proper waste disposal, or collaborating with waste management services to optimize collection and processing.

Best Practices for Planning a Waste Audit

Planning is vital to a successful waste audit! Assemble an audit team several weeks ahead of time to:

Reflect Normal Operations

Select a week for the audit and lock it in. Confirm the time and location to guarantee operations are ticking along at the usual pace. Opt for a week stripped of special events and one where your office crew is clocking in. Make sure your custodial staff knows the trash collection procedures for that week.

Consider Logistics and Details

Choose the venue for the waste audit wisely. If your operation sprawls across multiple sites, consider picking two spots. Spread them out either geographically or by revenue to give a solid representation of the entire organization. Your plan should also include industry-specific requirements, such as the handling or disposing of hazardous materials in a manufacturing waste audit.

Ahead of the audit, take a stroll through the facility. Check out the workflow, where bins hang out, the signage situation, and the overall operations. This walkthrough lets you get a feel for the on-site crew and how they navigate the space.

Finally, outline how you will prioritize your audit crew’s safety, such as the personal protective equipment (PPE) and sanitation measures you will provide.

Identify All Waste Categories

Make a general list of the kinds of trash found in your workplace. Common waste audit categories include:

  • Glass
  • Paper
  • Cardboard
  • Plastic bottles
  • Other plastic
  • Aluminum cans
  • Food waste
  • Packaging
  • Medical waste
  • Display materials
  • Eating and drinkware

Order Materials

Place an order for sorting tools and PPE as far in advance as you can. Common waste auditing tools include:

  • Long-handled litter grabbers or tongs
  • N95 face masks
  • Disposable coveralls
  • Goggles
  • Sturdy gloves
  • Clipboards and pens
  • Trash bags to re-bag your waste post-audit.

Ensure Clear and Accurate Data

Appoint someone to review the tally charts as your workers complete them in case a number or notation isn’t clear. An audit is only as good as the data it provides, and a misplaced decimal can have costly consequences. 

Collate and bring the data to life by creating vibrant graphs, pie charts, and exportable spreadsheets. Share the results through a reporting dashboard or a slide deck. Once you've got the insights, it's time to assemble a champion and a dedicated team. Task them with setting diversion and reduction goals, presenting recommendations to the higher-ups, and rallying the troops to bring those changes to life.

Plan a Follow-up Audit

In addition to planning a follow-up, consider selecting additional sites for future audits. The more data you gather, the greater the potential for uncovering opportunities for waste management improvements. Diversifying your study group can give context to your numbers and build a comprehensive view of where you stand on the sustainability ladder.

Who Should Perform a Company’s Waste Audit?

Small businesses may perform an in-house waste audit to get baseline measurements. However, there are significant advantages to engaging waste management experts for the job, including: 

  • Objective assessment: Third-party professionals bring an objective viewpoint devoid of internal biases. They can assess waste management practices with fresh eyes, identifying inefficiencies, opportunities for improvement, and areas where industry best practices can be implemented.
  • Specialized knowledge: Waste management professionals possess specialized knowledge of the latest industry trends, technologies, and regulatory requirements. Their expertise ensures a comprehensive evaluation, allowing companies to benchmark their practices against industry standards.
  • Benchmarking and best practices: External auditors can access a broader range of industry benchmarks and best practices. This access allows companies to compare their performance against peers and adopt proven strategies for waste reduction, recycling, and sustainability.
  • Efficiency and time savings: Third-party professionals bring efficiency to the audit process. They have experience conducting audits across various industries and can streamline data collection, analysis, and reporting. This efficiency translates into time savings for the company, allowing for a more rapid and focused audit.
  • Regulatory compliance: Waste management regulations are complex and ever-evolving. Professionals well-versed in environmental legislation ensure that companies remain compliant with current laws. This minimizes the risk of regulatory violations and associated penalties.
  • Comprehensive solutions: External auditors identify problems and propose comprehensive solutions. They offer actionable recommendations tailored to the company's unique challenges, helping organizations implement effective waste reduction strategies.
  • Stakeholder confidence: Utilizing a third-party professional adds credibility to the audit process. An independent expert conducting the audit can instill greater confidence in the results among stakeholders such as customers, investors, and regulatory bodies. This in turn, enhances the company's reputation for transparency and responsible business practices.

At Keter Environmental Services, we provide end-to-end waste management and detailed reports on your sustainability efforts, allowing you to make data-driven business decisions. Contact us today to schedule a 30-minute demo call.