When Bloomington, Ill.-based State Farm Insurance adopted a cooperative cleaning program in six of its buildings nine years ago, only a handful of the 1,400 employees were initially resistant.

Cooperative cleaning, also known as collaborative cleaning, is when building occupants are responsible for emptying their own waste and recycling into communal containers strategically located in common areas.

At State Farm, employees were already responsible for taking confidential documents to communal trash areas for shredding. Then, the company implemented a policy requiring food waste be disposed in different communal containers instead of the receptacles placed in occupant offices or cubicles.

“If you’re at your desk snacking on an apple, you’re probably going to get up and go wash your hands at some point after you’re done,” says Steve Spencer, facilities specialist for State Farm. “It makes sense to toss out your food waste on the way to the bathroom or break room instead of letting it rot in the garbage can under your desk for a day or two.”

So, when cooperative cleaning was fully implemented, requiring occupants to empty whatever trash they had left at their desks into communal containers, the switch wasn’t that drastic.

The company set up 22 collection sites throughout its headquarters using a double dolly system to hold trash and recycling receptacles. That allowed workers to separate their food waste from paper and cardboard.

The savings was immediate and significant, according to Spencer. Instead of taking three janitors to empty two cans, trash and recycling, for more than 1,400 workers each night, it only takes one person to dump 44 communal containers, saving the company around $70,000 a year.

In a battered economy in which companies are looking for ways to slash any unnecessary expense, the collaborative cleaning option is a win-win for both building service contractors and customers.

Tough Sell

By enlisting building occupants to take out their own trash, BSCs not only save on labor costs, but they can free up workers to service other accounts.

It takes about one minute to empty one trash receptacle, says Spencer. That means it would take a janitor nearly two hours to empty 100 cans. With customers emptying receptacles, that time can be better spent elsewhere.

But it can be a challenge to convince customers to convert to cooperative cleaning programs. Upper management can push back because they don’t want employees spending time — even if it’s as little as two minutes a day — emptying trash.

Even at State Farm where the transition was relatively smooth, some employees complained they barely had enough time to do their work, let alone take out the garbage. Besides, they argued, performing janitorial service was not part of their job description.

Instead of embracing the new policy, employees sabotaged the cooperative cleaning efforts, says Spencer. They filled up containers with trash after the cleaning crew already left and said containers were missed. Once they ran out of trash, they dumped reams of unused white paper into the recycling bins (which company officials later recovered). Occupants also refused to place their individual trash in a central location where janitors were responsible for collecting it nightly.

Start with Communication

In order for cooperative cleaning to work, all building occupants — from upper management on down — need to be on board with the program.

“You have to be able to sell the idea to the management team first,” says Spencer. “It’s important to communicate how it’s going to work and why they should care.”

If communicated properly, upper management can be swayed because of the cost savings involved. It’s also easier to convert management once they understand emptying trash isn’t taking away from employees work time; rather, it’s being done when it’s convenient for the occupant, for example, on the way to the restroom, break room or exit. Employees would be going to these places anyway — why not bring the trash along as well?

When convincing other building occupants of the program’s merits, cost shouldn’t be the reason. Occupants shouldn’t be made to feel that the only reason to empty one’s own trash is to save the company money, says Spencer.

That doesn’t surprise Bill Crouch, vice president of compliance and training for Mitch Murch Maintenance Management (4M) in St. Louis. A cooperative cleaning program designed solely to save the company money is likely to fail before it ever starts.

“If it’s just about cutting costs, they will see this as a reduction in the services you provide them,” says Crouch.

BSCs can help their customers with ideas to help smooth over the process. Roger Ford, director of operations for Team MJV in Lafayette, Ind., recommends customers establish an incentive program that encourages building occupants to do their part in a collaborative cleaning arrangement. For example, use some of the cost savings or money earned from recycling to throw employees a party or donate it to a charity.

“[Occupants] are more likely to buy into the collaborative cleaning program if there is a reward for their efforts,” says Ford. “Customers are going to get a better response when they involve their employees and let them have a say in how the process is set up.”

Cooperative cleaning can also be promoted as being environmentally-friendly. Occupants are able to sort out their own recycling, helping to ensure these items are disposed of properly and not ending up in landfills. Occupants feel good that they are doing their part to help save the planet.

“If your goal is to have a smaller footprint on the environment, they are more likely to comply,” says Crouch. “When they see the positive impact their actions have, they are less likely to resist it.”

Successful strategies Besides helping clients win over building occupants, contractors can also assist management with establishing specific goals and measurements to determine if the program is successful. At State Farm, containers with numbered tags were placed throughout the buildings. Tags would be removed every time a container was emptied. If a tag was not being pulled, then it was clear that bin was not being filled enough, so it wasn’t in a convenient location and should be moved.

Convenience is what will make cooperative cleaning a success. Employees should be able to find trash and recycling receptacles quickly and easily. Common places include elevator areas, restrooms, break rooms, near fax and copy machines and main entryways. A receptacle should be placed where mass quantities of food or paper are located. If it’s difficult to find a receptacle or if the containers are always full, people won’t be as enthusiastic about doing their part.

BSCs can help make the program even more convenient by providing the proper sized waste receptacles. The main collection bins need to be large enough to accommodate trash from all individual receptacles. The higher number of occupants, the larger the waste receptacle should be.

No one wants trash spilling out onto the floor or the responsibility of taking it outside if it overfills before the janitors come in, says James Heck, president of Team MJV.

BSCs should also provide occupants with easy access to trash liners, says Heck. The bags are often best located where the main containers are so that as people dispose of their trash or recycling, they can grab a new liner before heading back to the their desk.

Image and perception are important, too. Trash, waste, garbage — none of these are exactly elegant terms. The right verbiage can go a long way in encouraging occupants to participate willingly.

“You don’t want visible signs hung up throughout the office that read ‘waste container,’” says Spencer. “If you have nice signage that spells out the words ‘collection site,’ you will definitely get people interested,” says Spencer.

It might not be easy to convince clients to take out their own trash, but during this recession when everyone is looking to save money, cooperative cleaning is one simple way for customers to cut costs and still keep buildings clean.

Becky Bergman is a freelance writer based in Mooresville, N.C.