Waste has always been made up of various components: glass, plastic, paper products, textiles, wood, metals, food scraps, yard trimmings and other miscellaneous organic and inorganic items.

But the diversion of waste has become much more comprehensive in recent years; while waste still goes to landfills every day, consumers, businesses, manufacturers and waste haulers alike are finding ways to recycle higher percentages of that trash every year.

Recycling has finally seeped into the mainstream cultural behaviors of Americans, says Gary Walker, president of Magic Touch Cleaning in Lee's Summit, Mo. Walker and his company have made their names promoting the benefits of green cleaning and green living.

"When I go and talk with people about green, and I ask them about green actions, the very first thing that comes out of their mouths — and it doesn't matter who it is, whether it's high school students or major corporations — is always recycling," Walker says. "Green is recycling."

Walker estimates that about 90 percent of his customers are engaged in some form of recycling, thanks to a mindfulness by the general public and a culture shift that has put green issues on the forefront of both the public and private sectors.

The motivation to take on a more comprehensive recycling program has to come from within the company, Walker says.

There has to first be a culture shift before a BSC can truly implement a program that is right for any given customer. When that willingness is there, BSCs have the opportunity to work with customers to find a program that works for them.

"One thing about green: if you don't make it simple to understand and execute, a lot of people don't participate," Walker says.

Single-stream recycling, also known as fully co-mingled or single-sort, mixes all fibers and containers together in one collection to be separated later by waste handlers — and it's the easiest way to do it for both building occupants and janitorial employees, Walker says.

"Instead of emptying three cans, we're hitting one can. That makes it so much easier on us," he says.

Creatures of Habit

Recycling isn't about forcing customers to participate; on the contrary, it's about finding a program that customers will actually use.

A good recycling program, built on knowledge of human behavior and formed with some research into who building occupants are, can dramatically reduce what is going into the landfill in just months. 

Porter Industries Inc., Loveland, Colo., was asked by a multi-tenant facility's property manager to come up with ideas to implement recycling for its dozen or so tenants. To help shift the corporate culture there, Porter included recycle bins at desks, so occupants could single-stream their plastics, aluminum and cans in one receptacle. Trash bins were downsized, and Porter staff shifted to taking trash twice a week and recycling three times a week.

"It completely changed how they behaved in the facility," says Ken Sargent, support services administrator. "You literally had a 50- to 60-percent reduction in volume in what was leaving the facility and going to a landfill — from people who had never recycled."

In general, placement of receptacles has to be convenient and make sense for occupants based on traffic and behavior patterns. 

"If you want your program to work, put [receptacles] where they go to; put it where they drink and eat and they'll use it," Sargent says. "But if you make it inconvenient, you can count on them not using it." 

The recycle logo of three arrows in a triangular loop is finally being recognized and respected by most of the general public, Sargent says. Recognizing the insignia and using the bins properly is part of a more standardized behavior.

Corporate behavior is also on board with recycling programs, as evidenced by a commitment to recycle even in a region like the West, where land is plentiful and tipping fees are low.

"We've seen a significant commitment to recycling and one of the key things is the landfill," Sargent says. "It would be much cheaper to haul away. That's at the corporate level, and that's exciting."

In general, Porter is taking out more recycling than trash at almost every account. Trash reduction has been happening for about four years, but has gotten huge in the last two, Sargent says.

Proactive Partnerships

BSCs can provide valuable advice to customers that want to tailor a program to fit their occupants. Single-stream recycling is the easiest for BSCs, and doesn't add much, if any, labor — since janitors are hitting trash receptacles anyway.

Some large businesses are requiring employees to dispose of their trash and recycling in a central location, contributing to employee buy-in and reducing work for janitors.

"They want their associates to feel they've got buy-in and that they're answering the call, because a lot of associates are starting to drive some of the decisions in green, as opposed to it being a top-down," Walker says. "Now it's starting to be internal, where you've got teams coming together and they're just looking for ways to save money and make things more sustainable."

Recycling has also become part of contract negotiations, which is something BSCs didn't used to see very often, Sargent says.

"It used to be add-on and now it's part of the contract," he says. "You're seeing a lot more mainstream behavior with recycling, inside the contract, which is great, especially for our organization. It fits our corporate culture really well."

BSCs are also forming valuable partnerships with waste handlers that can be brought in as consultants or partners in educating building occupants about how they can best recycle.

Organic Waste: The Next Frontier?

One trend that has seen growth in residential settings for years is composting, or biodegrading organic waste such as food, paper, wood and grass trimmings. The idea seems to be gaining steam for corporations as well.

Composting is a great way to recycle paper waste from kitchens and restrooms, says Sargent. Porter recently partnered with one customer that serves a lunch to tenants, and biodegradable paper towels and toilet paper are mixed in with the food waste, rolled outside and picked up by a composting service.

Some medical providers — whose employees wash their hands dozens of times a day and thus use a lot of paper toweling — are also leading the way with paper composting, Sargent adds.

While a majority of corporations are on board with recycling, there are still some areas where regulation may be needed, Sargent says. For instance, the recycling of lower-end plastics by some businesses tends to be affected by higher oil prices.

"When oil prices go down, the plastics start to go into the dump," he says. "It's corporate behavior. All of a sudden it's cheaper for virgin plastic than it is to recycle it. When it's like it is now, with expensive oil, all of a sudden, recycling #6 and #5 plastics makes sense."

Building service contractors that are looking for ways to be more interactive with customers should take a closer look at the recycling programs they're offering and emphasize the individualized attention each account can receive through working together.