Mark Petruzzi from GreenSeal in front of green trees

By now you’ve seen at least one story highlighting the challenges resulting from our increased use of plastics, both single-use and multi-use. Global attention eventually finds its way local and sustainability leaders will want to be ahead of the curve and ready to show the contributions (or reductions, in this case) made by custodial operations.

While much of the discussion is focused on reducing new plastic items introduced into the environment, there is also discussion about expanding the “clean up” of plastics after use.

More sustainable purchasing can be implemented in housekeeping departments, but collecting and handling plastic items after use is a joint effort between building occupants and the cleaning team. Nobody knows the “wasted resource stream” (notice I didn’t say “waste stream”) coming out of a building like the custodial staff.

The European Union recently proposed a ban on a number of single-use plastic items (i.e., straws, cutlery, plates, drink stirrers) frequently found in marine litter, a 25 percent reduction for other types of plastic products, and an increase to 90 percent collection and recycling of single-use plastic drink bottles by 2025.
Could your facility collect 90 percent (or more) of single-use plastic drink bottles today? If not, what would need to change to make that happen?

Perhaps the most obvious custodial place to reduce plastic use is trash liners. Facility Cleaning Decisions has regularly covered this topic, so I’ll just refresh the key takeaways.

First, look for places to use fewer liners (i.e., some cans may not need liners, or the liners can be emptied and reused multiple times). Where you do need liners, choose options with a high percentage of post-consumer recycled content. Avoid “oxo-degradable” plastics, which contain additives that cause the plastic to fragment into smaller pieces — there is a lack of evidence for actual degradation of the plastic and any resulting environmental benefits. To date, more than 150 organizations working on global plastic issues and circular economy initiatives urge avoiding “oxo-degradable” plastic.

In addition to keeping up with your regularly scheduled “wasted resource stream” audits, I’d like to propose a “plastics audit” specific to custodial operations. Start with the custodial closets and take note of how products are delivered and packaged.

Note the types of plastic used for rigid containers and any flexible pouches. Are there products packaged in plastic bags inside of shipping cartons? What products arrive in plastic shrink wrap, either by themselves or as part of a palletized order? Which items are individually wrapped or packaged in plastic that could be shipped in bulk or reusable totes? What about small “remove before use” plastic components, such as cable ties, caps, key guards or locking mechanisms?

In addition to plastic packaging, what plastic products are not currently recycled after use? And are your current products clearly labeled with the type of plastic and recycling instructions (i.e., a How2Recycle label)?

Once you have more specifics about the types and amounts of plastics in your custodial operations, you can ask questions of your suppliers and distributors. For plastic items you see regularly that aren’t currently collected for recycling, are there other options to recycle or reduce those purchases? Could you switch to an alternative that’s reusable or more readily recyclable?

If you have difficult-to-recycle plastic items, ask the manufacturer or your distributor about taking back the empty/used items. There may be space on the vehicle after they drop off your order.

We’re in the early stages of this sustainability journey from plastics awareness into action, one highlighted by the aptly named EU campaign supporting the proposed plastics regulations, “The Seductive Power of Single-Use Plastics.” As organizations look to address their plastics footprint, housekeeping departments can provide vital feedback and support for efforts to reduce the amount of plastics in your buildings and achieve zero waste goals. 

MARK PETRUZZI is Green Seal’s former Senior Vice President of Outreach and Strategic Relations. He’s in his third decade of striving for more sustainable purchasing and operations by using his engineering powers for good.