Creating and running a comprehensive waste management program is a time-consuming endeavor that could easily be a full-time job. In many organizations, however, waste is an afterthought — trash goes in a bin, the bin is emptied, someone hauls it away.

“Most housekeeping managers are mainly concerned with floors and toilets,” says Ed Barr, manager of support services at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia. “What goes out the back door is out of sight, out of mind. That door hides a multitude of sins and if you’re not paying attention to what goes out, a lot of things can happen.”

With growing to-do lists and shrinking staffs, many housekeeping managers make trash a low priority. Correctly removing waste — drying leftover paint into a solid before disposal, for example — takes time and energy. So it’s not surprising that roughly 55 percent of America’s garbage is packed into landfills, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Given the potential implications of garbage, cleaners who are willing to take on the role of waste managers can be valuable stewards for the Earth, as well as the department.

Where It Goes

Before implementing a disposal program, a housekeeping manager needs to understand the various waste streams. There are items that must be sent to landfills, others that should be incinerated or treated, and those that can be recycled.

Landfills are used for items that can’t be recycled. Waste management rules vary widely between municipalities so it is important to check local regulations before creating a program. Generally, however, there are items that must go to the landfill, including aluminum foil, window glass and hybrid plastics (an item that fuses materials together, such as plastic and metal or two different grades of plastic).

Typically, burial is also the only way to dispose of hazardous waste. This includes items that are toxic (pesticides, some cleaning chemicals), flammable (paint, solvents) or corrosive (many cleaning chemicals, batteries). These items must be disposed of at special landfills specifically designed to prevent seepage into underground water supplies, so it is critical to check the facility’s capabilities.

Biomedical waste is treated differently than other hazardous materials. Generally, cities require that hospitals and other health care facilities use steam sterilization or incineration to treat the waste before it can be sent to the landfill. Disposal fees for this type of waste are typically assessed by the pound, so it is important to educate building occupants about how to use biomedical waste bins correctly.

“There is a lot of stuff that shouldn’t be in there — packaging, people’s lunches,” Barr says. “There are ways to reduce misplaced trash, primarily through education. We have a sticker on top of our trashcans that tells people what should go in each specific can.”

Recycling has also been well accepted and now accounts for 31 percent of waste disposal. As demand for recycling grows, so does the amount of items that can be recycled. In addition to the standard programs for paper, plastic, aluminum and glass, many cities now recycle such items as motor oil, computers, batteries and light bulbs.

“Recycling simply recognizes that there is a lot of value in what is otherwise being carted off to landfills,” says Steve Ashkin, president of The Ashkin Group LLC, and executive director of the Green Cleaning Network in Bloomington, Ind. “Typically making products that use recycled materials is more benign to the environment than making the same item from virgin materials, as the manufacturing process using recycled materials typically uses less energy and water.”

The best waste management programs are actually waste minimization programs. They focus on waste hierarchy, which is the three R’s — reduce, reuse and recycle. The goal is to get the maximum benefit from every product and to generate the minimum amount of waste possible.

“Recycling by itself is not the answer, you have to go for reductions and reuse,” says William Griffin, president of Cleaning Consultants in Seattle. “It’s very convenient to just dump it in the dumpster but that’s not environmentally friendly at all.”

With that goal in mind, many institutions also reuse products, either themselves or through charitable donation. For example, Barr has a space for used office furniture and artwork, which he uses to fill requests from building occupants whenever possible.

Composting can also reduce landfill contributions. This works for shredded paper, food scraps and yard waste. Barr is currently considering adding composting to his hospital’s waste management system and expects it could reduce his landfill contributions by an additional 15 percent (the hospital currently recycles about 35 percent of its waste).

Another strategy for dealing with waste is source reduction. Industry experts recommend buying chemicals that are highly concentrated and dilute to many uses. If cleaners use a concentrated glass cleaner that dilutes at 64:1 compared to one that dilutes at 128:1, that reduces the amount of waste from those containers by half.

Many housekeeping managers think of recycling as more work with little reward. In fact, switching the waste management program from a dump-it-all system to a waste hierarchy model can be well worth the labor expense. It is not unusual for about 30 percent of the cost of housekeeping to be spent on waste removal and recycling. But, proper implementation of the three R’s can easily reduce hauling fees by 30 to 50 percent and some facilities actually generate an income from selling their recyclables.

Experts comment that it is important for cleaning managers to demonstrate that they care about the environment. Doing so proves that the values of the department mirror those of the building occupants.

Ask For Help

With the variety of disposal options available and the lack of uniform regulations, waste management can be quite confusing, but there is no reason to go it alone. The best resources for a housekeeping manager are his city’s solid waste department and local recycler (in some cases, these will be the same entity). In many areas, these groups offer a waste stream audit at no cost.

Experts comment that for departments implementing a sustainability plan, this can be a useful tool to identify the items that are part of the waste stream, which might be recyclable and which could be reduced by modifying departmental purchasing habits.

Waste departments also take an active role in identifying for- and not-for-profit organizations that handle materials that cannot or should not go into the landfill. So if cleaners are not sure where to dispose of a fluorescent light bulb or a toner cartridge, the waste department can help identify an organization that recycles that material or a facility that properly handles its disposal.

As Thomas Jefferson University Hospital grows, so does the amount of waste it generates. To find new solutions for making the operation more efficient and cost effective, Barr works closely with his waste hauler of 20 years, Waste Management.

“It’s a partnership,” Barr says. “If we have a problem, we go to them. If they have a problem, they come to us.”

Another valuable resource is a housekeeping department’s vendors. The material safety data sheets (MSDS) provided by chemical manufacturers typically include disposal recommendations. When they don’t, the vendor should be able to provide the information.

Like the local waste department, manufacturers should also be able to provide suggestions on where to recycle tricky items, such as batteries or light bulbs.

Save the staff the hassle of recycling packaging by asking the vendor to take it with them after delivery. This is particularly helpful when the vendor delivers a large item, such as a ride-on autoscrubber or other large cleaning equipment.

Don’t do this on your own, say experts. Rather than wrestle with these items look to the vendor partners to play a role in the process.

Many European nations are now obligating vendors to help their customers with waste disposal by implementing Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). This strategy makes the manufacturer and/or distributor of a product accountable for it (and its packaging) for its entire lifecycle. So instead of a customer trashing an old vacuum, the manufacturer is required to take it back and handle its recycling or disposal.

“As a result, manufacturers have become much more serious about end-of-life issues including waste disposal, recycling, manufacturing products to be easily disassembled and to reuse components that are still valuable,” says Ashkin. “This is something that I expect to be considered in the U.S. in the future.”

In fact, some progressive manufacturers are already voluntarily creating EPR programs. Others don’t have formal programs, but will take back products at a customer’s request.

For example, when Barr takes delivery of 50 new cases of light bulbs, he hands back to the vendor the last 50 cases filled with the old bulbs.

“Vendors will sell you a $1 million piece of equipment and leave the packaging,” Barr says. “It’s incumbent upon us to tell them to take the old one with them and to take the packaging with them. You need to tell the vendors, ‘if you want to sell here, this is what you need to do.’”

Get Organized

Like any other system in the cleaning department, a waste management program should be a well-oiled machine. To do that, it’s important to implement a formal process. Start by creating a waste management team that includes staff members from custodial, maintenance and management. It’s also helpful to include someone from the local municipality’s waste department.

This group should set goals, create disposal and recycling standards and establish a system of accountability, including incentives for success. The goals should be measurable, such as how many pounds will be recycled or how many dollars will be saved in hauling fees.

“If dealing with the trash is just another job, that’s not enough,” Griffin says. “Make it a priority. Find somebody who really cares and put them in charge of the process.”

As the program moves forward, audit it as if it was any other cleaning process. Just as floors are inspected to be sure they were cleaned properly, it is important to check in on the waste management program frequently to be sure it is meeting expectations.

Griffin stresses that measuring and monitoring are critical keys to a successful program. Too often, housekeeping departments aren’t serious about recycling, which is a critical aspect of waste management. In fact, Griffin has seen facilities that collect recyclables and dump them in the trash.

“In some places the custodial manager says, ‘We’re not going to dump the recyclables because it’s too much work,’” Griffin says. “The garbage gets dumped every night but they think of recycling as someone else’s job. Really, they should be concentrating on the recycle bin first.”

Luckily, improving the waste management system is relatively easy. But it’s a process that needs to include everyone from top management to front-line workers.

“Don’t get frustrated by the process,” Griffin says. “Educate the people who do the cleaning to be aware of waste issues. They are the ones there every day and seeing what’s going out of the building.”

Becky Mollenkamp is a freelance writer based near Des Moines, Iowa.