Whether you get help you or do it yourself, it is really instructive to involve your employees in the process. Shocking them about what is thrown away is all part of the process.
Step 1: Plan the waste auditIf you have more than a few trash cans, you want to avoid having to do a full head-first dumpster dive! Instead you can sample your waste.
Who's waste? What buildings or departments will be involved? Are you assessing both recycling and landfilled waste? What about waste oil from your garage or waste oil from the cafeteria?
When and how to get a representative sample? Are there days or weeks that are more representative than others? How is trash and recycling picked up now? Can you have facilities count the number of bags or dumpsters they fill in a month and then randomly grab a few sample bags to sort?
Determine how you want to report the data. Do you want to be able to compare departments or facilities? Do you want to estimate glass, plastic, metal and paper as recyclables as well as contaminates in the recycling and recyclables in the trash? Is it going to be easier to measure and report weight or volume? (There are conversion charts if you have to do some of both.) Create a worksheet that can be used when you do the sort. You will likely want to have separate sections or worksheets for recycling/compost and waste. There are many examples online that you can use or modify. Here's one.
What materials will you need? Puncture proof gloves, protective eye-ware, and old clothes are a must. It can be helpful to have a scale and a bunch of 5 gallon buckets or trash cans to sort the materials into. A luggage scale is helpful so you can hang the buckets to weigh them; the scales cost around $20 at Ace Hardware.
Step 2: Do a trial sortGrab one bag of garbage or recycling and begin to separate it. Does your system work? This is when you start to get questions like, "Do I put the squeeze pack of Ketchup in liquid or food or non-recyclable waste?" Update your worksheet accordingly.
Step 3: Gather data on the overall waste streamFor a typical month or similar period, figure out your total waste volume or weight. (If your dumpsters get picked up full, it might be as simple as counting the cubic feet of trash picked up.) If your operations vary a lot (eg, a school that has summer break or a church that occasionally hosts wedding receptions), you may identify a couple representative waste streams.
Step 4: Sort a sampling of the overall waste streamGather staff or students and tear apart a random sampling of garbage bags. Sort the trash and recyclables separately and have each person or station use the worksheet created and updated after your trial run. Do a debrief afterward. What were they shocked about? What ideas do they have for improving their performance?
Step 5: Analyze the dataIf you have more than one sorting station, you'll have to compile the worksheet data. Use your sampling sort to extrapolate your monthly or annual waste stream. Create charts that show how your waste breaks down into types. If you do this year after year, you can use stacked bars like the example below to show progress over time. Note how trash is black and a negative number and recyclables are separated into material types collected. The progress from year to year can easily be eye-balled.
Step 6: Plan and implement ideas for improvementWith input from employees, come up with ideas for improvement. Implement the best idea(s).
What you buy: Can you reduce your purchasing? Can you buy in bulk? Can you choose recyclable packaging vs non-recyclable. For example, the padded envelopes made of paper and bubble wrap are not recyclable but the plastic envelopes may be in your area.
Separate and reuse: Separate at the source is almost always better. Make double sided printing the default on the copier. But have a stack of used paper by the copier for drafts or make note pads from one-sided paper. (You may also want to have a shredder for sensitive documents you don't want used this way). One of my clients realized that 40% of the food waste at the cafeteria was ice and left over soft drinks, so they created a way to dump it down the sink. They also realized their outdoor trash bins funneled rain into them. They were hauling off rain water! So they got covers that kept the rain out.
Signage and systems: Better signage can cut down on mistakes people make, what goes in recycling and what is trash. Consistency matters. Do it the same way everywhere in the building or your town. Put recycling containers first (ideally with lids that make it hard to put in the wrong thing), and trash last. One office switched the garbage cans in everyone's cubical to recycling. There was one trash can down the hall. It made employees think about their choices and it was the same amount of work for the janitorial staff.
Switch recycling services: Not all recycling is the same. Systems where you dump everything into one container typically can only recover 10-20% of the recyclables. Recycling systems separated by the customer or at the curb can get close to 99% recovery rates.
Create incentives: If you can sell recyclables, can you create a kitty for fun events with the money? Or can you create an incentive in your hauler contract that gives them an incentive to improve recycling?
Compost or vermiculture: Worm bins can be kept under sinks. Some people may be willing to take coffee grounds home to their rosebushes.
Trust but verify: When you set systems into motion, you have to go back and verify if they are being followed. Too many times, office workers separate their recycling only to find out that the janitors dump it all in the trash! People come and go; sometimes they get lazy. Managers must show they care.