In June 2011, a team of Harvard employees rooted through over 100 pounds of waste materials to evaluate how well occupants of the South building at 46 Blackstone Street are diverting materials from landfills.  The building features a mix of trash, recycling, and composting bins, all of which were collected over a 24-hour period and then sorted into groups (e.g. metals, plastics, compostables, landfill waste, etc.) to determine whether all materials were placed in their proper collection bins.

The audit demonstrated that over 42% of the total waste by weight was properly diverted from the landfill. According to Rob Gogan, Manager of Harvard FMO Recycling Services, this is about average for waste audits that do not include landscaping materials. This exercise identified that there is still much room for improvement, as an additional 46% of the waste could have been diverted but was improperly disposed of, e.g. food placed in the trash instead of the compost bin. Compostable materials, specifically paper towels and napkins, represented the largest potential for improvement, with nearly 80% of these items being placed in the trash rather than compost bin.

The next step will be to specifically target and refine the building’s existing educational campaigns to determine optimal means of diverting more compostable waste from the trash, such as evaluating the location and number of bins, the size of bins, and the signage. Paper towels are often citied as a key opportunity to reduce waste. According to Gogan:

“Paper towels are the #1 product in the waste stream of all office buildings on campus.  If Blackstone wanted to adopt a more sustainable materials management system, building staff would promote reusables such as the 'People’s Towel,' or use its Green Teamers to encourage individuals to tote their napkins and towels to the compost. Another option, though noisy, is hand dryers, which save energy and reduce custodial pickup costs. The really nasty thing about paper towels is that they burp methane in the landfill—a greenhouse gas 20 times worse than CO2. It is not sustainable to put paper products of any kind into a landfill.”

This audit was driven in large part by efforts to achieve LEED for Existing Buildings: Operations and Maintenance certification, which focuses on how buildings are managed and operated. In 2007, 46 Blackstone earned the highly coveted Platinum certification under the LEED for New Construction rating system. To earn points for a waste stream audit in pursuit of LEED-EBOM certification, the USGBC requires a detailed accounting of the components of each waste stream and analysis about potential opportunities for improving the building’s overall diversion rate. The end result is a waste stream audit report that describes the audit process in detail in addition to the accounting measures mentioned above. Jay Sisam, a Project Coordinator with Harvard’s Green Building Services group, commented that ”Participating in this audit not only highlights the necessity of a good occupant education campaign for a successful recycling campaign, but also the importance of convenient and readily accessible disposal options.”

View the Waste Audit Report