The average U.S. office worker generates two pounds of paper each day, according to Environmental Protection Agency. Most of that trash -- 90 percent -- is made up of printed materials like sales reports, project drafts, copy machine mistakes and unwanted mail.
While recycling might seem like the easy fix, Jay Coalson, executive director of the Zero Waste Alliance, a Portland-based nonprofit that helps organizations eliminate trash, champions business owners to take it further.
"I believe in no waste," says Coalson, "Some might think it’s impossible and frankly, it is an audacious goal. But so is starting a small business and running it through a recession. Entrepreneurs are already audacious; why not use this mindset to get rid of waste and enhance your community in the process?"
Coalson says achieving zero waste is a process that takes time. He offers small-business owners these five steps to eliminate weekly trash from their workplace:
1. Schedule a waste audit or assessment.
"Entrepreneurs don’t have time to dig through the garbage and determine what's in there," Coalson says. "They probably don't realize, however, that nonprofits and government agencies will come to your workplace and assess your waste stream for you."
An audit will provide a detailed analysis of what’s being thrown away during a given time period, measuring types of discards as well as recycling efforts. Coalson suggests contacting city offices, local environmental nonprofits or area colleges that have environmental studies programs. He also says some waste haulers offer audit services.
2. Understand your waste stream.
Once you have assessed your waste, evaluate the results. "This goes beyond just saying we recycle this much and we throw away this much," says Coalson. "Instead, figure out where and why waste is generated in the first place."
Coalson says anything that ends up in your waste stream is a signal of inefficiency. "You might discover your office is collectively throwing away five copies of same newspaper every day," he says. "Even if you are recycling the newspapers, it's a financial drain and it's going out the backdoor without any real benefit."
3. Determine what you can eliminate.
Coalson says once you measure and understand your waste stream, you have the whole picture. "Talk to your team about what is going into garbage cans that can be recycled or composted," he says.
“Also talk about what is going into the recycling bin that can be eliminated altogether." He urges people to think of the bigger picture behind waste saying, "If you’re wasting paper, you’re also wasting the time and money that goes into the creation of those materials. Waste begets waste.”
4. Take action.
Coalson says the next step is to set targets for eliminating waste. For example, a small office might try to cut its weekly trash in half while increasing its recycling efforts by a third.
He also suggests setting up systems that redefine processes. Share files electronically instead of printing to distribute. Set printers to the duplex setting, automatically printing on both sides of the paper. And use a free service such as Catalog Choice to remove your business from lists to avoid unwanted mail.
5. Share your success.
Coalson says offering tangible statements about your business's green practices can foster better relationships with clients. "It demonstrates a culture of efficiency and that can attract business," he says. "There are no downsides to working toward zero waste. When's the last time you heard someone say they were pro-waste?"