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Carry out a waste audit in your community

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01. Background

This factsheet has been designed to help you carry out a waste audit.

We all produce waste and every year each of us produces more than half a tonne of it. The amount of waste we produce is increasing every year, with the largest increases in England and Wales coming from the North East. In 2007/8 the North East produced 1,512 tonnes of household and council related waste, which is the same weight as 173 double decker buses. In England and Wales as a whole, we recycle or compost just 35% of our waste. In the North East, recycling rates are even lower at 28%.

For most of us, waste is not something we like to think about. Very few people know where their waste goes after it is collected or what happens to it. In the UK, most of the waste we produce is either buried in landfill sites or is incinerated. Although environmental regulations to reduce the environmental impacts of landfill and incineration have improved over recent years, these practices still pose a significant threat to the environment.

The waste hierarchy

In order to reduce the amount of waste that we all send for disposal, we need to look at the waste hierarchy. The waste hierarchy is a simple framework that underpins sustainable waste management. It orders waste treatment processes based on their environmental impact.

 

Figure 1. The waste hierarchy

The order of the waste hierarchy is not set in stone, and in certain circumstances one method of waste treatment may be more efficient than the process above it. In general though, it is a useful guide for reducing the impact of the waste we produce. For further information on the problems we face with waste, and for ways to reduce these impacts, visit the ‘Encourage recycling in your community’ factsheet.

Why carry out a waste audit?

A waste audit can be a very effective method of showing people the type and amount of waste they produce. The realisation of how much waste they send to landfill or incinerate is often enough to motivate a person to change their waste habits. For an organisation such as a community group, a waste audit will reveal the type and amount of waste they create. By discovering exactly what is being thrown away, an organisation can work to reduce the amount of waste unnecessarily being thrown away. A waste audit can also discover opportunities for cost savings.

Waste audits are an excellent team building exercise and help individuals learn about what they can reduce, reuse, and recycle. Waste audits needn’t be restricted to ‘black sack’ (or residual waste as it is sometimes called), a waste audit can also be carried out on recycling and composting streams to discover which non recyclable or non compostable materials are being included. This can help reduce contamination (when the wrong materials are placed in recycling or composting bins) and enable a better quality recyclate or compost to be collected.

Any group serious about reducing the amount of waste they create should consider carrying out a waste audit.

02. Suggested Activities

Here are some activities that will help you to carry out a waste audit:

Step 1. Assign a team to carry out a waste audit

Nominate a waste monitor or a team to look at what waste the building or group generates. For a small group this will be very straightforward, but for a larger group or building this exercise may involve some brainstorming within a team to list all the waste and recycling activities that are undertaken within the organisation. 

Step 2. Contact your local authority’s recycling officer

Before the group carries out an audit, try contacting your local authority recycling officer. They may be able to help and guide groups through the audit process, and may even be able to offer equipment to carry out the audit.

Step 3. Collect your waste

Arrange for all waste (including recycling, composting, kitchen waste, and so on) to be collected for a given period. This is usually a 24 hour period, but it may be more practical to collect waste for a longer period, for example a week for a small community group. All waste needs to be in sacks or boxes and clearly labelled with the location of its origin, the length of time the waste was collected for, and the type of waste it is. It may be necessary to discuss this with cleaners or caretakers to avoid any waste being inadvertently thrown away which would lead to an inaccurate waste sample. In order to get an accurate waste sample from the group, it is recommended that people are not made aware of the waste audit and therefore do not change their behaviour. To avoid having to sort through waste containing decomposing food and kitchen waste, it is a good idea to collect this kind of waste separately during the collection period, and weigh it separately. This could involve labelling refuse bins and having food waste collection bins next to them. Provided the organic waste is properly labelled and weighed, and included as part of the total waste collected, then this method is perfectly acceptable.

Step 4. Weigh and record your waste

Weigh each sack, bag or recycling box before emptying and record the location, waste type, and weight on the recording sheet. Empty the contents of the sack onto a mat and sort the contents according to a pre-determined list of materials (please remember to be careful when sorting any waste). Once all of the contents have been sorted, weigh the individual materials and record the weights in the log sheet. There is an example of a waste audit log sheet towards the rear of this factsheet, and it is designed to help groups carry out their audit.

Step 5. Collate your information

Once you have completed your audit, the group should enter the weights of the materials from the completed log sheets into a simple database. An Excel spreadsheet is ideal for this task. Once all data has been entered, calculating the percentage of any given waste material present in the audit can be done by dividing the weight of the material by the combined weight of all the materials collected (including the weight of the one you are working out). Then multiply the total by 100 to give the result. This calculation is summarised below:

(Weight of given material / combined weight of all materials collected) X 100

The above calculation can be used to create a waste profile for a single bin, department, or whole building. An example of the type of information that can be obtained from a waste audit is shown in the pie chart below. By adding all the materials together and by knowing the length of time that a sample of waste represents, it is possible to calculate how much waste is produced over a longer period of time.

Figure 2. The contents of a typical dustbin

Step 6. Instigate projects to reduce and recycle waste

A useful next step after completing a waste audit is to introduce some waste minimisation initiatives including a recycling scheme. Advice and guidance on implementing various waste minimisation or recycling schemes can be found in the ‘Encourage recycling in your community’ factsheet.

If a recycling scheme is already in place, it is a good opportunity to promote the scheme. For further guidance on promoting a scheme visit the factsheet ‘Communicate ideas and information’.

03. Additional Information

Here are some additional things to consider when embarking on a waste audit:

Legislation

It is recommended that a waste audit be carried out on the property where the waste originates. The movement of any waste not owned by an individual or organisation, meaning that it did not originate from them, requires the waste carrier to hold a Waste Carrier’s Licence. If it is necessary to transport waste for analysis, a Waste Carrier’s Licence can be obtained from the Environment Agency. Alternatively, your local recycling officer may also able to offer guidance on obtaining such licences.

Health and Safety

Bins and sacks of waste can be heavy. Proper lifting and handling practices must be observed at all times when carrying out a waste audit.

Waste can also be very smelly and messy. Anyone carrying out a waste audit is advised to wear protective clothing such as gloves and aprons, and to work in a well ventilated area.

Equipment

Below is a list of the equipment you will need to carry out a waste audit, along with approximate costs:

Weigh scale: Ideally you will need two sets of digital weighing scales. A cheaper alternative would be spring balances, however, digital scales provide far greater accuracy. The first set should have a weighing capacity of approximately 10 kilograms, and the second set should have a weigh capacity of approximately 75 kilograms. Scales with a weigh capacity of more than 75-100 kilograms can be used, but it should be noted that with weigh scales accuracy decreases as weigh capacities increase. The 10 kilogram capacity scales will cost around £40, while the 75 kilogram capacity scales will cost around £160.

Aprons and gloves: Protective gloves should be worn at all times when carrying out a waste audit. Gloves suitable for carrying out a waste audit typically cost around £2 per pair.

Floor mats: Unless you have access to an area of floor which can be cleaned with a mop and bucket, it is recommended that a large mat or tarpaulin is used to protect tables or the floor. A large tarpaulin (5.5 X 3.7 metres) costs around £12.

Other equipment: Equipment required for carrying out a waste audit includes: used plastic carrier bags for putting materials in and weighing them, a bucket of warm soapy water for cleaning contaminated recyclables and the tarpaulin; pens, clipboards, materials lists and log sheets for recording data.

04. Waste Audit Log Sheet

An example of a waste audit recording sheet can be downloaded on this page.

The sheet acts as a useful guide, and whether or not materials can be recycled will depend on the local services available. Try to use such a log sheet when carrying out your waste audit.

05. Funding Opportunities

Funding is available to assist you to carry out recycling and waste minimisation projects. Your local authority’s recycling officer may be able to support you. Also contact your local development agency’s funding adviser. Full contact details for local authorities and local develoopment agencies are included in the Directory.

The ‘Fundraising’ factsheet is also full of advice and guidance on fundraising. Don’t forget to visit the up to date information on current funding opportunities in the Directory.

06. Useful Contacts

Here is a list of contacts and information sources that may be able to help you carry out your audit or implement recycling / waste minimisation projects:

Recycle Now is a national campaign aiming to get people to reduce the amount of waste they create. Their website enables you to search your local area for recycling sites plus get information on what materials are accepted in the kerb-side recycling schemes where you live. The website is also full of great tips and guidance on recycling and composting for householders. www.recyclenow.com

Waste Watch is a leading environmental organisation working to change the way people use the world’s natural resources. www.wastewatch.org.uk

Waste Resource Action Programme provides advice and support relating to composting and other recycling practices and materials. www.wrap.org.uk

Letsrecycle.com is the UK’s only independent dedicated website for businesses, local authorities and community groups involved in recycling and waste management. www.letsrecycle.com

The Community Composting Network provides advice and support relating to composting. www.communitycomposting.org

Waste Aware North East can advise on waste awareness activities in the region. www.nerwai.org.uk

Community Recycling Network North East supports the community recycling sector in the North East. They provide targeted support and represent the interests of community waste, recycling and reuse enterprises in the region. www.crnne.org.uk

Groundwork North East, through their website, can help you to find out about projects to reduce waste in your local area. www.northeast.groundwork.org.uk

Local Authority
Recycling officers are now present in most local authorities in the North East. These officers will be able to advise groups and individuals on what local waste and recycling initiatives are available. Contact details for all local authorities are available in the Directory.

07. About the Contributor

The information in this factsheet has been written by Waste Watch, a leading environmental organisation working to change the way people use the world’s natural resources.

This factsheet is part of the Brighter Futures Together toolkit and provides a general overview of the different ways to get involved in your community. It is not a comprehensive guide or legal advice document. Please seek further advice and appropriate consent before commencing any projects.

The material in the factsheet is not copyrighted however we ask that you acknowledge the Brighter Futures Together toolkit when you use them. www.brighterfuturestogether.co.uk