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Process optimization Article | 11-minute read

How to conduct a waste management audit

Waste doesn’t just harm the environment. It costs you money. Here’s how to audit and reduce it.
woman with white helmet and yellow jacket in a factory

Canada generates one of the highest volumes of waste per person in the world, with 60% coming from businesses and organizations. And the waste you generate in your business isn’t just bad for the environment—it costs you money. 

“Everything you throw out costs your bottom line,” says Jamie Kaminski, President of HSR Zero Waste, a company that advises businesses on how to reduce their waste. “Waste is a huge savings opportunity for entrepreneurs. That’s why it’s useful to do a waste management audit and reduction plan for your business.”

As the cost of materials goes up, it doesn’t make sense to not manage your resources more effectively.

The size of the opportunity is significant. In Ontario, for example, only 15% of waste from businesses and organizations is diverted (reused, recycled or composted), according to a provincial auditor general report. That’s much less than the residential sector, which diverts 50% of waste.

“As the cost of materials goes up, it doesn’t make sense to not manage your resources more effectively,” says Kaminski, who also sits on the board of Zero Waste Canada, a nonprofit group that promotes waste reduction among businesses.

The journey to zero waste

How can I reduce my company’s waste?

Kaminski uses a four-step process to help companies reduce their waste. Businesses can go through these steps on their own or hire an outside expert on waste management. Kaminski suggests finding an expert who specializes in “zero waste”—an approach that seeks to reduce waste to near-zero levels.

1. Waste assessment

The first step is a waste assessment. This kicks off with a review of your company’s goals—“what you want to focus on and where you want to go,” as Kaminski puts it. You may have more than one goal. Here are some common reasons for businesses to take action.

  • Environmental values—You may want to improve your sustainability record because of environmental concerns and your company’s values.
  • Cutting costs—You may see an opportunity to reduce costs. Properly implemented waste reduction projects generally see a payback on the investment, Kaminski says.
  • Happier employees and customers—Employees and customers increasingly want businesses to improve their environmental performance.
  • Supply chain or other partner requirements—Supply chains and other partners are increasingly asking companies about their waste reduction efforts—for example, in requests for proposals.
  • Certification—Businesses may need to conduct a waste management audit and reduction effort for certifications, such as Zero Waste Canada, B Corp, the GHG Corporate Protocol or ISO 14064.

Organizations often start to use different language and improve their system just by having a conversation.

Review existing policies and activities

The next part of the assessment is getting an overview of your existing waste management policies and activities. An expert typically interviews key personnel, then does a walk-through of the company’s facilities with the goal of understanding “the who, what and how of their waste,” in Kaminski’s words. The goal is to understand:

  • how the company operates and what materials it uses
  • what and how waste is generated in different areas of the business
  • what material is reused or discarded
  • how recycled and composted material is separated
  • existing waste reduction efforts

“A lot of organizations don’t even know they’re already doing a lot of great activities to reuse or reduce waste,” Kaminski says. “Their staff is sometimes doing it ad hoc. Sometimes it’s a policy that they’ve forgotten about or don’t realize the importance of.”

The assessment can have powerful impacts all on its own. Kaminski tells of one company where a waste assessment triggered a powerful reaction from employees. “Staff were approaching us and thanking us saying, ‘Wow, the company’s doing something.’ We could see it was boosting morale just by having someone look at this.”

It’s common for the assessment to prompt companies to change practices even before he completes his report. “Organizations often start to use different language and improve their system just by having a conversation,” he says.

“They’re thinking about ways to reuse material. The areas that were messy are cleaned up and organized. One of the most interesting impacts is the change that happens during the process before we even give them a report. It’s a change in mindset.”

Kaminski says the assessment process uses an approach similar to lean principles of operational efficiency. Waste is often the result of inefficient activities.

2. Waste audit

After the assessment is complete, the next step is a waste audit.

What is a waste audit?

The waste audit is a study of how much and what type of waste the business is producing. The idea is to break down how much waste is being recycled, composted or sent to landfills or for incineration.

It also helps to evaluate the contamination in each stream, what could have been recyclable or what should not have been in the recycling. This will help design better recommendations, signage and education for staff.

How to complete a waste audit

A company can do its own periodical waste audit by simply collecting its trash, recycling and compost for a given week, sorting it into categories and weighing each one. Also take note of how well cleaned and sorted your recycling is. It’s important to equip employees so they can work safely (e.g. providing rubber gloves and face masks).

If you want to go deeper, you can conduct what’s called a waste composition study. This goes beyond a typical waste audit, breaking down waste even further by department or operational area, and subcategory of waste. For example, recyclable waste could be broken down into subcategories like bottles, cans, plastic and metal.

One of the most interesting impacts is the change that happens during the process before we even give them a report. It’s a change in mindset.

3. Action plan

Based on the findings of the assessment and audit, you can develop an action plan for waste reduction. This typically focuses on priority actions to reduce the main sources of waste by volume or toxicity.

“We talk about both volume and toxicity because a small amount of toxins can be very detrimental to the environment and human health,” Kaminski says.

Some steps may be obvious right away. “One company was reusing one product, but they weren’t reusing another that was almost identical,” he says. “When we came in with our report, they were just hitting themselves in the head, saying, ‘Of course—why aren’t we reusing that too? It just makes complete sense.’”

Other solutions may require structured problem solving or tools like Pareto analysis, which states that a small number of causes is responsible for the majority of issues.

It’s important to plan projects with your team to get their input and buy-in. Develop an action plan for the next 12 to 24 months, including a timeline and details about who is responsible for each initiative. In order of priority, projects should focus on:

  • Reducing waste
    The most effective waste reduction strategy is to stop waste at the source by reducing the amount you generate.
    • Look for reusable items.
    • Use rental services instead of buying equipment.
    • Use material more efficiently so you generate less scrap.
    • Use less packaging.
    • Talk with vendors to get material with less packaging.
    • Encourage employees to bring litter-less meals (e.g. no plastic or paper bags).
    • Reduce or eliminate paper use.
  • Reusing or repurposing material
    Find ways to reuse or repurpose unneeded material that you couldn’t eliminate.
    • Sell unneeded items to another company.
    • Source your material from another company’s waste stream.
    • Switch to reusable office supplies and more durable products that last longer.
    • Encourage use of reusable coffee cups and water bottles.
    • Promote “upcycling” (reuse) of office supplies (e.g. with an upcycling station).
  • Recycling and composting
    If you can’t find a way to reduce or reuse waste, then try to use effective recycling or composting instead of sending it to the landfill or incinerator.
    • Buy products that can be recycled and composted. Buy recycled products.
    • Educate your team to maximize the material that gets recycled and composted.
    • Ensure items are free of contamination and well separated in accordance with your waste company’s requirements. “For recycling and composting to work, they need good quality feedstock,” Kaminski says. “It’s a commodity. You can’t just give them a whole bunch of mixed-up stuff that’s all contaminated.”
    • Ask your waste disposal company what portion of recyclables are taken to a recycling facility.

You can also go further and help your customers reduce waste.

4. Implementation and continual improvement

It’s important to follow up regularly on your action plan. Have periodic meetings with your team to gauge progress on implementation, celebrate successes and address any challenges early.

Give employees training and information on the changes and why you’re doing them.

“If everybody in the organization understands the goals and values of the organization, it makes the transition a lot easier,” Kaminski says. “That way, they know why they’re doing this. They’re not thinking, ‘Oh, whatever, it doesn’t make any difference. I’m just going to toss this in whatever bin or I’m not going to worry about it.”

Many improvement efforts fail at the stage of implementation. The reasons can vary. Some action plans aren’t realistic or don’t have employee buy-in.

It can be helpful to have an outside expert involved to ensure projects are doable and support the business if it encounters hiccups.

Success often hinges on the business changing its mindset about waste and adopting a culture of continual improvement. When you achieve your action plan, look at what worked and what didn’t, and develop a new plan for the next cycle.

“When your team realizes that everything you throw out costs you money and harms the environment, it makes you think differently about how you operate,” Kaminski says.

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