Carry out a waste audit in your community

On average, each person in the UK throws away their own body weight in rubbish every seven weeks. For the majority of us, waste is not something we tend to think about.

Not many people know where their waste goes after it is collected. In the UK, most of the waste we dispose of is either taken to landfill sites or is incinerated.

Even though 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.

But why carry out a waste audit?

Waste audits can be a very effective method of demonstrating the type and amount of waste produced to members of the community.

The discovery of how much waste is sent to landfill or incinerated can often motivate a members of the public to change their views on waste. For community groups, a waste audit can reveal the type and amount of waste created. By finding out what is being thrown away, a community group can work to reduce the amount of waste being thrown away. A waste audit can also provide opportunities for cost savings.

Audits are excellent for team building exercise and can help individuals learn about what they can reduce, reuse, and recycle.

They don’t need to be restricted to ‘black sack’ (or residual waste as it is sometimes called), an 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 and enable a better quality collection.

Assign a team to carry out a waste audit

Select a waste monitor or a team to look at what waste is being generated. For small groups this can be very straightforward, but for larger groups or buildings this may involve some brainstorming within a team to list all the waste and recycling processes that are undertaken already.

Contact your local authority’s recycling officer

Before an audit is carried out, contact a recycling officer at your local authority. 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.

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.

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.

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.

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 through your local authority

If a recycling scheme is already in place, it is a good opportunity to promote the scheme.