Calculating carbon emissions from waste

February 2, 2022
Article

Everything you should know about tracking waste emissions at your company.

AT A GLANCE

How to calculate your company’s carbon footprint from waste

What to include: The most standard waste your company generates—trash, recycling, compost and other food waste, etc.—and its disposal by a third party, like a landfill, incineration or waste-to-energy facility, recycler, or composting facility.

Why measure: Waste is one of the most tangible aspects of sustainability, and it can make up about 15% of your carbon emissions. Waste prevention programs offer an opportunity for dual savings: waste disposal costs and procurement. 

Emissions scope: Scope 3

How often: Monthly

What to do next: After you have a baseline GHG emissions estimate from your waste, decide what you want to reduce. Some options: implement an office-wide printing policy, start a composting program, work with a forward-thinking waste hauler, or do something simple like putting recycle bins by all your office garbage cans to get people to think twice before tossing recyclables.

Waste, garbage, refuse, rubbish—whatever you call it, we all produce it in some shape or form. And due to its physical nature and massive impact on climate change, pollution, and general planetary health, waste is front-and-center in the world of sustainability. But close your eyes for a second. When you think of garbage, what comes to mind? If you envision a vast landfill, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, big compost heaps, or a busy recycling facility, you’re probably like 99% of other folks. But did you know that trash also produces carbon emissions?

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From another post of ours about waste in the workplace, “Landfills release methane—a greenhouse gas 24–86 times more potent than carbon dioxide—and are the third-largest source of methane emissions in the U.S.” Plus, waste that’s not recycled or composted enters the environment through landfills, oceans, or in the form of emissions from incineration.

Why should you track—and reduce—your emissions from waste?

Everyone is familiar with the three Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle. But we often skip straight to recycling when, in fact, we should focus on reduction. Reducing your overall waste through proper waste management will ultimately make the most impact on the planet and save you money. Reduction programs offer an opportunity for dual savings: on hauling and disposal costs while streamlining procurement.  

When it comes down to recycling, it benefits both the environment and the balance sheet. Haulers typically charge less to recycle because they sell recyclables to commodity buyers, compared to trash, which they pay to dump at receiving facilities. On average, it costs 48% less to recycle one ton of material compared to sending it to a landfill or the incinerator.  

The emissions from your company’s waste likely account for about 15% of its carbon footprint—that’s significant any way you look at it. According to the EPA, “Municipal solid waste (MSW) landfills are the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the United States [… and the equivalent of] the greenhouse gas emissions from more than 21.6 million passenger vehicles driven for one year or the CO2 emissions from nearly 12 million homes’ energy use for one year.”  

That’s just the waste sent to the landfill through daily public consumption, which doesn't account for manufacturing or production processes—that’s for another time.

Besides cost savings, getting smart about your waste strategy could also help avoid future taxes and fines. From standard office waste to manufacturing-specific waste streams, legislation around disposal requires businesses in some cities—New York, San Francisco, and Seattle to name a few—to recycle all glass, metal, plastic, and paper. And those that fail to properly sort material can face steep fines.  

On top of operationalizing savings, businesses worldwide save an average of $14 for every $1 invested in staff training, upcycling waste, and improved inventory management. Plus, waste is a great starting point for sustainable culture in the workplace. Engaged employees help generate organization-wide buy-in and lay the groundwork for integrating sustainability into core business functions.

Waste and emissions scopes

Waste emissions are scope 3 because the emissions from the landfill or incinerator happen outside your facilities.    

Not sure about scope 1, 2, or 3? Is there a scope 7? Our chief sustainability officer explains what you need to know in this quick video.

How to calculate and estimate waste emissions:

If you want to track your emission reduction efforts over time, you’ll first need to set a benchmark with a carbon footprint calculator.  

If you were to try to calculate the emissions from your waste on your own, it gets a little tricky, but Sustain.Life automatically does the calculations for you. All you need to find out is the weight of your trash. But before you bust out the bathroom scale, talk to your waste hauler. Based on how you separate your waste—what gets recycled, landfilled, incinerated, or composted—they can typically give you monthly figures for each stream.  

Once you have the weight of your trash each month, it’s this simple:  

1. Sign in to your Sustain.Life account and head to the Emissions Tracker (sign up for a free Emissions Management account if you haven’t already). Go to the waste emissions calculator and enter:  

2. Enter your generated waste in pounds , tons, or metric tons for the following categories:  

• Recycled  
• Landfilled  
• Incinerated  
• Composted  

Sustain.Life waste emissions calculator interface

3. That’s it. Sustain.Life automatically calculates your carbon footprint in metric tons (MT) of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e).    

What’s next?

Waste is one of the most tangible aspects of sustainability, and it often leads to ripple effects when it comes to other areas of your sustainability strategy. So after you measure for a few months, you’re ready to set reduction goals.  

Check out our Full Sustainability Platform for ideas to cut your waste emissions and reduce your environmental impact. It includes access to over 100 step-by-step guides, including avoidance and diversion programs and how to pursue third-party zero waste certification.

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The takeaway

• Waste emissions make up about 15% of a company’s carbon footprint.
• If you’re looking to get employees involved in your sustainability program, waste is a great starting point because they can have a direct impact on reducing it.