Calculating carbon emissions from waste

April 24, 2023

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

plastic waste bag and rainbow background
Infographic: calculating emissions from waste

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?

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.

Quickly calculate your company’s waste emissions

And measure and manage all your GHG emissions.

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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 Sustain.Life’s carbon accounting 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.

Editorial statement
At Sustain.Life, our goal is to provide the most up-to-date, objective, and research-based information to help readers make informed decisions. Written by practitioners and experts, articles are grounded in research and experience-based practices. All information has been fact-checked and reviewed by our team of sustainability professionals to ensure content is accurate and aligns with current industry standards. Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.
Sustain.Life Team
Sustain.Life’s teams of sustainability practitioners and experts often collaborate on articles, videos, and other content.
Alyssa Rade
Alyssa Rade is the chief sustainability officer at Sustain.Life. She has over ten years of corporate sustainability experience and guides Sustain.Life’s platform features.
The takeaway

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.