We live in a single-use economy of convenience—a throwaway world that consumes more resources and generates more waste than ever before.
Most waste is not recycled and enters our environment through landfills, oceans, or in the form of emissions from incineration. All have significant environmental and health impacts, on top of the wasted resources they embody.
In 2020, humanity’s demand for resources exceeded Earth’s annual capacity for regeneration—a trend that has continued since the 1970s.
As materials decompose and break down in landfills, toxic runoff called leachate seeps into the ground and contaminates drinking water. Landfills also 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. Waste disposal is also an equity and environmental justice concern because landfills and industrial sites are historically located in underserved communities.
Other than landfills, the significant amount of waste that winds up in Earth’s oceans devastates ecosystems, food systems, and marine communities. Experts project there will be more plastic in our oceans than fish by 2050. Waste materials dumped in oceans travel with natural currents into epicenters known as gyres. The largest gyre—the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—is twice the size of Texas (an estimated 87,000 metric tons) and has increased ten times each decade since 1945.
Waste in the workplace
The U.S. accounts for just 5% of the world’s population but 33% of global waste, and our approach to the problem has been historically inadequate. We divert only 32% of our waste away from landfills.
Given those numbers, waste is a great place to start if you’re looking to kick off an organization-wide sustainability program. It’s easy for the average employee to see the effects of waste in the workplace and strive to solve the problem.
Despite common perceptions, large industries aren’t solely to blame. Too often, we overlook waste generated by small and medium-sized businesses. A typical office worker produces 4.4 pounds of waste each day, resulting from an annual tally of 10,000 sheets of paper and 500 coffee cups. All are figures that can drastically reduce through thoughtful procurement and waste management policies.
The business case for reducing waste
Everyone is familiar with the three R’s: reduce, reuse, recycle. But we often skip straight to recycling when, in fact, overall waste reduction—whether trash, recycling, or compost—will make the most impact on the planet.
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. 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.
When you understand the amount and types of waste your organization produces, you can find creative ways to save money—for example, reducing hauling costs or negotiating the waste and recycling services that fit your needs.
When it comes down to recycling, it benefits both the environment and the balance sheet. Haulers typically charge less to recycle materials than dispose of them. On average, it costs 48% less to recycle one ton of material compared to sending it to a landfill or the incinerator.
Outside of the 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 for disposal is expected to increase to incentivize diversion.