Recycling paper at your company? How’s it going?

If you answered “yes” to the first question and “not so good” to the second, you’re in fine company. After years of trying, an astonishing number of outfits both large and small are having trouble accomplishing this seemingly simple task. At least, that’s my conclusion after talking with companies — and hearing from Grist readers.

Same sheet, different day.

Photo: iStockphoto.

Why is paper recycling such a challenge? The answers have to do with the natural reluctance of people to change habits, with the designed-to-fail nature of many programs, and with the assumption of managers that such programs will run themselves. None of which bodes well for efforts to move toward recycling other waste materials — not to mention making even more substantive changes to reduce workplace eco-footprints.

In One Bin, Out the Other

If your organization isn’t recycling, it’s long past time to begin. As a rule of thumb, a typical office generates about 1.5 pounds of waste paper per employee each workday. (Financial businesses generate more than two pounds.) That’s roughly 350 pounds per employee a year — or a total of about 2.5 tons for a small, 15-person office. You can do the math based on your own company’s size.

In theory, paper recycling should be pretty easy. Think of it as your organization’s snail-mail delivery service, but in reverse. Typically, mail arrives from the post office to a central mail room, where it is sorted by building, floor, or department — with luck, ultimately ending up on the right desk. Paper recycling goes in the opposite direction: it typically begins on desktops and ends up at a central location (perhaps not far from the mail room), where it is picked up by a recycling firm.

Of course, it’s not quite that simple. A successful program requires that bins be accessible and well marked, that people understand what to do and are reminded of it constantly, and that all players — employees, recycling coordinators, custodial staff, facilities managers, collection companies, and others — are reading off the same (recycled) page.

Now that’s a circular file.

Photo: iStockphoto.

Figuring out where to start depends in part on your organization’s size, structure, office layout, and other factors. Often, the best starting point is the maintenance folks — the ones who deal with trash removal. They’ll likely be the ones who implement paper recycling, so they’ll need to be involved early on. Whichever company they use to haul away trash probably offers recycling services; most mainstream haulers do. Many haulers also offer in-house expertise to help set up, maintain, or improve recycling programs. Increasingly, companies are making recycling services — including monitoring, measuring, and reporting — part of waste-hauling contract negotiations.

An effective program can pay for itself, and then some, by collecting and separating paper that has resale value in the waste-paper marketplace. Usually, that’s clean white paper — the kind used for letterheads, photocopying, plain-paper faxing, memos, reports, and the like. The more contaminants in a batch — off-white paper, glues, staples, and other non-paper items — the less valuable it will be. (That doesn’t mean you can’t throw every scrap of paper or cardboard item into a single bin. It’s just that its value will be considerably less, potentially making recycling a cost instead of a revenue source.)

When everything comes together, it works. Andrea Asch, manager of natural resources use at Ben & Jerry’s Homemade, attributes her company’s 55 percent recycling rate to “a good recycling partner, storage capacity for material, and an ingrained internal education that reminds our employees that waste reduction and recycling is the way we operate our business.” Above all, she says, the economics make it all worthwhile: “While eliminating waste at the source is a nice incentive, our recycling program made almost $100,000 in 2005.”

Preaching to the Quire

More often than not, successful recycling takes equal parts creativity, determination, and TLC. For example, at Coca-Cola’s headquarters in Atlanta, employees can bring recyclables from home to put into company bins. That gets them thinking about recycling at home as well as at work — and gets them to learn where the bins are. Coke is among many companies that donate proceeds from recycling to worthy causes in employees’ names. That helps motivate people, who know the fruits of their labors are going to a good cause.

Bank of America makes paper recycling a clear mandate from top management, and links the activity to the company’s bottom line: “Do not throw away wastepaper,” the company instructs employees online and in printed manuals. “It’s a corporate asset for which Bank of America receives revenue. Recycling also saves us money in disposal costs.”

But even the most well-intentioned programs can break down if the process is too complex, there’s no signal from management that it’s important, or there’s no one in charge of monitoring and marketing the program. Here are some tips for avoiding those pitfalls:

Keep it simple. The fewer changes people must make in their daily routines to recycle, the greater the chances for success. Place collection containers in convenient, well-traveled areas like restrooms, cafeterias, and copier rooms. (Better yet, put recycling bins by everyone’s desk — but make them walk somewhere to throw something away.) Label bins or collection boxes with clear information about what to put in — and what to keep out.

Monitor and measure. Use surveys, interviews, and inspections to see how the system is working. Spot-check recycling bins and trash cans to see if people are following directions about what to put where — without spying on people, of course. Keep track of where paper is going: what kinds and volumes of paper are being purchased, discarded, and recycled? That will help you establish and track goals.

Sell, sell, sell. Market your program through newsletters, posters, email, and company meetings. Sometimes “word pictures” are an effective means to show results. For example, the metropolitan Portland, Ore., region promotes the fact that it “recycled 437,000 tons of paper in 2003, which is the equivalent of stacking paper in a football field to the height of two-thirds of a mile.”

Seek and give feedback. Have someone available to answer employee questions. Ask employees their ideas on how to make the system easier to use. Let everyone know how the program is going, including how much trash is being saved — or could be saved — from landfills, and what that means for the company in economic or other terms. Consider offering incentives such as prizes or special events for individuals and departments doing a good job.

Finally, don’t rest on your laurels. Keep in mind that even the most successful recycling programs need continuous improvement, fresh thinking, and a periodic overhaul.

Solving Separation Anxiety

One of the best resources on paper recycling comes from the Massachusetts nonprofit WasteCap. The American Forest & Paper Association offers resources on its website, and GreenBiz.com offers a basic primer on office paper recycling. The National Office Paper Recycling Project also offers a dated but still useful recycling guide.