How do you get from zero to 70% recycling in a multi-tenant, high-rise office building? Find out how the team at Canton Crossing, Baltimore did just that!
Question: Congratulations on your success in implementing a successful recycling program at Canton Crossing. You went from zero (in 2010) to 70% recycling in your most recent audit. That is an impressive journey, something that the Commercial Property Management community would enjoy learning more about. Could you share how you did what you did, what specific strategies you used and your tips on how Property Managers can implement a successful recycling program in office buildings?
Question: Let’s start at the very beginning, back to 2009 - what prompted your decision to implement a recycling program at Canton Crossing?
Answer: Back in 2009, when COPT took over Canton Crossing, we realized there was no recycling program in place. Zero. We had a company-wide initiative at COPT to incorporate recycling into every single building. Naturally, we needed to implement a program in place and had to start implementing a recycling program from scratch.
Question: How did you get started? How did your tenants react initially to the idea of recycling?
It was challenging, especially in a multi-tenant environment. Each tenant is unique and has their way of doing things. Some were already recycling, while others were not. In 2010, when we had our first tenant council meeting, we wanted to learn from our tenants about their recycling goals. Before we made any changes, we wanted to gather all the information, understand what each company was doing and what their unique needs were. Why are they doing something, or why are they not doing something.
We sat down as a team, the whole building with a representative from each company. 30 people in the room. So then we started asking questions: "Are you recycling? What are you recycling? How are you recycling? Are you not recycling? Why not? If you are recycling, what led you to recycle?"
Question: So your first step was to gather information and observe what tenants were doing with recycling. What did you find out?
In a nutshell, 90% of tenants who claimed that they were recycling were doing document destruction and called that recycling. The tenants who were not doing any form of recycling had no real incentive to recycle. For example, their companies did not mandate any recycling. There were two companies in the building that were recycling bottles and cans – one particular individual took the initiative to take all of the bottles and cans and recycle them personally! The other company had their vendor coming in and getting their recycle items.
Question: When you discovered that some tenants were doing their recycling, what was your plan?
We realized there was an opportunity to get tenants on board with a simple, single stream recycling program. We procured recycling containers for every commercial office suite. We explained to tenants the difference between document destruction and recycling. We made it easy for tenants to recycle by putting recycling containers in each one of the kitchens and in each hallway that was further away from the kitchen.
Mainly, we started with single-stream recycling right away. Everything commingled. Everything can go all in one container. Any item that had five percent or more food trash, food waste on it, cannot be recycled. Once you rinsed it off and it was less than 5 percent food on it, you can recycle that item.
Question: So your strategy was to make incremental changes without commiting to drastic modifications. This was in 2010. What strategies did you use to communicate with tenants about the changes you were making?
We sent out a list of all of the items that could be recycled, via email. We encouraged our tenants to post it on bulletin boards. We talked about what we were doing with recycling during tenant council meetings. We posted signs around their offices. Once we had everything in place, announced at the tenant council meeting: "Okay, the whole building is done now."
Question: How did you measure and track the recycling program that you initially implemented?
We felt that we had a system in place - recycling, document destruction and waste. Initially, we were focused on only making sure this system was in place and working. There was no active monitoring going on at that time. We noticed that there was an increase in recycling because we started seeing that that the recycling and cardboard containers were getting full. We had a four-yard container for recycling, a four-yard container for cardboard and a 30-yard compactor for trash. So once we noticed the recycling and cardboard containers were getting full we were like, "Okay, we're good. We're recycling." We had no hard data at the time, but we knew that we were definitely recycling! This continued through 2014.
Question: So you had a single stream recycling program in place until 2014. However, you wanted to do more with the recycling program. Why?
By about 2014, we realized that recycling reduced our waste budget. The more we recycled, the more our costs from waste were reduced. We decided to look at this more closely and hired a consultant (Blue Planet) to start monitoring waste and recycling at Canton Crossing. By the end of 2014, COPT had a goal - every high-rise office tower should recycle at least 50% of total trash.
“We realized that recycling reduced our waste budget. The more we recycled, the more our costs from waste got reduced.”
Question: How does recycling reduce your building operating costs? Could you explain how that works?
Here’s how the economics of trash works: we pay for every ton of trash that the building generates – There’s fixed pick-up fee (which includes the fee for the driver and then dumping it, and the gas and other fixed costs) and the hauling fee. The hauling fee is based on the number of tons of trash that is hauled away from the building. If we reduce trash, we reduce our costs. It is that simple.
For example, you might pay a fixed pick-up fee of say, $175 per week, to the trash collection company to come and pick up trash and recycling at your building. However, you might pay an additional $600 per week to dump all the waste from the building. However, if 50% of the total waste generated is recyclable, now you are paying only $300 for the hauling fee – nearly 50% reduction in your waste costs.
There are real costs associated with disposing waste – there’s gas that they are burning, then they have to take it to the incinerator to the dump site or the landfill. All of it is just an expense. With recycling, while there are costs associated with collection and creation, the new recycled material can be sold. That is the economic value that recycling generates. Instead of it being an expense, it is now a source of income.
Question: Wow. That is incredible. So there's value in trash.
Exactly. There's value in recycling. There's no value in trash. It is a win-win. Recycling is good for the environment and for improving the bottom-line.
Question: So you made this big leap from implementing a simple single stream recycling program initially to nearly 70% recycling in your last audit. How did that happen?
When we understood the value of recycling, we decided to set clear goals. We knew we had a recycling program in place, but we did not know how well we were doing. We brought in a consultant to measure and set a baseline for recycling. Based on that input, we set a goal – 50% of the trash that the building generates would be recyclable material.
It was important to have our tenants on board with this program. We also needed to make sure we could have vendors, especially trash collection and janitorial services, who could get this done. At a tenant council meeting, we let the tenants know what our recycling goals were. We introduced our vendors to the tenants. We talked about the revamped recycling program.
Since we had already implemented phase one (single-stream recycling), tenants were receptive to the changes we proposed. Our plan was to go through each tenant's space and upgrade their bins and where they put their recycling and their posters and re-educate them and increase the volume.
Question: So you made changes to the process, empowered your vendors, made a big push to educate tenants…
Yes, so we brought our vendors (ESI & USSI) to the tenant council meeting to do a presentation. The janitorial contractor (USSI) did the presentation on what happens to trash and recyclables once tenants put these in the bins. They took video and pictures of the night cleaning crew bringing the trash out and the recycling, keeping them separate, showing them the color-coded mats, showing them when it goes into the freight elevator down to the loading dock and then to handing it off to the trash collection company (ESI).
ESI’s representatives then showed our tenants how they picked up recyclables and where it goes – from the building to the recycling plant, to this massive conveyor belt. How paper is sorted, and how metal gets sucked up by this huge magnetic machine, how glass is sorted. They went through the process of how all the recyclable material is sanitized, sterilized and re-created into new recycled products. That was quite powerful and resonated very well with our tenants. Once we got tenant buy-in, our recycling percentages just started going up and up, and now we are at 69%!
"Once we got tenant buy-in, our recycling percentages just started going up and up, and now we are at 69%!"
Question: It has been a long journey for you since 2010 - six years of educating, re-educating, training. I am sure you have great memories and bad memories. Could you share something that kind of sticks out that was a defining moment for you or something that you want to share?
You learn a lot from unexpected quarters, especially from tenants. There was this one time when a tenant called me and said, “I do not think we are recycling at the building. I noticed that the night cleaning crew is mixing up recycling and trash in the elevator lobbies. How do you know if they are separating recycling from trash?” That was my “A-ha” moment. I wondered: "Is that is what's happening? Is that why the numbers are so low?" Now, obviously the night crew did not think that they were doing anything wrong, and they were not. They were not trained to do anything different.
We went back and observed the trash pick-up process - from individual tenant desks all the way to the recycling dumpster in the loading dock. We noticed that the cleaning crew would place trash and recycling on the same mat in the elevator lobbies. These mats would be rolled up and hauled off to the recycling dumpster in the loading dock, and then the Supervisor would separate trash from recycling. There were a couple of problems with this process:
1. It was difficult for the Supervisor to sort trash correctly from recycling because it was all mixed up, and
2. It was inefficient and time-consuming.
So we went back to the drawing board with USSI, our janitorial services contractor to come up with a better plan. What do we do on our end to make sure that whatever little recycling we are getting is going to make it into the recycling number? USSI came up with an idea – color coded mats, clear for trash and blue for recycling. That way, the Supervisor would know exactly what was trash and what was recycling, and wouldn’t spend much time sorting trash from recycling. Moreover, the process would be more efficient.
So they went through and the re-educated the cleaning staff on what bags go in what container and how the containers are supposed to get picked up, bagged, and brought out and kept separately. Then they educated the Supervisors and the floor men how to keep those separate while they bring it down and put it in the trash and recycling dumpsters in the loading dock.
We made a few other changes to the process, implemented the re-worked process and then started monitoring the number. We were not surprised that our recycling percentages were going up! This was an excellent example of how being transparent in our communication with tenants and our vendors helped us to come up with a creative solution to get the outcome we wanted. It was not all pretty, but we made it work as a team.
"...being transparent in our communication with tenants and our vendors helped us to come up with a creative solution to get the outcome we wanted."
Question: What advice would you have for Property Managers who are going through the process of implementing a recycling program?
I would say you want first to look truly understanding the unique needs of your tenants. Look at it as a whole building, because each tenant has individual needs and if you identify that and address that, then you are going to get more buy-in from that tenant. If you implement a one-size fit all program, that is when you are not going to get that buy-in. Also, make sure that the program is transparent because tenants are very observant. They know what is happening in their spaces.
You are going to have tenants on both sides of the spectrum, tenants who are indifferent to recycling and those who are involved. So whatever program you institute, it has to be transparent. Also, it should be easy to understand and easy to explain to tenants.
Question: So identify the unique needs of your tenants. Make it simple and make it easy for them to understand and keep it straightforward and transparent. I think that is great advice.
Where do you go from here? What next regarding goals? Do you have any specific recycling goals now?
Yes. We want to keep the recycling number consistently high. Consistency is going to be our aim.
Question: Speaking of goals, how would you describe USSI's involvement in helping you get to your goals?
I would say USSI was an integral part of why we got to our recycling goals. They worked with me to brainstorm and come up with the ideas of how we can do better. They were very transparent in identifying issues that they had on their end. We came up with training and best practice programs that institute long term at the building. We addressed issues candidly and figured out the solution together. They are a good partner. Without that partnership, none of this would be possible.
Question: Thank you for your insights. There’s a wealth of knowledge here for any commercial Property Manager interested in learning about recycling. I appreciate this. Thank you!
Ready to get started? Find out how to implement a successful recycling program at your building by clicking here.