A Delicate Balance

— By Anthony Dilenno —

Balancing economic and environmental responsibility.


For restaurants and retailers, COVID-19 has disrupted every aspect of business. With so many critical issues that have risen to the top of the list of concerns, recycling programs tend to fall to the back burner as companies focus on economic survival. However, while COVID-19 (and a drop in scrap commodities prices) has driven up recycling costs for some items, prioritizing recycling of high-quality commodities still provides better value than sending trash to the landfill.

Anthony Dilenno, RWS Facility Services

America is facing a mounting trash crisis as existing landfills reach capacity and densely populated areas run out of room to establish new facilities. The situation has become so urgent that more state and local jurisdictions are capping how much trash you can send to landfills and levying hefty fines for businesses that exceed these limits. At the same time, states like California and Massachusetts promote recycling by offering rebates for glass and other eligible commodities. The good news for restaurants and retailers is that you can reduce costs associated with waste disposal while generating revenue from recyclable commodities. You can also cut down on carbon emissions by diverting waste from landfills — a win-win scenario for the environment and your bottom line. And there are ways you can maintain a program that does not involve extra labor — or extra stress. One suggestion is to move your recycling and waste initiatives to the back of the house and capture waste there — before it reaches consumers and landfills — which at once reduces the labor involved in your recycling effort.

With COVID-19 placing a premium on cleanliness and freshness in the food industry, grocery stores and restaurants (complying with sanitation guidelines) are tossing more food, which adds up to a lot of waste. Excessive waste is also an issue for retailers, who regularly receive shipments shrink-wrapped in plastic, buried in polystyrene packing pellets or encased in corrugated cardboard. These materials (along with those clothing hangers made from plastic resins) can all be recycled.

Depending on the business, statistics have shown that retailers can capture more than 90% of what’s being generated in the waste stream, while restaurants can recycle up to 70% to 75% of their waste. The trick is to catch waste “behind the counter,” so to speak, by setting up a system and training staff in recycling best practices they can deploy where they have control of the environment. Store-level personnel play a critical role in the effectiveness of your recycling program, but every time an employee leaves your company, you lose the training you invested in that individual. This problem is especially acute for restaurants and retailers, which experience a high percentage of employee turnover compared to other industries.

One effective way to counteract the disruption of this type of churn is to train the management staff  on recycling procedures. The management team can then train entry-level employees as they join the organization. This method ensures you have a reliable pool of trained personnel to oversee your recycling program regardless of employee churn.

Another avenue to consider when seeking more efficient processes comes from the advances we have seen in technology like artificial intelligence (AI), which provides the ability to monitor your waste stream. The use of technology will continue to grow as the waste management industry develops and adapts to these new technologies. Companies are already employing video, sonar and other measuring devices to track what goes into your recycling and who is putting it there. These analytics are invaluable in demonstrating compliance with recycling mandates, cutting costs and maximizing spend. In addition, AI gives store and corporate managers a holistic view of the entire supply chain so they can identify inefficiencies and take corrective action.

As the pandemic continues, we understand that recycling programs need to be balanced with respect to what can be done economically. Often, recycling and waste diversion programs can seem more expensive to manage than simply sending waste to the landfill. However, a solid program can be achieved without extra labor expense by initiating best practices behind the counter. Establishing protocols and proper training will allow for a recycling and waste program that is both environmentally responsible and practical.




— Anthony Dilenno, president & CEO, RWS Facility Services, is a third-generation recycler with 30 years of recycling and waste solutions experience. In his role at RWS, he is responsible for expanding the business’s vision of creating true “closed loop” waste, recycling and sustainability solutions for regional, national and global companies. He also drives the strategic direction to help more businesses achieve their sustainability goals, increase efficiency while reducing costs and to keep ahead of growing regulatory demands for greater environmental responsibility.

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