The AIA 2030 Commitment: What’s in YOUR Waste Stream?

Your company is wasteful. Mine is, too.

There are two approaches to reducing corporate waste: go after the stuff that’s easy and obvious, or go after the stuff that will produce the greatest impact. Or do both. But really, you can’t know where to put your energy until you understand your waste-stream.

The leadership team at Bergmeyer met to talk AIA 2030 Commitment compliance step #2: “operational initiatives”. This part of the Commitment focuses us on running more environmentally responsible architectural firms, not about our design projects.

Of the four corporate initiatives described by the Commitment – improvement to office energy use, waste reduction, travel, and meeting policies – waste reduction drew the most attention in our last meeting. We ticked off the things we were already doing. Yes, we use a lot of paper but we recycle a lot, too, and we purchase recycled-content stock. Nobody printed today’s meeting agenda. Congratulations. Environmentally friendly kitchen supplies? Some. Environmentally friendly office furniture? Maybe. We’d look into it. What else could we be doing?

Then someone mentioned that damned coffee machine and things started to get ugly. 

You know how it works: you drop the little pre-packaged cup into the top of the machine and it squeezes out one cup of fresh coffee per customer. No more half-empty carafes of brown sludge frying on the heating pad. Brilliant, right? Except for when that red light goes on and you have to empty the ugly pile of used cups. I remember my acute disappointment the first time I drew the red light. I was foolishly expecting the machine to dismantle, sort, and compress the cups into little recyclable bundles. But no. All that packaging was just being collected in a bin to be thrown “away”. And you know what William McDonough says about “away”: there is no “away”. It has gone away.

Just as our otherwise mild-mannered AIA 2030 leadership team was about to storm the kitchen and destroy the wasteful coffee machine, I offered a moderating thought: how much trash do we currently produce? And how much of that trash is empty coffee cups? We couldn’t set waste reduction goals until we had something to measure against. Besides, at that point I wanted a cup of French Roast very badly.

But the real goal isn’t waste reduction at all. The real goal is consumption reduction. Just like energy use, efficiency improvements are meaningless if demand reduction doesn’t happen first. Of those three big “R”’s – reduce, reuse, recycle – reduce is by far the most important.

But what WAS in our waste stream?  The hunt for baseline waste stream data had begun . . .