State seeks to improve recycling at offices

May 5, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
About 20 years ago, city planners thought we could never recycle more than 15 to 20 percent of our trash. But now, California's recycling rate is more than 50 percent. That's when we're home, but at work -- not so much.

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California has a dirty little secret: The big buildings are generating big waste.

Hour after hour, day after day, office workers all over California are powering through paper. Most of it ends up in the trash.

"When we look at office buildings, we almost see a forest of paper, of cardboard, computer paper, letterhead, envelopes," said Robert Reed from Norcal Waste Systems.

Office workers also eat lunch from containers that could be recycled, leaving food scraps that could be composted. But again, most are not.

Environmental groups say Californians are doing a great job recycling at home, but not so great when we're working or shopping.

"We know that two-thirds of the waste stream in California is generated by commercial enterprises, not from residents," said Mark Murray from Californians Against Waste.

Statewide, we're now recycling 58 percent of our trash. But the latest available state figures show large office buildings only recycle about seven percent of their waste and shopping malls about 19 percent.

Some employees told us they're confused about what can be recycled where.

The State Waste Board says many employers don't even offer recycling at all. So now a Northern California assemblyman says it's time for a change, and he wants to require businesses to recycle.

"It's hard to understand frankly why we haven't had more success in commercial recycling. Office buildings are the source of a great deal of high quality white paper, which is really amongst the most valuable materials in the waste stream," said Assemblyman Wes Chesbro (D) Santa Rosa.

Chesbro's bill requires large cities and counties to create commercial recycling ordinances, and businesses would have to participate.

Businesses that already recycle say it's not that tough.

"We rolled it out slowly with our tenants to see if there were any issues that would come up. Nothing - they've taken to it, it's really a no-brainer," said Office Tower building general manager Susan Court.

The Office Tower in San Francisco has recycle bins under every desk, compostable paper towels in the restroom and even a station to recycle small electronics.

Their biggest problem is getting customers to recycle in the restaurant area on the bottom floors of the building.

"That's always going to be a challenge," said Court.

A few blocks away, the owner of 101 California says recycling is saving the company big money. The owner gets a refund for everything diverted from the landfill, and it adds up.

"This bill shows us that we have a 71 percent diversion rate which saved us on this particular monthly bill alone - $19,923," said Tom Kruggel from Hines Property Management.

They gave us a tour to explain how they're getting those big numbers.

"Every bin that's green is for compostable materials, we've placed a placard above the bin so that the tenant can distinguish what types of materials ought to go in this particular bin," said Kruggel.

The cleaning staff got special training to handle the various bins. So what if you throw out something that could be recycled? Expect a friendly a reminder card.

Despite the success in San Francisco, the Building Owners and Managers Association doesn't think the entire state is ready for mandatory recycling.

The city is ahead of the curve, with a sophisticated recycling pick-up and sorting network. But some believe it's too much, too soon in some parts of the state.

"You don't want to overly burden a local town or business community with regulations that are unrealistic," said Ken Cleveland from Building Owners and Managers Association.

Environmentalists disagree and say it's time to push recycling to the next level.

"We already mandate that every commercial enterprise in the state be required to collect their garbage every week. We're simply adding an element to that program and requiring them to recycle," said Murray.

Related links:

  • For advice on how to start or improve recycling at your office: www.ciwmb.ca.gov/wpw/Office
  • In addition to requiring businesses to recycle, Assemblyman Wes Chesbro's bill (AB 479) also increases the state goal for diverting material from the landfill and increases dump fees at landfills. To find out the status of the bill and exactly what is in it ? go to: www.leginfo.ca.gov/cgi-bin/postquery

    Written and produced by Jennifer Olney.

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