The Atlanta Hawks have recently been talking trash — the lack of it.
The NBA team, which plays at State Farm Arena, has committed to zero-waste events at its venue. By adopting compostable practices for food and reducing paper, State Farm Arena is on track to become TRUE (Total Resource Use and Energy) certified.
This reduce-reuse-recycle mindset includes minimizing upstream production along with traditional recycling. Whether voluntary or compelled by legislation, however, a change to zero waste requires a property’s vendors, tenants and users to be trained and educated. Property owners are realizing expense savings and meeting environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals through zero-waste policies, which demonstrates a change in building operations.
The TRUE Zero Waste certification complements LEED accreditation, with both overseen by the United States Green Building Council (USGBC). Using a year of documented data, TRUE verifies that facilities have diverted 90% of their waste from landfills and incineration plants. To maintain certification, facilities must present ongoing evidence of such policies. TRUE offers accreditation for buildings that are tenant-leased such as offices and industrial buildings, as well as event venues. And like the LEED structure, TRUE trains professionals — known as TRUE advisors — to help property owners navigate zero-waste implementation as well as the certification process.
The adage that it’s difficult to change that which you cannot measure applies to waste, which owners accomplish through trash audits. Consultancies such as Los Angeles-based All About Waste say, “We would love to dig through your trash!” This quantitative measurement, typically over a 24-hour period, provides insight into site performance. In addition, platforms such as the ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager® track cost savings and report summary metrics of waste management.
Susan Westrup, director of client solutions at the USGBC, advocates a focus on upstream efforts. Westrup says that two major culprits — food and paper — account for nearly 50% of all municipal waste. While food can be composted, eliminating (or reducing) its source results in less downstream effort. At its Mountain View, California, employee café, for instance, Google uses bowls that are less than one inch deep, encouraging employees to take smaller helpings (they can always return for another serving).
Emily Ma, head of Google’s Food for Good program, estimates that the change has led to employees taking 30% to 50% less food. Water filling stations have replaced plastic bottled water, and coffee machines dispense milk or milk alternatives rather than trash-generating single-use creamers. While such items may seem inconsequential on an individual basis, Google serves thousands of meals per day worldwide.
Venues such as State Farm Arena that cater to thousands of attendees illustrate the scale of zero-waste results. At last year’s Hawks NBA playoff game, with over 16,000 fans in attendance, the arena used compostable serviceware, cutlery and packaging that allowed an impressive 7,756 pounds to be recycled. In addition, the 600 pounds of plastic zip ties used to delineate social distancing between seats were collected and recycled. Finally, electronic tickets replaced approximately 165 pounds of paper. These large-scale events also enjoy the additional benefit of intensive training of on-site employees and visitors, which expedites the transition from policy into practice.
Although large-scale events make an immediate impact, day-to-day building-operation practices matter, too. For instance, San Francisco-based Salesforce offers its employees ceramic mugs for coffee. The cups are then collected and washed for reuse. High-rise office buildings such as 333 Bush Street, also in San Francisco, achieve landfill diversion rates by excluding used computers, cellphones, light fixture ballasts and batteries from regular collection and diverting them for reuse and recycling. These diversions result in fewer refuse bins and smaller trash-compacting equipment, which leads to lower waste removal expenses.
The line item for waste removal usually consists of aggregated expenses for containers, collection, transfer and landfill, all part of a property’s operating budget. While recent industry expenses for waste-removal costs decreased due to reduced building occupancies during COVID-19, that number will likely increase again as tenants return to the workplace.
Reduced trash expenses often occur in concert with local haulers whose pricing encourages zero-waste policies. 333 Bush Street's owners report that, because of “waste hauler Recology’s rate structure in San Francisco, they are able to save thousands of dollars every month from greater waste diversion discounts.” Recology calculates charges based upon service configurations, frequency of collection and site-specific diversion rates. Using both a base and variable amount, the variable rate is discounted in proportion to the percent of service volume that is diverted from the landfill, up to a 75% discount. To some extent, such zero-waste-friendly prices result from the emphasis on laws mandating sorting to reduce trash volumes.
To date, eight states have adopted zero-waste laws, with expectations of meeting those goals ranging from 2030 to 2040. Notably, six of the eight states have adopted such legislation in the past three years, indicating an accelerating trend. Early municipal adopters, such as the city of San Francisco, with its Mandatory Recycling & Composting Ordinance, require residents and businesses to separate trash into three bins: recycling, landfill and compost. And while the city has achieved just 80% of its 100% diversion goal, its leadership has given the 25 million tourists that visit each year — pre-COVID — an impromptu education in putting the remnants of that sourdough sandwich into the correct bin (it’s the one for composting).
Beyond bin labels, property owners can amplify a zero-waste mission with messaging. The University of California, Berkeley’s Chou Hall displays an enthusiasm for zero waste more typically shown for collegiate football games. Its Think café displays a full-wall screen that rotates landscape photographs of orange aspen groves and green meadows. Another dynamic electronic sign in Chou’s lobby blinks, “How can you be more sustainable today?” The imagery reinforces a culture of reduce, reuse and recycle.
Such linguistics play a significant — and yet sometimes confounding — role in zero-waste endeavors. As an example, consider standard plastic sorting bins. Containers usually have a textual message: paper, composting, non-recyclables and so on. In urban areas with diverse populations, the text might be repeated in multiple languages. Then, bins may use a symbol like a banana to represent compost. The issue, Westrup notes, is that symbols do not necessarily translate from community to community. Complicate text and symbols with a variety of colors — blue, green, black, brown — and a user may pause, unsure of how to dispose of an item. Without a universal textual, symbolic and coded language, the waste-management process remains challenged by interpretation.
While training challenges for zero-waste plans exist, TRUE and other zero-waste certifications help companies achieve environmental, social and governance goals. TRUE is recognized by the Global Real Estate Sustainability Benchmark, whose reporting is a metric for measuring and formally reporting ESG performance.
In addition, employees increasingly want to work with companies that value environmental awareness. Westrup relates an anecdotal comment from a young employee: “Can you believe they (her summer internship company) didn’t even have composting?”
Companies without environmentally conscious workplace policies have the potential to be perceived as behind the times, which can negatively impact attracting talent or tenants.
Alice Devine is the author of the award-winning “Suite Deal, the Smart Landlord’s Guide to Leasing Real Estate,” and a lecturer at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.