Source Reduction and Recycling

Existing Commercial

What is Source Reduction and Recycling?

Source reduction refers to reducing the amount (by weight or volume) or toxicity of waste that enters the solid waste stream. Recycling turns materials that would otherwise become waste into new resources.[1] Additionally, source reduction is the first tier in the waste management process. Source reduction decreases the amount of waste that enters the solid waste stream as well as decreases the disposal of toxic materials by sourcing fewer products out of toxic materials. Making products more durable and longer lasting are also activities synonymous with source reduction.[2]

According to the US EPA, “Commercial wastes from business and industry make up between 35 and 45 percent of the U.S. municipal solid waste stream.”[3] Source reduction activities not only conserve natural resources but also conserve the fuel used to make the products. From a business perspective, source reduction can save money in disposal and replacement costs. Source reduction aims to reuse materials (i.e., packaging materials, office furnishings) and not produce or minimize waste whenever possible. Everything put into the trash represents money spent on materials as well as money spent on removing those materials.

How to Implement Source Reduction and Recycling

Before starting a source reduction and recycling program, it is helpful to conduct a waste audit of the building. A waste audit determines what type, how much, and the toxicity content of waste produced by the building. The waste audit also details the sources of waste and the reasons for waste production. This information can inform better purchasing practices and environmental protection. A waste audit outlines a series of steps one should take to achieve waste and cost reduction goals.[4]

To start a source reduction and recycling program in a commercial building, a written plan that details the proposed program should be created by the building owner or business owner. This plan should be made readily available and accessible to all current and future tenants or occupants of the building. A plan should include the types of materials to be collected and recycled, as well as the types of source reduction strategies to be implemented. Implement source separation of three recyclable materials (i.e., paper, glass, plastic) should be implemented and the collection method and target recycling goals should be displayed. The program should be periodically reviewed and updated.  Along with the detailed plan, develop an educational program to inform all occupants of the new strategies. This educational program should explain how building occupants can contribute to the recycling and source reduction program and why it is essential to take part in those activities. Deliver the educational program via email, social media, permanent signs (marking locations of recycling bins) or meetings. Make notifications to occupants in a timely fashion of any changes to the program. Lastly, have facility managers conduct regular checks to guarantee that the source reduction and recycling program follows protocol.[5]

Source reduction intersects with all aspects of operations from purchasing practices to office practices to shipping and receiving procedures to the lunchroom.[6] While there are many areas to focus on source reduction and recycling programs, computer paper is one of the most significant contributors to the solid waste stream from the workplace. Computer paper costs money to buy, store, and print, while wasting paper leads to profit losses and negative environmental impacts. Though it is essential to recycle computer paper when possible, it is more environmentally and fiscally responsible for reducing the amount of paper purchased. Print two-sided documents if printing is necessary but aims to post notices electronically and send documents for review via email. Communicate with occupants about the importance of conserving paper and that simple actions such as reusing materials can contribute to saving money on office supplies. Locate paper-recycling bins next to printers and trash cans and to encourage paper recycling.  (See Recycling Centers strategy).[7]


USGBC Waste Audits and Waste Diversion Efforts

Each quarter, the USGBC facilities team and janitorial crew works with a waste consultant to implement waste audits at the USGBC headquarters, allows the team to analyze the facility’s waste stream and work towards improvements in the facility’s waste diversion rate. As an organization, USGBC also works to minimize waste off-site and meetings and conferences.

Figure 1 – Volunteers help attendees at Greenbuild International Conference and Expo learn about waste diversion practices at the conference (Source:

Figure 1 – Volunteers help attendees at Greenbuild International Conference and Expo learn about waste diversion practices at the conference (Source:


Source reduction and recycling can save money and reduce the amount of material entering the solid waste stream. Recycling reduces the amount of strain put on landfills and incinerators, which decreases air and water contamination as well as preserving open space. Additionally, recycling conserves resources and reduces the need for new resources to be extracted from forests, oil wells, and mines, among others.[8] Recycling also has many indirect benefits. Recycling can lead to the creation of jobs and tax revenues that can make communities stronger and more prone to start environmentally responsible initiatives. Also, recycling can reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG’s) because the production, transport, and disposing of solid waste produces GHG’s.[9]


EPA’s WasteWise partners have documented that source reduction can lead to cost savings, particularly in shipping and receiving, office operations, and manufacturing.[10] Recycling can help reduce disposal costs.[11] While the individual cost of purchasing reusable items may be more than disposable products, realizing the long-term benefits of reusable items and life-cycle cost comparisons can balance the initial costs. The life cycle costs include not only the purchase price but also its use by employees, distribution, sterilization of reusable products, and the cost for waste disposal. Consider factors such as its effects on the health of employees and the impacts on the environment. Some source reduction and recycling practices require a change in habits rather than a change in cost.[12]


Source reduction can decrease the quantity of waste generated when a natural or human-caused disaster occurs. Proactive strategies for waste-related issues associated with disasters is an integral part of resilience planning.[13] Reducing waste and reusing or recycling materials can help protect natural habitats that contribute to more resilient ecosystems.

[1] US EPA. Recycling. (accessed March 24, 2019).

[2] The State of New Jersey. “Recycling in NJ: Source Reduction (Waste Reduction).” (accessed March 24, 2019).

[3] US EPA. “Characterization of Municipal Solid Waste in the United States.” (accessed March 24, 2019).

[4] USGBC. The How and Why of Waste Audits at USGBC.  (accessed March 24, 2019).

[5] NYC DEC. Practical Source Reduction Tips for Business. (accessed March 24, 2019).

[6] Ibid.

[7] CalRecycle.  (accessed March 24, 2019).

[8] NERC. “New Jersey Environmental Benefits Fact Sheet on Recycling.” (accessed March 24, 2019).

[9] Recycling and Climate Protection.  (accessed March 24, 2019).

[10] US EPA. Wastes – WasteWise Program. (accessed March 24, 2019).

[11] US EPA. Managing and Reducing Wastes: A Guide for Commercial Buildings. (accessed March 24, 2019).

[12] GSA. Sustainable Facilities Tool. Life Cycle Approach. (accessed March 24, 2019).

[13] US EPA. Waste Management Planning to Mitigate the Impacts of Climate Change. (accessed March 24, 2019).