Keep America Beautiful Announces Results Of “Recycling At Work” Research Study

Posted by Heidi SchwartzCommon Office Recyclables

Providing employees with a desk side bin and a smaller trash bin attached to it can serve as a successful model for increasing recycling and reducing waste in the workplace. The recommendation, referred to as the “Little Trash” scenario, is one key insight comprising the first wave of the “Recycling at Work” study, commissioned by Keep America Beautiful with support from PepsiCo Recycling and CBRE.

Conducted over a six-month period in 2014, the study’s purpose is to help define best practices for a program that will foster improved recycling behavior in the workplace and result in an increase of quality and quantity of materials collected. The results of the study provide a number of common sense approaches that can be broadly applied in most workplace environments.

The overarching recommendation, which achieved a 20% increase in office recycling during the study, is to provide employees with a desk side recycling bin along with small trash bin. In common areas, it’s recommended that recycling and trash bins be paired with simple, consistent signage provided on bins and posters with the most common recyclables identified on the recycling bin. For more research findings and recommendations, go to the “Recycling at Work” website.

The study, conducted by Action Research, focused on the effects of office bin placement on recycling rates and level of contamination. In addition, the research team collected qualitative information about the potential issues encountered prior to and during the study’s implementation, as well as other important factors to consider when setting up a workplace waste management program.

“Our research clearly shows that by combining specific sized trash and recycling receptacles with simple signage and messaging, businesses and other organizations can increase employee participation and improve their rate of recycling of office generated materials,” said Jennifer Jehn, president and CEO of Keep America Beautiful.

Four different workplace recycling approaches were tested for the study. While the “Little Trash” scenario proved to be the most successful, the “Equal Size” set up also produced positive results. With convenience being the most common barrier, it’s important to note that these two equally convenient options—providing a recycling and trash bin at each desk—produced different results.

The “Little Trash” approach yielded improved quality of material collected in the bin—an increase of 20% in the quality of recyclables—along with a significant increase in knowledge about recycling and proper behavior. After implementing the “Little Trash” condition, offices significantly increased the proportion of material in the recycling bin that was actually recyclable and decreased the amount of trash collected in the bin. There was also a decrease in the amount of recyclables improperly placed in the trash bin, especially that of office paper. Paper in the trash bin was reduced to nearly zero. Moreover, the respondents of the “Little Trash” approach had a positive experience with the program.

As part of the “Recycling at Work” Study, baseline waste audits were followed by two short-term and two long-term audits for a total of 200 audits that were conducted in partnership with Great Forest, one of the leading sustainability consultancies in the U.S. The data was used to look for changes over the course of the program, including total recycling and trash collected by weight; weight and percentages of recyclables in the recycling and trash; among other measures.

Based on the frequency of the 10 targeted items in the recycling and trash, the study suggests the following items should serve as higher priorities for an office recycling program:

  1. Office paper is the most frequently recycled material, but it was still present in the trash in 50% of offices.
  2. Plastic beverage bottles and aluminum beverage cans are about equally present in recycling bins and trash bins. Similar to paper, these materials remain a priority.
  3. Paper towels were very frequently ending up in the recycling bin, with a steady decrease of presence over the course of the project.
  4. Food scraps had enough of a similar pattern to deserve a priority focus, though they were not present in recycling bins as frequently as paper towels.

Keep America Beautiful’s “Recycling at Work” program is a national voluntary initiative challenging businesses, government agencies, schools, hospitals, and other institutions to commit to increase workplace recycling. By taking the pledge and becoming a Pledge Partner, businesses and organizations can access special recycling bin discounts, free tools, and other resources to help them increase recycling, encourage employee participation, and earn recognition for their actions.

Full copies of the executive summary and research are available online at