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Trash Talk

The construction of any new building incurs a considerable environmental cost, particularly in the manufacture of the materials used. The building construction industry is responsible for 6% (2.3 gigatons) of annual global CO2 emissions(1) and, in addition, uses a lot of water, raw materials, and creates significant waste and pollution. It’s partly because of this that the green building movement developed and is usually associated with the design and construction of new properties. However, most of a building’s environmental impacts are the result of its occupancy and use over the course of its lifespan – the operations of the residential and commercial real estate sectors account for 27% (9.9 gigatons) of annual global CO2 emissions(2).

It follows that, the longer a building is in use, the greater the significance of its operational environmental impacts compared with those made during its construction and that is why, as Hung Kuo Building strides into its fourth decade of use, our management team is so focused on monitoring and improving the day-to-day performance of key environmental impact factors. In addition to reducing electricity and water consumption, which we’ll talk about in more detail in subsequent articles, we are putting a lot of effort into better waste management.

This may seem a little counter-intuitive given that Taiwan is world-famous for the success of its 4-in-1 recycling program(3). However, while this initiative and subsequent supporting legislation has helped to increase the rate at which waste is diverted from landfill or incineration to an average of 57.8% over the past five years, the overall picture with regards Taiwan’s waste production can be said to be getting worse.

Taiwan’s “4-in-1” waste recycling program has received international acclaim, but the total amount of waste is currently increasing year-on-year.

Are We Victims Of Our Own Success?

It’s tempting to think that, because we have one of the highest recycling rates in the world, Taiwan no longer has a waste problem. That’s not the case. Data from the Taiwan EPA(4) show that the amount of waste generated has increased by 12.2% over the past two years alone (from 9.87 million tons in 2020 to 11.24 million tons in 2022) and while recycling rates remain high, the amount of waste going to landfill or being incinerated increased 17.7% during the same period (390 million tons and 474 million tons respectively). This increase is not driven by demographics as the population has decreased slightly in the past two years. The EPA states that municipal waste generated per person each day has risen from 1.144kg in 2020 to 1.320kg in 2022.

Taiwan EPA waste data shows increase in total waste and waste per capita in the last two years.

We also can’t consider most of our waste being recycled as an inherently good thing. The various processes of recycling require energy (emitting greenhouse gasses) and water (of which Taiwan is facing a chronic supply challenge), while creating pollution issues of their own, and many materials, particularly paper and some plastics, have a limit on the number of times they can be recycled before they weaken or are contaminated beyond a point that they can no longer be reprocessed – a phenomenon known as downcycling(5). While it is better to preserve these materials for continued use rather than burn or bury them, most recycling can arguably be thought of not as an inherently good thing to be doing more of, but rather simply preferable to incineration and landfill.

For decades now, the mantra of waste management has been the three ‘R’s – Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. These are placed in order of priority with recycling last because of the downsides mentioned in the previous paragraph. But our problem is that the total amount of waste we’re producing isn’t being reduced, in fact we’re just generating more.

Getting To Grips With Waste At Hung Kuo Building

In LEED Operations and Maintenance (O+M) for Existing Buildings, waste management accounts for 8% of the total score, which evaluates both the total waste generated each year and the proportion diverted from landfill and incineration. Following the mantra of the three ‘R’s, more of the score is apportioned to the total amount of waste generated than the percentage diverted.

When we began transforming into a green building, we realized that waste management was one area with room for improvement. In 2020 the building produced a total of 107,000 Kg of waste and the average recycling rate throughout the year was 52.2%, significantly below the Taiwan average of 58.8% in the same year. We approached the challenge of improving this performance in three ways. First, we conducted a waste audit to better understand the nature of the waste being produced during a typical workday and where the areas to improve diversion rates lay. Then we worked with our waste haulage contractors to develop channels to divert more types of waste. Finally, we engaged with our tenants to create a better waste disposal network that made it easier to understand how to divert waste from landfill and incineration.

The Smelly Deep Dive

Conducting a waste audit is probably the most unpleasant job in green building, but it’s a very useful exercise. It involves collecting a full day’s waste from the entire building and sorting through it by hand to measure, floor by floor, what has been discarded for incineration that could have been diverted, and then weighing everything, including the correctly recycled waste. For health and safety reasons, we don’t sift through the waste from toilet trashcans, but simply weigh that to get a complete picture of total waste generated in the previous 24hr period.

We don’t need to conduct these audits as part of being a LEED certified building, but we do so for the valuable information it provides. In order not to disrupt regular service at Hung Kuo, we do the audits on a Saturday morning measuring the previous Friday’s waste, meaning that our janitorial staff need to come in on a day off for a morning of hard work.

The waste audit process requires manual sorting to obtain comprehensive data on a single day’s garbage.

Our last audit was conducted in February 2023. While it’s not possible to extrapolate too many conclusions from a single day’s data which may be affected by specific issues related to that day that aren’t typical over the course of a year, we did find some interesting issues stemming from going through the waste with a proverbial fine-tooth comb.

The diversion rate was 60.3% of total waste by weight, which is very good. However, a further 6.8% of total waste discarded in the general waste stream could have been diverted, this mostly being food waste and paper and plastic waste associated with take-out meals. There was a ten-fold variation in waste generated per regular occupant between floors, with the lowest being a measly 20g and the highest being 200g. The average waste per regular occupant throughout the building was 103g.

The top five categories of waste diverted were Mixed Paper and Cardboard (68.13kg), Paper Food Containers (56.10kg), Food Waste (34.92kg), Plastic Food Containers (9.36kg) and General Plastics (8.45Kg). These same five categories were top in 2022, although in a slightly different order. Food waste, for example, was the second largest diverted waste type by weight last year.

Because the waste audit requires sorting through each bag of trash by hand, it can also reveal things it would be easier not knowing about. This year we found cigarette butts in the general trash from three floors, which was extremely disappointing. Not only do we remind all tenants about the building’s strict non-smoking policy on at least an annual basis, but smoking in office buildings is against the law in Taiwan. Of course, we’d rather not have to deal with these issues, but it’s important to be aware of them so we can take remedial action to protect the health and safety of all tenants in the building. Our management team addressed this problem with the tenants on those floors the Monday morning following the audit, and we sincerely hope we won’t have any more incidents.

Working With Our Contractors

Prior to starting our LEED journey, we weren’t diverting food waste because we hadn’t previously conducted a waste audit and weren’t aware of how significant it was in the building. After our first waste audit, we explored several options for food waste diversion with our waste contractor and eventually settled on the most practical, which is to send scraps to be processed as pig feed. That does mean that not all food waste can be diverted because it’s not suitable for consumption by pigs, but because of this program, 6.13% of 2022’s total waste was saved from incineration. We also collaborated with our waste contractor to begin recycling glass. Even though it comprised 0.76% of total waste last year, we’re committed to doing whatever we can to better manage our waste.

Addressing The Issues At Source

Knowing what can and can’t be diverted or recycled can be confusing at the best of times. When we started tackling this issue, we had many questions ourselves, particularly when it came to plastics, food containers and products made from different materials. So, we could hardly ask our tenants to do more recycling without a clear understanding of what we needed them to do. The first step in engaging with our tenants was therefore actually to get a complete picture from our contractors of what can and can’t be diverted. Given the huge variety in the types of waste generated in an office building, from stationery supplies to food and beverage packaging, this wasn’t as straight-forward an exercise as one might expect. But we eventually mapped it out in a way that we could explain it to tenants and waste could be separated for diversion in a manner that aligned with our contractor’s waste streams.

We then engaged with a tenant focus group to discuss the issues and create an optimal solution for separation of waste at source with their input. To make things as simple as possible, we reduced the onus of sorting on tenants by providing one receptacle for all types of metal and glass, and another receptacle for all types of clean plastics from PET bottles to DVDs, and adopted the mantra, “If you’re not sure, separate it anyway”. Our janitorial staff sort through this waste in our basement waste treatment area to ensure it’s all correctly separated and weighed for our contractor to haul, thus reducing the workload and decision-making burden on our tenants.

We feel that this new waste management system has been incredibly successful. Because it was created with the direct input of our tenants, it’s something that really works for them.

The Results So Far

In 2022 the total volume of waste produced was down 3.9% on 2020 (from 107,000 Kg to 103,000 Kg) and the average diversion rate had increased by 9.7% (from 52.2% to 57.8% which was in line with the 2022 national average of 57.2%). These are encouraging trends, but our waste audit shows there is still room for improvement in diversion rates, and the annual data shows we should be able to work together to reduce overall rates by changing the way we do things.

Waste is direct product of our consumer economy. It is therefore driven by behaviour and understanding those behaviours and day-to-day decisions is key to reducing unnecessary waste.

A good case in point is our single largest type of waste in 2022 – mixed paper and cardboard. While you might expect an office building to produce tons of A4 white printer paper waste, that only constituted 1.2% of total waste last year. Our waste contractor collects other paper types (such as glossy colour printed publications) combined with cardboard and so we sort and weigh them together. Last year they constituted 42% of the building’s total waste and most of that was cardboard – a somewhat counterintuitive result for an office building. However, we’ve noticed in the past few years that a significant amount of this waste is tied to the growing trend in online shopping. Because our tenants aren’t at home during the day to accept deliveries, many have products sent to them at work and remove them from the (often over-sized) shipping boxes to make them easier to take home. While this waste isn’t directly related to the business operations of our tenants or the building’s operations as a whole, it nevertheless constitutes a considerable impact on our ongoing waste stream.

The recent surge in popularity of online shopping has led to an increase of cardboard waste at HungKuo Building – here is just two days’ worth.

Coffee, Tea or Waste Free...

A key goal of a sustainable society should be to eliminate waste altogether, following the patterns of nature where everything becomes a resource for something else, or one man’s trash being another man’s treasure. At least for now, this is simply not achievable in a modern office building with more than 3,000 daily occupants. But that doesn’t mean that we stop trying. On the contrary, the quest to reduce our waste footprint is the perfect example of the commitment to increasingly green Hung Kuo Building’s operations.

During this year’s waste audit, one thing that really struck us was how much of the general waste stream destined for incineration was made up of coffee grinds and tea leaves, which can’t be mixed into the current food waste recycling system as it’s not suitable for pig feed. This month, we began trialling a new separation system to collect this waste and are beginning tests to find the best ways to convert it into a useful product. We don’t want to ask our tenants to consume less tea or coffee and therefore can’t eliminate this waste, but we can try to emulate the processes of nature to turn it from a byproduct that contributes to a problem to one that provides a benefit.

For coffee grounds and tea leaves, Hong Kuo Building launched a new separation system this month.

Close monitoring of our waste stream and periodic detailed audits enable us to find new opportunities to improve our performance and have conversations with our tenants to help them be informed and make meaningful decisions that reduce our collective impact. The journey continues.

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