Library Waste Audit

One of the more intimidating first steps toward certification is auditing your library’s waste. The purpose of this task is to discover what types of waste are produced and in what quantity during a set timeframe.

Harborfields waste audit team

Auditing your trash also measures how much waste is recycled compared to what is thrown out. The waste audit helps your library set recycling, waste reduction, and waste diversion goals as you work towards your Sustainable Library Certification. However, this is an informative exercise whether your library is currently pursuing certification or not. Gaining insight into the composition of our garbage can help our organizations quantify the amount of recyclable materials that are ending up being sent to landfill or incinerators. A great suggestion from one of our mentors, Janet Scherer, was to hold a “Treasure Hunt” for staff to see who could identify the locations of recycling receptacles throughout the building. Prizes were given for the fastest responses and staff were reminded of the recycling access points in a fun way. Joanna Goldfarb from RCLS mentioned finding a surprisingly high number of disposable coffee cups. “We are keeping our local Dunkin in business.” Even though she confirmed with their waste management company that the lids were recyclable, the library system decided to give away reusable coffee cups to staff to encourage waste reduction. Harborfields Public Library, who are shown in the video and pictures on this page, are working with their town and private carting service to find a workable recycling solution for paper and cardboard. The process of working with a municipality or private waste service can be slow, however, putting libraries and their sustainability goals on their radar can be beneficial when longer-term community waste solutions are discussed.

How to do a waste audit:

To perform a waste audit, you would gather a few people from your library’s sustainability team (3-5 people are ideal). You can collect garbage for a set time period, a week, a day, or a few days, the duration is up to your team. The longer the length of time you choose, the more comprehensive the picture of your typical waste will be. 

Before you begin, think of the most common types of trash that your library produces. Some examples are paper, cardboard, plastic bottles, other plastic, aluminum cans, glass, food waste, materials packaging, signage, and display materials.

separating waste into categories for a waste audit

The following steps are a guideline for the audit:

  1. Gather the garbage for a set time period.
  2. Lay a tarp on the ground and mark areas for each category of waste that you expect to find. You may want to leave a miscellaneous area or add categories as you go along.
  3. Weigh the trash before you start to get an idea of what is thrown out
  4. Weight the recyclables that are identified
  5. Once everything has been sorted, weigh each category
  6. Analyze your recycling
    1. Divide the weight of your recyclables by the total weight of the combined waste
    2. Multiply the results by 100
    3. This gives you the percentage of waste you divert from the waste stream by recycling
  7. Analyze the other categories of waste
    1. Which categories are the highest?
    2. Did you find recyclables mixed in with the trash?
    3. Were there categories that you didn’t realize you had?

Next Steps:

  • Based on what you find, determine what size dumpster you need and how frequently you need to schedule pickups.
    Harborfileds waste audit
  • Hire a recycling service, if possible
  • Set a goal for increasing your recycling rate
  • Create recycle guidelines to share with staff
  • Set a goal for reducing waste in your largest categories
  • Identify any items you can reuse. For example, can you repair or recycle electronics instead of purchasing new ones?
  • Consider switching from paper to cloth napkins, using washable and reusable cleaning cloths, etc.
  • Replace paper towels with hand dryers in bathrooms.



SLI Mentor, Lisa Kropp, assists with Harborfield's waste audit
Harborfield's Library Director Ryan Athanas sorts waste during the waste audit