Nik Balachandran


Zero waste is an opportunity, not a burden. It isn’t the responsibility of a single department or person in an organization. Waste touches everyone in the organization from occupants to operations to procurement. So why not consider zero waste as an opportunity to bring all the departments together in a concentrated effort to achieve a common goal? It can induce a collective thought process to move up the supply chain towards reducing waste from being generated in the first place. To accomplish this we must empathize with stakeholders from these departments, understand their challenges and free up bottlenecks to streamline communication.

Adopt zero waste as an organization goal. For the purposes of this article, we will assume that this hurdle has already been overcome. Here are 6 steps to keep experimenting and constantly improving on the journey to zero waste:

#1: Establish a task force or a committee with key stakeholders in the program. Include them in the discussions early on. If contracts need to be amended to accommodate these new functions, it should be done in conjunction with the organizational goal. Get their input on the scope of what you’re trying to achieve. Meet every month or at least once a quarter. Ex: Occupants, Custodial/Janitorial members, Waste Managers, Facility Supervisors/Staff, Sustainability Managers, Content Marketing team.

#2: Identify your top campaigns or programs for the current year. Typical challenges campus sustainability teams face at universities, hospitals or corporations are related to reducing contamination from recyclables in trash, unused supplies and food waste. Other concerns are related to operational issues such as moving from centralized to desk-side bins, monitoring container fullness levels to optimize service levels, track missed container pickups from haulers or signage that needs to be swapped out.

#3: Develop a timeline to run these campaigns with approval from key stakeholders. Use committee meetings to establish a roadmap ahead of time. Let’s use an example to illustrate the methodology. Have you arrived at the conclusion that it’s time to upgrade all your signage? Perhaps, because the design is outdated or the information is not correct anymore. Let’s call this our Signage Update campaign.

#4: Design your campaign: A well designed campaign is a problem half solved. Think about the parameters of the roll-out. A 500k sqft building could have anywhere between 200-400 bins depending on the type of business and number of floors, from the smallest desk-side bins to largest roll-offs. In order to roll-out signage across all these spaces you need an inventory of the bins. A bin inventory is the foundation of a zero waste program. It helps you understand the current steady state movement of waste across spaces within buildings. From there on, you can really understand how to reduce the ratio of landfill to diverted stream bins, place the bins depending on movement patterns of occupants and standardize all the bins sizes and aesthetics. You will need to gather the following information at the very least:

  1. Bin Size – 64g, 96g, 1 yd, 2yd, etc.
  2. Bin Type – Bin, Cart, FEL, Roll-off, etc.
  3. Bin Location – Latitude, Longitude, Department, Floor, etc.
  4. Bin Space-type – Cafe, Dock, Bathroom, Office, Hallway, Lab, etc.
  5. Bin Stream – Landfill, Recycle, Compost, etc.
  6. Bin Configuration – Centralized, Desk-side, etc.
  7. Space Size – Number of occupants, square footage, patient beds, etc.

Keep in mind the resources needed from every department to run an effective campaign.

#5: Measure your campaign: As you design campaigns, remember to track their effectiveness. Use any means necessary, whether pen and paper, spreadsheets or software. Make a list of attributes that track the campaign’s outcome. For example, in our Signage Update campaign, you may want to track the following:

  1. Fullness %
  2. Contamination %
  3. Contaminants – Depending on your jurisdiction or level of detail.
  4. Notes – Anything you may want to note down to help provide context

But do you really have to track all 300 bins in the building all the time? The answer is No! That’s where we leverage the well oiled system of Sampling. Efficient sampling mechanisms give us context to understand complex processes from election polls to clinical studies to market research.

By developing a system to uniformly sample across bin location, space type and stream, we can now significantly reduce the complexity of our measurement process down to a handful of bins monitored at a periodic interval for a limited time. Measuring 10% of the bins, at a sample size of 30, every week for a month is very manageable, equipping you with the granular insights to evaluate the effectiveness of your campaign.

#6: Iterate by first conducting a baseline assessment to determine the level of contamination in the bins before it’s collected by custodial staff. Update the signage at the chosen areas. Follow up with another monitoring assessment. Close the experimentation loop by constantly sampling different parameters and testing your hypotheses.


If it works, scale the Signage Update operation across all the spaces originally planned. If it doesn’t, either the signage still needs some work or the bins need to be re-designed or you might even uncover some surprises.  At the very least, you will have a methodology to run low cost experiments to validate your hypothesis by using limited human and financial resources.

If you have tried to implement such a system, found success or failure, there’s always interesting results to share with the zero waste community.

Nik Balachandran’s foray into the waste industry was triggered by the excessive amounts of waste in the environment and the lack of data on the quantity, quality and type of waste being disposed of. A strong advocate of the circular economy, he founded Zabble Inc. in 2016 to enable universities, hospitals and corporate campuses to achieve zero waste by delivering real-time actionable insights. Prior to this, Nik worked at seminal startups in the San Francisco Bay Area bringing new ideas to life, developing ground-breaking algorithms and automating processes in the areas of noise cancellation, clinical data analysis, patient medication adherence and indoor air quality. Since 2017, Nik has been a TRUE Zero Waste Advisor. Nik has been deeply involved in local beach and city cleanups in the Bay Area since 2007. He is a former board member of Northern California Recycling Association (NCRA) and actively participates in zero waste advocacy. Nik can be reached at [email protected]. For more information on Zabble closes the loop with hospitals, universities and corporate campuses to help them achieve zero waste, visit