Plastic Liners, Oatmeal and Cost Savings

Trash cans lined with plastic liners are located throughout colleges and university campuses in offices, classrooms, food service areas and just about everywhere else people congregate. For a large school with hundreds of staff and thousands of students, there likely are several thousand trash cans — once again, all lined with plastic liners that need to be changed two or three times per week, if not more. That's a lot of plastic liners.

Trash liners are not necessarily an expensive item in, for instance, a small to moderate-sized office; however, for a large campus, they quickly become a significant cost factor. Further, if the school is sustainability focused, as so many are today, finding ways to reduce the number of plastic liners used on an annual basis will help the school make a sizable dent in its environmental footprint.

Consider the Options
When it comes to the choice of plastic liners, school administrators should know that the latest version of LEED (V4) does not require the use of recycled or recyclable liners. This may come as a surprise to many, but the reasoning behind this decision — according to the U.S. Green Building Council, the developer of the LEED program — is that manufacturers have simply not been able to develop recycled or recyclable liners that are dependable and durable enough to be used in commercial facilities.

Trash liners, used in not only schools but also commercial facilities, grocery and retail stores and other locations, can have a detrimental impact on the environment. According to the Worldwatch Institute, nearly 300 million tons of plastic were produced in 2013, much of it used as trash liners, ending up in landfills around the globe. Further, school administrators should be aware of the following:

  • Some reports indicate that plastic liners can take more than 300 years to fully decompose in a landfill.
  • As plastic liners decompose, they can release methane gas. Methane gas, which is flammable, makes up as much as 90 percent of the gas released from landfills, and is considered a greenhouse gas.
  • Related to this, some liners considered "environmentally friendly" are still petroleum-based, made of some petrochemicals; these liners still can take several years to decay, and they release methane emissions in the degrading process.

Liner Reduction Implementation
Because there can be so many "win-wins" if a college or university reduces the number of trash liners it uses, many are willing to establish a pilot program to come up with solutions. We did this with one of our clients with a large corporate campus. The steps and procedures we took can work just as well on a college campus.

One of the first things the contract cleaners or school custodians will want to know is if reducing or eliminating the need for plastic trash can liners will add to the cleaning crew's time and labor. Professional cleaning is very time- and labor-focused, and any additional time to perform certain duties can have an impact on the cost of cleaning, especially if this is a large campus.

To address this issue, we conducted time studies with our client and uncovered the following:

  • It takes approximately 30 seconds to collect a trash can and place its debris in larger containers for disposal.
  • It takes another 30 seconds to remove and replace the liner in the garbage can and return it to the workstation.

We also found that taking the same steps but eliminating the plastic liner entirely took about the same amount of time. The only problems we encountered were when wet items were placed in trash cans. And one wet food item we have encountered — oatmeal — can be particularly troublesome.
Our client, like many college campuses, serves its staff and students breakfast such as oatmeal in the morning. If the oatmeal is later deposited into trash cans without plastic liners, it slowly hardens and adheres to the bin. By the time cleaning begins in the evening, the oatmeal has hardened to the point that the trash can needs to be scrubbed clean.

We addressed this situation by replacing each trash can caked with dried oatmeal with an entirely new trash can. Then, the dried oatmeal cans were cleaned together at the end of the shift and reused the next day. Our time studies found this had minimal impact on time, helping to promote the goal of reducing, if not eliminating, the use of plastic liners and their related costs.

If starting a liner elimination pilot program such as this sounds promising, school administrators should be prepared to receive some pushback from the cleaning staff. Change in a work setting, especially a large work environment, can be difficult. We have found this to be true regardless of whether the workers are employees of a contract cleaning company or employed directly by the school.

Pushback can be addressed with education. Remind employees what the goals of the program are: to promote sustainability, to protect the environment and to reduce the use of natural resources. What can be called a "sustainability culture" has been evolving in North America over the past decade, so these issues often resonate well with many workers.

Regarding the pilot program discussed above, it proved very successful and is now being implemented throughout the corporate campus. In most cases, only kitchen and food-service areas of a facility still need plastic liners, eliminating thousands of liners used previously.

As you can imagine, cost savings can be considerable. Further, a huge amount of storage space, once used to hold hundreds and hundreds of cases of plastic liners, has now become available. I'm sure most school administrators could find many other uses for that precious space.

Daniel Montes is the president and CEO of Brilliant General Maintenance, a more than 30-year-old contract cleaning company based in Northern California, with offices in several states in the U.S. He can be reached via his company website at