Highlights from the USQ Zero Waste Forum

Photos by Jane Kratochvil

Photos by Jane Kratochvil

Earlier this year, the Union Square Partnership launched a series of efforts to build a more sustainable future for the Union Square-14th Street neighborhood. As part of this initiative, the Union Square Partnership held our inaugural zero waste forum – Getting to Zero Waste in Union Square - aimed at supporting local businesses and organizations in their efforts to reduce waste, improve recycling, and shift the practices and behaviors of their customers, staff, and vendors. Our efforts are gaining momentum as evidenced by recent coverage in  Waste360  and  Metro NY, and the amazing turnout seen at our Zero Waste Forum on October 15th. 


Over 100 attendees from commercial offices, local eateries, zero waste resource providers, other business improvement districts, and students and staff from universities joined us at The New School to talk trash. Two panel talks featuring local experts from Breads Bakery, The New School, Related Companies, EILEEN FISHER, Dig Inn, and Bocce USQ and moderated by Foodprint Group and Think Zero highlighted insights on how to tackle waste in the workplace and reduce excess packaging and wasted food in restaurants. Click here to view slides from the panel talks. Key takeaways from their talks included:

  1. Zero waste is still a new concept in many settings so don’t be afraid to raise it as an issue or try to better understand how waste separation, collection, and processing works in your office or organization. Understanding what materials can and can’t be processed at the recycling and composting facilities your hauler takes your trash to can help you select more appropriate materials, such as cutlery, serveware, and beverage containers, for the workplace and restaurants.  

  2. Don’t underestimate the important intangible benefits of reducing waste, such as employee morale or alignment with your organization’s values. While panelists shared some instances when you can clearly track the financial value of reducing waste – such as reducing procurement spend by cutting waste in restaurant production, in other settings making the case on financial return on investment alone can be challenging and often wasn’t the driving rationale for organizations to take action.  

  3. It’s okay to start small. Waste is a complex issue and it can feel daunting to determine where to begin. Panelists share that small actions, like removing waste bins from employees’ desks or changing recipes to incorporate often wasted parts of a vegetable, can have ripple effects throughout your organization.

  4. Internal champions are key to get initiatives off the ground. But organizations should think about how to institutionalize waste reduction and recycling priorities – be it including provisions in leases that require tenants to have recyclable and compostable materials collected or adding guidelines into your employee handbooks on how materials should be disposed of at work stations and where waste and recycling bins would be located.  

  5. Find ways to help your customer reduce their waste once they leave the restaurant or store. Several panelists shared their experiences phasing out single-use items, such as paper coffee cups, plastic bags, or straws, or offering smaller packaging options, like a paper plate instead of a pizza box. While restaurants experienced some push back initially, consumers quickly realized that it’s easy to do without these items. 

After the panelists wrapped up, participants networked and shared their ideas over mini-CAVA bowls, pastries from Breads Bakery, Health-Ade Kombucha drinks, and water donated by evian. During our interactive feedback session, attendees flagged the challenges they face in addressing waste and identified resources that could assist them in doing more, including:  

  • Understanding the City’s recycling requirements and determining what can and can’t be composted or recycled, and identifying a hauler than can handle all these materials is challenging for many organizations. 

  • Contamination of recyclables is a common pain point and attendees shared that support creating signage templates that can easily be customized to the specifics materials found in their offices or restaurants’ waste streams and providing staff training programs could help.  

  • Attendees also expressed their desire to reduce use of single-use plastics or mixed material packaging in their organizations and shared that having better information on more sustainable alternatives would be helpful.  

  • Culture and behavior change were noted as keys to success. Finding positive ways to engage staff and customers on this issue and get them to care about making the right choice is critical to sustaining recycling, composting, and waste reduction efforts.  

Our Zero Waste Forum was just the beginning. If you’re looking for help getting your organization started on the path to waste reduction, check out USP’s new Zero Waste Resource Guide, a compendium of organizations that are ready to help you reduce waste, increase diversion from landfills, and operate more sustainably. Later this year, we will announce which local businesses were selected to receive free waste audits and will share insights from their journeys to get smarter about what materials are being discard in their organization – and how they plan to take action.