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For a unit of measurement that carries so much weight with policymakers, press and the public, it’s remarkable how little agreement there is around the best way to calculate recycling rates.
“We truly have a cornucopia and mixed bag of calculations, what counts and what doesn’t count, and how they count it,” said Myles Cohen, president of Pratt Recycling, during an Aug. 22 WasteCon panel. “We’re not even close to having a universal measure yet.”
Cohen’s MRF Summit panel, and a newly adopted SWANA technical policy, helped to further develop the framework for this ongoing discussion last week in Nashville, Tennessee.
While many governments use the basic equation of recycling divided by total waste generated to calculate their rate, that’s often where the agreement stops and the questions begin to pile up.
Did that recycling amount account for contamination? Did it include yard waste, e-waste, C&D, household hazardous waste or material sent to WTE facilities? Are cities, counties or states using the same standard measurement practices that would allow for clear comparisons? Are those numbers coming from top-down estimations or bottom-up reporting, à la the Environmental Protection Agency vs. Environmental Research & Education Foundation data discussion?
While all of these questions may play out behind the scenes, the resulting numbers often factor into much more public conversations. As governments set more ambitious diversion goals, all involved want to show progress each time they report new data. These statistics may also get picked up by various media outlets for comparisons — a flawed system according to researchers — about who is “the best” at recycling in a given year. If service providers are operating under contracts that emphasize such targets, they may be inclined to do the same.