It’s January, and the world is buzzing with talk about new resolutions and goals for 2017. The waste industry is no different as we make our plans for the year, except for one big thing: We lack one clear goal and metric to define our success. Are we trying to increase pounds recycled or are we trying to reduce pounds disposed? Are we counting the number of jobs created or the tons of greenhouse gases avoided?
The answer, of course, is yes, yes and yes—we’re trying to do it all. But in trying to do it all and not clearly communicating one clear goal, we struggle to measure our progress, compare the efficacy of different programs and communicate a clear vision to the public. We need 2017 to be the year we commit to and embrace one clear measure of success.
First goals, then metrics
Before we talk about measuring success, we need to first clearly state our goal. To me, coming from a mission-based nonprofit social enterprise, this is simple: Our goal is a restorative and regenerative economy that keeps products, components and materials at their highest utility and value at all times—a circular economy with no waste.
This is not the same as 100 percent recycling where consumption can continue to rise. We need to work within the constraints of our finite natural resources to manage our material consumption and restore and preserve our natural capital—forests, rivers, wetlands, soils—for this and future generations.
One metric to rule them all
Our primary metric needs to be the best measure of our progress toward a circular economy. Ideally, it should be easy to track and to communicate to the public and decision-makers. It must also incorporate waste reduction and reuse activities and account for changes in packaging materials and consumption habits.
I will argue that there is only one data point that meets these needs: Pounds disposed per person per year. Here’s why I believe this is the best metric:
- It captures the ultimate goal of a circular economy by measuring how well we keep materials in productive use.
- It can be easily measured by using data from disposal facilities, rather than tracking down data at countless recycling or reuse facilities or estimating generation rates.
- It accounts for increases in waste reduction and reuse.
- It can be used to compare programs around the world.
The one challenge I see with this metric is that it can be both easy and difficult to communicate to the public. Setting a goal of burying and burning zero waste is a straightforward message, but the interim steps of only disposing of 250 pounds per person or a 35 percent reduction in waste disposal per capita is a bit too abstract and meaningless to all but the wonkiest of trash geeks.
That said, I believe this is a workable problem, not a fundamental flaw, and I look forward to some rousing conference debates about how to frame this better for the public.
As for the rest of the metrics, I’m not advocating that we kick them to the curb. They each bring value in measuring different aspects of our performance, but are better suited for a supporting role than our one true measure of success. Let’s see how they can each play a role.
Our most tried and true metric has always been the recycling rate, but there is growing clamor about its fundamental flaws:
- It doesn’t account for changing discard streams where plastics weigh less than glass, which means recycling rates are declining by weight even though volumes are up.
- It doesn’t factor in waste reduction or reuse efforts.
- It’s riddled with inconsistencies between communities based on who includes what categories of materials or sources of generation.
- It implies that our ultimate goal is 100 percent recycling, which does not translate to the most efficient use of resources. For example, we know that reducing the obscene amount of food wasted is far better than composting all our leftovers.
Recycling rates are a great way to communicate with the public, and because of its popularity, it isn’t going away. But I suggest we use it in conjunction with other metrics and not as our primary data point.
Percent remaining recyclable/compostable
Communities such as Alameda County, California, have set goals that recyclable and compostable materials make up less than 10 percent of the materials sent to disposal. Unfortunately, as an industry-wide goal, it’s a false measure of success. For example, we could be recovering all that is currently recyclable but still increasing our trash generation because we’re using more disposable or composite products that cannot be recycled.
This metric is, however, a great way to measure the effectiveness of community recycling and composting programs in capturing the available materials. It’s a smart benchmark for measuring the success of a new program by comparing rates before and after launch.
Impacts of resource recovery: GHG emissions, jobs created, etc.
Measuring the environmental, economic and social impacts of waste diversion, instead of tons processed, is a good idea, provided we use lifecycle analysis to account for externalities. Unfortunately, the data is still hard to come by, costly, and fraught with limitations. There is also the matter of priorities. For example, the recyclable materials that give us the biggest bang for the buck when it comes to reducing our climate impacts may not be the materials that generate the most jobs per ton. We then have competing priorities and have to make a value decision that may be different across communities.
This metric is rapidly evolving and gaining momentum, and will become more prevalent as our data improves. Until then, it’s still best suited as a secondary metric.
One number for 2017
Let’s make 2017 the year we evolve beyond recycling rates and move toward the one metric that matters most—let’s start talking about pounds of trash disposed per person. I bet that each of us could stand to lose some weight this year.
Kate Bailey is the project director of Eco-Cycle Solutions and works with citizens, government staff and elected officials to implement Zero Waste solutions around the U.S.