June 20, 2012

3 Min Read
Circular File: Somewhat Magic 8-Ball

Recently I was cleaning out some old files when I came across the press release for “Solid Waste Management at the Crossroads,” a 1997 report that predicted what recycling and waste management would be like in 2010. Franklin Associates, EPA’s longtime contractor for its annual waste and recycling census, authored the report.

I was surprised I still had a copy of the press release. Reports like this are read, debated and forgotten, sparing the futurists any embarrassment over failed forecasts. Franklin’s predictions, however, are notable. They include a 35 percent recovery rate in 2010 along with a warning that “ambitious diversion of marginally recyclable materials” such as mixed papers can lead to contamination and falling revenues but that diversion goals above 35 percent require mixed paper recovery and organics composting. As for disposal, we will still need landfills but waste to energy would not increase much unless unforeseen events such as higher prices for energy products occur.

I was impressed. They nailed the 2010 recovery rate and predicted many of the issues that face recycling today. Granted, they did not use terms like “single stream” recycling because it did not yet exist, but they anticipated our current debate over the quality and quantity of recyclables. And yet, most of these predictions were not particularly hard to make. Any firm with Franklin’s depth of experience and knowledge of recycling would have made the same general predictions.

A little later, I discovered a copy of the report itself. The three-page press release did not have backup data for the predictions. The 140-page report, however, included the data table that provided that backup. Their first number was that Americans would generate 253 million tons of trash in 2010. They were only 3 million tons over EPA’s estimate for 2010. Not bad.

After that, the numbers began to fall apart. Quite simply, the report failed to anticipate the rise of plastic packages and the decline of heavier glass, metal and paper packages. It predicted a healthy future for newspapers and printing and writing paper instead of their decline. Electronics products are not mentioned. Food and yard waste were underestimated. Although the general trend predictions were accurate, the specifics were wildly off target. As it turned out, the errors in product estimates cancelled themselves out, resulting in an accurate total estimate of solid waste generation.

Why should this be a surprise? General trends are relatively easy to predict. Specific trends, such as the amount of newspaper available for recycling in 13 years, are much harder. Unforeseen events can make mincemeat of those forecasts. In 1997 only a few people understood the impact the Internet would have on newspapers and printing and writing paper. Their predictions were ignored. Yet now we are dealing with the negative impact in tonnages and recycling facility revenues caused by these changes.

Why does this matter? Because state and local governments keep writing solid waste and recycling plans for the next decade that assume we will continue to manage the same products and materials. They rely on past trends to plan the future. We need to rethink our reliance on these plans. We need to be more flexible in our approach and lessen our dependence on command and control systems. After all, the future is full of unforeseen events.

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