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EPA’s Latest Recycling Report Comes With a Surprise; and How to Decipher Recycling Data

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Calculating recycling rates is no easy, straightforward task, especially when it comes to consolidating figures to come up with a national number. The stats come from multiple sources with different number-crunching methods. Reading and writing these reports is more an art than a science. This year the real story was even harder to decipher as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) changed its own reporting methods, which came with some surprising outcomes.

In this Q&A, Scott Mouw, senior director of Strategy and Research for The Recycling Partnership; and Chaz Miller, recycling consultant and veteran of National Waste & Recycling Association, discuss EPA’s latest report. They share their respective takes (some conclusions the same, and some a little different) on what the numbers really mean. And they advise on how to both read and write reports to best understand and convey what is going on with recycling. 

Waste360: Can you explain the reporting method for EPA’s study “Advancing Sustainable Materials Management” and its recent findings?

Chaz Miller: EPA analyzes waste streams by materials: paper, glass, plastics, etc. But they also analyze by-products, and that’s where numbers tell you the most.

The agency has four product classes: 1) durable goods, which are furniture, electronics, and anything that lasts more than three years; 2) nondurable goods, which last less than three years like newspapers and single-use plastic food ware; 3) containers and packaging; and 4) organics, which are food waste and yard trimmings.

If you look at the 2018 waste generation data, durable goods are 19.5%; nondurable are 17.3%; containers and packaging are 28.1%; and food and yard trimmings are 33.7%. I will talk more about this later. But first let me explain how the numbers in each of these product categories compare to recent years.

When you look at each product type you find that the durable goods recycling rate was essentially the same in 2018 as 2017. Nondurable was 32.1 percent in 2017 and in 2018 it was 28.1%, so that went down but mainly because of less newspaper; that tonnage has been disappearing for some time and continues to. With containers and packaging the recycling percentage actually increased from 49.4 percent to 53.8%.

Waste360: EPA reports a spike in food waste generation. Can you explain why? And does this figure impact other figures in the report?

Chaz Miller: EPA discovered 22.4 million tons of food waste in 2018 that did not exist the year before. This happened because they changed how they estimate how much food waste we create.  And because of the emergence of these extra tons the overall recycling rate dropped.

Some say the only things wrong with recycling rates are the numerator (recycling tonnage) and denominator (amount of waste generated). It’s logical that if you add 22.4 million tons to the denominator and do not add to the numerator the recycling rate goes down.

The 22.4 million tons of food waste resulting from the change in EPA’s methodology equates to a 56% increase in tonnage of that particular stream. For all municipal solid waste, it was a 12 percent increase. There is no way food waste increased 56% from 2017 to 2018.  That change automatically sent the “national recycling rate” down.

Waste360: You mentioned EPA’s new reporting category called “Other Food Management Pathways.” Can you elaborate on this and how you think it impacted the figures?

Chaz Miller: They created a new category called Other Food Management Pathways. EPA’s waste stream calculations changed dramatically between 2017 and 2018 as a result of this new way to calculate food waste under this category. Never before did EPA account for six categories that were added to this latest report, such as food that went to animal feed, anaerobic digestion/codigestion, biobased material, and donation.

So, a confusing process became more confusing. If you do census it’s easy to count people. There is a standard way to go about it. Garbage is more dynamic. It changes daily, based on factors like what’s produced and what’s consumed. Plus, there are multiple data sources.  Some are government data, some private. Also weighing into the equation are estimates of how long products last and how much food and yard waste are generated.

Further, EPA muddies the waters with three different versions of recycling rates.  

The traditional recovery/recycling rate (all materials recycled or composted divided by all materials generated); the newest rate, which includes the newly described pathways; and the third rate, which excludes yard and food waste (which is the most accurate measurement of recycling, as opposed to recycling and composting).

Calculations are not hard science – it is soft science. I think everyone is working to get the best numbers, but no one knows how much garbage we make in this country.

Waste360: What are the main takeaways from the EPA report?

Chaz Miller: The first key point is that the report says that recycling rates went down, but they went down only because EPA discovered 22.4 million tons of food waste.

The second key point is they changed their methodology. They expanded on how they categorized what they call food waste to include the six categories I mentioned earlier, which resulted in those additional tons of food waste. This impacted both recycling and disposal data. It lowered the overall recycling rate and increased the overall amount of garbage by an unusually large amount. And it increased per capita trash generation by an unusually high amount.

With regard to the recycling percentages, if you look at materials recycled within each stream it’s clear that recycling of packaging increased, nondurables decreased a little, and durable goods are flat.

Is the recycling rate “stagnant”?  Only if you ignore the dynamics in the waste stream itself.  This includes the decline in newspaper generation and the light-weighting of packaging. If we had the same waste stream today that we had in 2000, the recycling rate would be 40 percent or more.

On a side note: what intrigues me is that packaging recycling went up. I think packaging numbers are the most reliable, but they are not perfect. Most of the data is government data and trade association data. You can go back and look at those sources and decide if you think they are accurate. You know the sources. But with food and yard waste, we have no good, consistent method or source to measure it. It’s just an estimate.

Waste360: What is the real story behind national recycling rates?

Scott Mouw: The casual reader who reviews EPA’s report will take away that the recycling rate dropped. But they changed their methodology, which resulted in an increase in the denominator of material generated, particularly in the area of food waste. The real story behind the data is that recycling is flat. The dilemma of a report like this is people don’t have time to dig into data and look at tables and graphs and be sure to understand the math. But when you do that you see the deeper story.

Waste360: How did you go about deciphering EPA’s data, and what advice would you give anyone who wants to know how to read waste and recycling reports?

Scott Mouw: I looked at recycling tables and graphs for individual streams each year over roughly the past 10 years. If you look at actual numbers down to commodities like paper, glass, metals, and plastics you see a pattern of a rapid increase in recycling through the 1990s into the 2000s. Then it levels off.  This report is another installment of the story of recycling being flat.

To understand the figures readers must look at the first level of detail, which is the basic tables. In order to see the forest, you have to look at some trees, so look at individual tables and figures within them, then look for patterns.

Waste360: Who needs to know how to understand recycling reports? How can they use the data?

Scott Mouw: Every recycling stakeholder looking to shape or improve the recycling system should understand these reports. Some key audiences are state and local governments, including policymakers;  brands; and commodities industries.

State and local governments have choices in how they run programs, and we want them to consume data, so they know what makes them more effective in their job of capturing recycled materials.

We want brands to consume data to help in their goals to have packaging that is recyclable and that is actually recycled, as well as to get access to that material.

The commodities industries— the ones who process and use aluminum, plastics, etc.— are trying to find ways to access supply and to understand the nature of materials. The reports will help inform them with regard to how they make investments and what they can expect in terms of supply.

Another audience is policymakers; they are increasingly important. Elected officials see there needs to be attention to recycling policy. We’ve seen more activity on that in the last four years, and we want to be sure legislators and other elected officials are well informed with data and analyses that allow them to create and pass laws that will be effective—that will align with the problems and address them.

Waste360: Can waste management stakeholders inform quality data?

Scott Mouw: Yes. These reports are meant to advance dialogue and understanding so everyone involved in the system can make more informed choices about actions and so they can understand practices and strategies that are most effective.

This is a contractual relationship between the report author and reader to each do their own part. Authors must realize people have only so much capacity to look at detail and should write reports with that in mind. And readers should consider that they have a responsibility to not scan the material too quickly but to be more analytical.

We know from EPA studies and other studies that the recycling system has plateaued.  The Recycling Partnership’s objective is to release data that leads to change.  We want to engage everybody to collectively improve the system.

Whoever needs to use these reports should contact the author. Call or email and ask for more. We at The Recycling Partnership want a dialogue.  If some of our data is wrong, we want to know that. If we hear we are wrong that is the most productive dialogue we can have.

Waste360: What are some of your thoughts on EPA’s latest study on waste and recycling?

Scott Mouw: As far as what the recent numbers showed [if you look high level] it appeared there was an increased amount of food waste that is being generated.  There is no more food waste in actuality, but EPA started to count food differently.  Among changes is in the source of data they looked at, and I think previously they underestimated food from certain sources, whether commercial or other.

It’s easy to want to use the same methodology for reports that are repeated annually, but if you realize there was a mistake in the data and make an effort to correct it that is important. And that’s what I think happened. I am glad EPA tried to refine their analysis. I just wish it was more explicit for readers, so they don’t misunderstand what the figures actually mean.

Waste360: Can you site a good report and say what makes it so?

Scott Mouw: An example of a good industry report is an annual report of the Association of Plastic Recyclers and the American Chemistry Council that examines plastic bottle recycling rates.

Plastic bottles need to be recovered and put back in use at the highest rates possible and to understand how to do that you need a benchmark to see where we are and if we are making progress. If we are not making progress, then it’s a signal we need to do something different.  That report cries out about stagnation and describes a situation that is increasingly problematic for brands, manufacturers, and anyone concerned about the fate of plastics. The study is useful for the commodities industry and the brands.

What makes it stand out is the solid and reliable piece of data that comes out yearly. It’s an important check-in of how the system is performing.

Waste360: What are challenges and pitfalls in developing reports?

Scott Mouw: Challenges for the reporter are in presenting analysis in a way to engage readers at a level of detail that’s necessary for the information to be used effectively.

People tend to read the executive summary and conclusion and look at graphs and maybe the tables. They may read the beginning of each section.  Report authors must understand they will scan and be careful to explain accurately at high level.

Waste360: How does data impact policy?

Scott Mouw: Data is how you determine what policy is appropriate and is instrumental in developing good policy.  If policy is not grounded on analysis of what’s happening, then you will miss the mark. 

The same is true in building a recycling economy. We want to make sure commodities are not put in a hole in the ground. You need this data to know how to effectively capture the maximum value of commodities from waste

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