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Recycling Definitions MatterRecycling Definitions Matter

Lack of clarity in rules severely impacts the public’s ability to recycle.

June 12, 2014

4 Min Read
Recycling Definitions Matter

By Debra Kantner and Bryan Staley, P.E., Ph.D.

From an operations perspective, recycling is well-defined: materials are collected and reprocessed into a suitable input for manufacturing. This can occur as closed-loop recycling (for instance, manufacturing new aluminum cans from recovered aluminum cans) or open-loop recycling (like manufacturing carpet fiber from recovered Polyethylene terephthalate, or PET bottles).

The primary operational goal for any recycling effort is to use these recovered materials as a replacement for virgin raw materials (i.e. plastic resin, metal, paper pulp) in manufacturing.  The operational definition is closely related to the scientific definition of recycling: the ability to convert a waste component (e.g. office paper, aluminum cans) into a usable end product consisting of the same material (e.g. plastic to plastic, paper to paper, etc.) based on available processing technologies.  

These definitions aren’t the only ones used to define recycling, however. Across the United States, state and local legislatures have enacted policy-based definitions which set numeric recycling goals and specify which materials and processes count toward achieving these goals. In addition to the typical recyclables of paper, plastic, metal and glass, these definitions can include some or all of the following: food waste composting, recovery of hazardous household waste municipal solid waste sent to waste-to-energy facilities, yard waste used as landfill alternative daily cover and credits from the use of landfill-gas-to-energy systems. As a result, the policy-based definitions are highly variable across state, city, and county jurisdictions.

Why is there such variability in policy-based definitions of recycling? At the state level, the discrepancies appear to occur when states use other states as a basis for guidance but revise the information for their own goal-setting purposes. In some instances, the reason may also be based on the political climate in that state or even in the spirit of competition, as a state may look to set a numeric goal greater than those of neighboring states. As a result, some recycling goals are set unrealistically high and may not be achievable based on how much of a state’s waste stream is actually recyclable.

When it becomes evident that such goals are unrealistic, definitions tend to be amended such that the goal becomes achievable. In many cases, this involves the inclusion of additional processes that were not originally considered to be recycling. This was the case in Florida, where a 75 percent recycling goal was set in 2008. To make this goal achievable, the definition was expanded to include additional materials and processes.

Although not part of the state’s original definition of recycling, yard waste used as process fuel and municipal solid waste sent to waste-to-energy facilities now count towards the recycling rate. In addition, electricity generation from landfill-gas-to-energy facilities is counted as a recycling credit, up to 1.25 tons of recycling per one megawatt hour of electricity produced.

Why should we care about these definitions? From an operational perspective, such variability results in a lack of clarity for the recycling industry that serves the states and communities operating under such legislation. Additionally, the definitional murkiness impacts public perception and the ability of the public to be properly informed on how to recycle. For example, marketing campaigns in Ames, Iowa, inform residents that their trash can is the only recycling bin they need.

The municipal solid waste is hauled to the city’s Arnold O. Chantland Resource Recovery Facility, which produces refuse-derived fuel used in the nearby coal-fired power plant. By including this in the definition of recycling, Ames achieves an impressive 75 percent recycling rate and residents perceive waste-to-energy to be recycling, which is in contrast to what’s happening in many other areas in the United States.

With such variability in definitions, it should come as no surprise that many view defining recycling as a smoke-and-mirrors affair, where the end-goal seems to be more about achieving the highest possible numeric rate without an actual increase in the tonnage of recyclables collected. While there are many potential solutions to this issue, a standardized science-based definition of recycling adopted on a national basis could go a long way toward adding clarity. Furthermore, the use of a standardized definition would also allow for meaningful comparisons between various entities—states, cities and institutions—resulting in the ability to better track our society’s performance on waste diversion and recovery.  

Debra Kantner is the internal research program coordinator at the Environmental Research and Education Foundation (EREF). She received her Master’s degree in environmental engineering from North Carolina State University.

Bryan Staley, P.E., Ph.D., is president of the Environmental Research and Education Foundation (www.erefdn.org), a nonprofit foundation that funds and directs scientific research and educational initiatives to benefit industry participants and the communities they serve.

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