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Setting the Standard for Recycling Measurement

Skip to main content of this page First published in Resource Recycling (September 1997).
Reprinted with permission from Resource Recycling.

by Hope Pillsbury

State and local governments work with EPA to develop a voluntary methodology to accurately measure recycling rates.

Can you easily and fairly compare your recycling rate with other states or municipalities? Do you know if other states count more materials in their rate or include source reduction in addition to recycling? Do you feel confident that your data are complete and accurate enough to develop a recycling rate? Chances are, you answered "no" to at least one of the above.

Most states and municipalities across the country define recycling in different ways, use various approaches for measuring recycling rates, and include different materials in those rates. Many find it difficult to obtain complete information from survey respondents. As a result, comparing data among different states and municipalities, evaluating successful recycling programs, and using data effectively can be difficult.

Feedback from a nationwide survey of states, conducted under a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (Washington) grant from 1992 to 1994 by the Council of State Governments (Lexington, Kentucky) confirmed that states want a uniform method for measuring recycling. In response to this need, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has developed a voluntary, standard methodology for measuring recycling rates. To obtain assistance in developing the method, EPA convened a peer review group of recycling measurement officials from Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Washington, as well as representatives from the National Recycling Coalition (Alexandria, Virginia) and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. EPA also obtained input from industry by organizing a focus group of haulers, materials recovery facility operators, processors, end-users, and other private companies.

As states and local governments choose to adopt this methodology, fair comparisons among states or municipalities will be more easily accomplished, and useful information will be accessible for planning and decision-making. "We're interested in maintaining a level playing field for our own county governments, and a standard measurement methodology is essential," says Carl Hursh, chief of recycling and markets within the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (Harrisonburg). "We've been pleased with every aspect of the EPA methodology—it has worked very well for us."

Ron Henricks, administrator of the waste reduction section at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (Tallahassee) believes "the biggest advantage of the methodology is that everyone can compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges."

Another benefit to adopting the standard recycling measurement methodology is collecting accurate information for market development. "If quantities of recyclable materials are known and computed in the same way, you can get an idea of regional supply—the flows and gaps—which is an excellent market development tool," explains Ellen Pratt, program manager at the Northeast Recycling Council (Brattleboro, Vermont), which has worked with EPA and the Council of State Governments to develop this methodology.

Because the standard methodology was developed by and for state and local governments, it addresses the key issues encountered by those who undertake recycling measurement. Most importantly, it is flexible and completely voluntary. For states and localities that have never measured recycling, the methodology offers step-by-step instructions for developing a program from scratch. Jurisdictions with established measurement programs do not have to overhaul their existing systems to use the methodology; they can use a worksheet to convert their data to the standard format. In addition, the methodology presents tips for overcoming common hurdles, suggestions for best practices, short examples showing real-world experiences, standard definitions, sample survey forms for collecting data, and other essential resources for enhancing recycling measurement efforts, whether the user is a veteran or a newcomer.

The methodology is described in an EPA guidance document, Measuring Recycling: A Guide for State and Local Governments. Highlights of the methodology are presented below.

The Elements

The EPA methodology encourages state and local agencies to distribute standard survey forms to key individuals to solicit information about quantities of materials collected, processed, disposed, and recycled within the state. This process involves selecting respondents to survey, determining the kind of data to ask for, educating respondents about the data collection methodology, and analyzing the data correctly.

The standard methodology is composed of six required elements for arriving at a standard municipal solid waste (MSW) recycling rate:

Three of the six required elements form the cornerstones of the method and are described below. Additional elements of the program are optional and flexible.

The Equation

The standard methodology is based on an equation that calculates a standard MSW recycling rate for the current year:

MSW recycling rate (percent) = Total MSW recycled x 100
Clear graphic for text spacing.Total MSW generated

Total MSW generated is the sum of all the MSW recycled and disposed of within a given state or locality. This includes MSW and recyclables produced in the jurisdiction only; waste and recyclables imported into the jurisdiction are excluded, while materials exported are included.

The Scope of MSW

A standard definition of MSW is essential to establishing comparable recycling rates; however, no regulatory definition of MSW exists. EPA, therefore, defines MSW based on historical definitions and analyses of MSW that EPA has used for more than a decade. These definitions are broadly accepted and understood and are published annually in EPA's Characterization of Municipal Solid Waste in the United States. To encourage recycling of all materials, however, the methodology enables states to collect and process information on other recyclables, such as construction and demolition debris and sewage sludge, that are outside EPA’s standard definition of MSW.

Defining Recycling

EPA adopted the National Recycling Coalition's definition of recycling: "the series of activities by which materials that are no longer useful to the generator are collected, sorted, processed, and converted into raw materials and used in the production of new products." This definition excludes the use of these materials as a fuel substitute or for energy production. Where grey areas exist, EPA’s guidance document provides examples of which activities constitute recycling. For example, off-site composting is considered recycling, while backyard composting is considered source reduction.

Flexible Elements

EPA’s guidance document helps states and localities through the ins and outs of developing or enhancing a recycling measurement program by providing information on the flexible elements of the methodology. These recommendations describe how to:

To help states and localities gather the data they need and to encourage data sources to provide complete and accurate information, the guidance document also provides:

Sample survey forms. These forms can be used for collecting data from collectors, processors, end-users, transfer stations, and disposal facilities. They have been tested and refined though a peer review process. They are easy to read; include clear, simple instructions; and ensure that states get the type of data they need to calculate an MSW recycling rate.

In addition, people responding to multiple data requests appreciate receiving a standard form. Mike Poland, president of Environmental Recycling, Incorporated, a paper processor in Alexandria, Virginia, says "there's no question that a standard form would help us with our reporting requirements. The majority of the municipalities that we deal with use different formats and have different reporting methods. Standardizing these would definitely make our lives easier."

"There's no question that a standard form would help us with our reporting requirements and...would definitely make our lives easier."

- Mike Poland, President, Environmental Recycling, Incorporated (paper processor), Alexandria, Virginia

Worksheets. The worksheets help programs at differing stages of maturity to use the standard methodology. Some worksheets are designed for states or localities measuring recycling for the first time. Others enable jurisdictions that are already collecting data and computing recycling rates to easily and quickly recalculate their recycling rate using the standard equation.

Advice on ensuring confidentiality of data. Governments may foster excellent relationships with data sources, but still have trouble obtaining data from the private sector. Nevertheless, recycling measurement programs have successfully tackled this obstacle. The guidance document includes many lessons learned from these programs. Some tips include:

Combining the required and flexible elements of the methodology is the recipe for a successful, standardized measurement program. The impetus for this project came directly from the states, and we are looking to them to incorporate this method, either in full or as a supplement to their existing methods. Solid waste officials in the District of Columbia, Kansas, Ohio, West Virginia, and Wyoming are currently conducting demonstration projects using EPA’s method. Expected to be completed in June 1998, project results will provide useful feedback for future refinements to the methodology.

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