Toward a Common Denominator

Communities across the US and the world are working to achieve zero waste, a valid goal because it is both important and achievable. Few would disagree that there is value to pursuing such a strategy. After all, there are staggering financial and environmental costs to burying and burning as much waste as we do. Moreover, sending materials that still have value to landfills or incinerators takes away our ability to capture that value-the new jobs created by a vibrant recycling economy, the energy saved by reusing or recycling an item rather than making another one new, or the compost created out of diverted organics, to name only a few of the many benefits of zero-waste policies.

But there is a problem: As different cities and towns work toward zero waste, they are using a wide range of different standards to measure their progress. Moreover, the criteria that make up those standards are not always transparent. The lack of a clear and consistent data point that allows cities to measure their progress toward zero waste inhibits their ability to reach their goal. After all, how can a city achieve zero waste if it does not know how far away from zero it actually is? And is it doing everything it needs to get to zero if it thinks it is actually closer than it truly is?

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The time has come for broad adoption of a clear, consistent standard for municipal waste disposal, and to do so, we could do no better than to use the standard of annual pounds per capita disposed.

Our Current Range of Standards
In the absence of a clear and consistent standard, governments calculate and report on their waste generation in an almost dizzying number of ways. Some cities measure “diversion rates,” while others calculate “recovery rates,” and still others speak in terms of “recycling rates.” In some cases, these terms refer to different metrics, and in others they refer to the same thing. The problem is exacerbated by general media coverage that often fails to differentiate among these sometimes different measurements.

San Francisco’s well-known claim to an 80% diversion rate offers a helpful window into the challenge of measuring waste generation. In California, waste diversion is measured as a function of time: current waste generation compared with waste generation in a benchmark year. But the standard is not as clear as it may appear. The state law allows the benchmark year to vary by several years, depending on specific factors in a given city. And even the base-year generation tonnage itself-a number that many presume to be fixed-can actually be adjusted to account for different economic and population factors. As Robert Haley, San Francisco’s zero waste program manager, told the online publication fivethirtyeight.com recently, “Comparing within California is tricky.” He added, tellingly, “Comparing with other states is really, really hard.”

Another dramatic drawback to the chaotic collection of waste measurement standards we face today is the fact that there is no agreement on which materials count as diverted or recycled and which count as disposed. San Francisco has been criticized recently for counting heavy construction materials and biosolids-not ordinarily considered part of the residential wastestream-as “diverted” from the landfill. (This is the source of much of their extremely high diversion rate.) Moreover, under California law, San Francisco is permitted to count finely ground, crushed concrete used in landfills as alternative daily cover as recycling-a designation not permitted in all states. Oregon law allows waste management authorities to boost their recycling numbers by up to 6% in “credits” for waste reduction education programs, residential composting programs, and incineration of mixed solid waste. Maryland counts the tonnage from landfilled incinerator ash as recycling. A waste-to-energy plant and materials recovery facility in Maine counts as recycling the crushed glass pulled from the recycling stream for use at its landfill/ashfill as roadway material. This list could go on and on, but the point is clear: We have no accurate and consistent way to measure communities’ performance toward their zero-waste goals-and without such a measurement, cities and towns across the US are left without vital information they need to help them actually accomplish those goals.

A Clear, Consistent Metric
One of the biggest problems with the current crop of inconsistent waste disposal metrics is that they use different ways of counting down from the total size of the wastestream. The best alternative turns this methodology on its head: counting up from zero by measuring pounds per capita (PPC) disposed annually. To see how far away a municipality is from zero waste, we must know exactly how much waste it actually produces.

Measuring the amount of waste sent to landfills or incinerators leaves no room for ambiguity or obfuscation. This metric cannot be anything other than what it claims to be: annual solid waste tonnage divided by the number of people served. Per capita disposal tonnage is a clear and consistent measurement that communities around the country can use to measure their performance-against their own goals, against their past performance, and against other communities. What’s more, measuring what is disposed of rather than what is diverted ensures that a community can be credited for types of waste reduction that are not necessarily captured by municipalities’ measurements: textiles diversion, product reuse, source reduction, home composting, and others.

Not only does the PPC metric does allow for consistent measurement across communities ranging in size, demographics, and geographies, but also-importantly-it enables direct comparison of the effectiveness of different waste reduction strategies. While it is difficult to find the exact PPC performance of San Francisco’s three-cart system (for solid waste, recycling, and organics), a 2008 study in Resource Recycling magazine pegged it at 513 pounds per capita. By contrast, Worcester, MA, which uses a bag-based pay-as-you-throw system, disposes of just 396 pounds per capita annually-significantly closer to zero waste.

The motley collection of inconsistent standards we have today hampers cities’ ability to accomplish the zero-waste goals that are so important to so many of their plans, but the solution is not out of reach. Measuring waste disposal by pounds per capita is the clear, consistent standard that is needed to help cities know where they are relative to zero waste, and helps them chart the best path to get there. MSW_bug_web

Author’s Bio: Contributing columnist Mark Dancy is the president of WasteZero in Raleigh, NC, and a member of its board of directors.

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