Circular File

Circular File: Pick a Number

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Truly accurate waste and recycling data continues to elude us.

In last month’s column, I apologized for an error in my January column, when I may have created an inaccurate recycling rate for printed paper. I explained where I may have gone wrong and looked at how EPA has changed the way it reports on recycling of paper products. This month, I’ll look a little more closely at how EPA and the states figure out the size of the waste and recycling streams.

For 40 years, EPA has relied on a privately-owned proprietary database to track how much waste you and I make, recycle and throw away. This data is a combination of hard numbers and estimates. The hard numbers come from government databases of domestic product manufacturing and import and export data. The estimates cover yard and food waste and how many “durable” products such as computers and furniture enter the waste stream every year. Almost half of the waste stream is estimated while the rest is based on yearly production and import-export data that is reported to the federal government.

The most common alternative to EPA data consists of compilations of state disposal and recycling data. These surveys consistently show a much higher amount of garbage generated in America, with a lower recycling percentage. But is state data any better than EPA’s?

No. Municipal solid waste is defined differently by the 50 states. In addition, the definitions can be inconsistently applied within a state. Construction and demolition debris, for instance, can be listed as municipal solid waste at some disposal facilities. For that matter, whenever it rains, garbage gets heavier as water accumulates in loosely secured garbage cans and then gets into the back of packer trucks. Any commercial motor vehicle cop worth his salt knows he can issue more overweight garbage truck tickets on a wet day than on a dry day.

You can often note these inconsistencies when you see comparisons of state per-capita waste generation rates. States with wetter climates and more yard waste such as Florida should have higher individual generation rates than drier states such as Arizona, and they do. But how do you explain differing rates between neighboring states? State data says that North Dakotans generate one-third more waste per person than South Dakotans generate. How can this be?

I’m writing about this because one of the constant mantras at recycling conferences is that “we need better data so we can plan better.” Unfortunately no one says how to get that data or how to determine if it is accurate. Nor do they consider the cost of improving data quality. Data collection costs money as does weeding out double counting between collectors, processors and end markets.

Even if we had perfect data, solid waste planners have shown little ability to predict changes in the waste stream. State and local plans written in 1990 didn’t mention the rise of electronics products. Plans written in 2000 failed to predict the decline of the printed paper industry.

We will never have 100-percent accurate garbage and recycling data. But we don’t have a 100-percent accurate census of our population either. Perhaps we need to accept the limits on our ability to get data and be more realistic about those limits when we use that data. And by the way, if you have an accurate printed paper recycling rate, drop me a line.

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What's Circular File?

Waste and recycling insights from Chaz Miller, state programs director for the National Waste & Recycling Association

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Chaz Miller

Chaz Miller is state programs director for the National Waste & Recycling Association, Washington, D.C.
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