Why we should rethink weight-based recycling goals

Lifecycle analysis can help us create more sustainable waste management policies that are more cost-effective and beneficial to the environment.

Cities across the United States continue to take a quantity-over-quality approach to waste management that often leads to inefficient, expensive and confusing outcomes. It's time to rethink recycling strategies.

While recycling remains a great way to reducing upstream impacts of mining virgin materials to make products, the current "recycling religion’s" emphasis on setting weight-based goals fail to address many varying environmental benefits of disparate materials. Meanwhile, technologies are changing faster than our dated recycling systems can adapt to.

"Our weight-based system has pushed us to accept a broad array of material types without evidence of their environmental benefit," said Susan Robinson, senior public affairs director at Waste Management, during a recent GreenBiz webinar series.

"However, by focusing strategically on recycling the right things well, we can achieve our goals more efficiently and cost-effectively than by trying to do it all."

Enter sustainable materials management. Introduced in 2009 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, this approach to waste management looks at the entire lifecycle of goods and products — and not just end-of-life — to establish programs and priorities.

"Sustainable materials management allows us to use data to analyze strategies to achieve optimal environmental benefits," said Robinson. "The solutions from using lifecycle analysis are not always obvious, and they are forcing (us to) examine some of our decades-old beliefs about recycling and diversion."

Lifecycle analysis for smarter recycling

Lifecycle analysis allows us to look at the "big picture" by examining a product's complete life cycle, from raw materials to final disposal of the product — it offers a "cradle to grave" look at a product or process that considers environmental aspects and potential impacts.

"Using lifecycle analysis, it becomes crystal clear that the greatest greenhouse gas reduction potential associated with our industry is tied to the benefits of not using virgin resources in the first place," said Robinson. In other words: Recycling definitely is worth it, but we need to get smarter about what we recycle.

Sustainable materials management employs lifecycle analysis to determine the costs and benefits of recycling specific materials. This shifts the focus from broad weight-based metrics to more particular measures of materials.

"Lifecycle analysis shows us the benefits of recycling paper, cans and bottles — and how much greenhouse gas benefit we can get from recycling the right thing," said Robinson. "By focusing on those materials and getting us our best bang for the buck, we can help keep a cleaner stream so that our materials recovery facilities are more cost-effective in processing materials … and it gives us a different lens through which to look at how we make decisions simply around recycling — let alone the rest of the stream."

To achieve sustainable materials management, goals should rely on lifecycle analysis to target specific materials with the greatest environmental benefits, and measurement should include per capita generation, recycling and disposal.

This framework also exposes the folly of relying on weight-based metrics. Aluminum, for example, has a high recycling benefit but is lightweight, which registers as slow tonnage. Likewise, cardboard has high tonnage and a high benefit.

Communication benefits of targeted recycling

Another side effect of the "recycle everything" mentality is public confusion over just what exactly is recyclable, which has led to an increase in contamination. Some U.S. cities have seen contamination rates increase by as much as 50 percent in recent years, said Robinson.

"The high goals that we see across the country have created a push to recycle more material and more types of material as states and cities work to achieve their weight-based goals," said Robinson.

"But materials change, processes change and markets change — I think customers are confused. We see more contamination in the recycling stream and increased cost with questionable environmental benefits."

With sustainable materials management, the focus on fewer materials means that it will be easier to communicate to customers which things to recycle. Less contamination and more recycling of the right materials not only is more cost-effective, but also better for the environment.

"Now is the perfect time to use our knowledge of lifecycle thinking to create goals and programs that maximize the environmental benefits of all the materials we manage along the value chain," said Robinson.

Bridging the U.S. climate goal gap

A whopping 84 percent sustainable materials management’s greenhouse gas reduction potential can be realized from 32 percent diversion through residential and commercial recycling, according to Waste Management.

At COP21, the Paris Agreement established some of the most ambitious international climate change action goals, among these cutting global greenhouse gasses to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius — the threshold scientists say must not be crossed to avoid the worst impacts of global warming.

The United States Intended Nationally Determined Contribution sets a target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, primarily through curbs on carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, perfluorocarbons, sulfur hexafluoride and nitrogen trifluoride.

But the U.S. targets currently leaves a greenhouse gas reduction gap of 6 to 13 percent, said Elisabeth Resek, chief of municipal source reduction at the Environmental Protection Agency. With materials waste accounting for a staggering 42 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, systems-based approaches such as sustainable materials management could help address this shortfall.

"For every 1 percent increase in GDP, there’s around .4 percent increase in material use," said Resek. "And global demand for materials will increase by 35 percent over the next 15 years."

In other words: Sustainable materials management may be one of the only ways for the U.S. to meet its climate commitments even as its population and economy grows.

"The major challenge for policymakers, businesses, academics and consumers is deciding where and how to act to have the maximum impact,” said Resek. "For any action a balance must be struck between the speed of the response and the need to be informed by science-based evidence."