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Bridging the Data Gap is Essential for Incorporating Sustainable Materials Management into States’ Waste Reduction Models

March 19, 2019

This guest blog was posted by Ameripen on February 26, 2019.

All waste is not created equal when it comes to calculating environmental impact. It makes sense, yet too often we set waste diversion goals and policies based on a standardized approach. Figuring out how to compare wastes and impacts and accurately measure diversion success is a complex task and frequently debated. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) supports use of a Sustainable Materials Management (SMM) framework, which focuses on minimizing resource consumption and adverse environment impacts throughout a material’s lifecycle, from extraction through processing, manufacturing, usage and eventually end-of-life management.

Applying an SMM approach has been one framework to help states explore impact versus diversion, but direction on how to apply it towards goal setting and policy making has been lacking. AMERIPEN sought to fill that gap. We were intrigued by the work of Dr. Tim Townsend at the University of Florida, who developed a model for applying SMM to state based waste characterizations to help set goals and direct policy focus for the State of Florida after they realized they would not reach their intended 75% recycling rate goal. AMERIPEN asked Dr. Townsend to explore how his model could apply to other states to see if we could offer additional tools to our state partners. He agreed and his resulting examination of California, Maryland and Minnesota revealed the need for better data collection in order to set SMM strategies at the state level.

Application of the model required collection of municipal solid waste data broken out by material and diversion process. With this data, Dr. Townsend then hoped to illustrate how SMM approaches can be applied and demonstrate additional impact performance metrics that are needed to supplement the current practices of measuring diversion success through recycling goals. An example of his model as applied to the State of Florida can be found here.

Dr. Townsend’s model makes use of waste characterization studies to examine what materials are diverted from landfill and where and what remain in landfill. He uses the free EPA tool WARM to help assess environmental impacts of different materials and diversion processes and then helps states to:

  • Identify how this data could be applied to complement weight-based recycling rate goals
  • Design material- or diversion-based strategies
  • Consider policy or program impacts to reduce environmental burdens associated with waste management

Understanding the waste stream

Key to his model is an understanding of material volumes across various waste streams. In the U.S., approaches to capturing waste data vary by state, making progress comparisons difficult. Of the three states AMERIPEN evaluated, none had all the data needed to help explore Dr. Townsend’s model and understand environmental impacts and opportunities by material type. Data was either lacking by material type, diversion method or simply there was not enough historical data to examine changes over time. The results of the AMERIPEN funded study demonstrated the challenges posed by inconsistent data collection practices used in waste characterization studies when implementing SMM. As a rational outcome of this work, AMERIPEN would encourage the development of strategies to help standardize or provide guidelines to help streamline waste characterization studies to permit for better SMM assessments and state-by-state benchmarking.


Consider capacity and markets

AMERIPEN notes while models are valuable to help explore and assess opportunities, assumptions or emphasize within a model may simplify some of the complexities of practical implementation. The association cautions that any development based on the SMM model which is designed to assess materials by impact on energy use and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions via different recovery approaches, should also consider existing recovery rates, local market dynamics and the ultimate capacity to collect more. These local dynamics can have significant impact on implementation success and should not be viewed in isolation of environmental outcomes.  For example, while paper recycling may offer a significantly reduced environmental burden, if paper recycling already is near 70 percent it is important to evaluate how much more of the remaining material in a landfill could reasonably be recovered and assess the local capacity for additional recycling before setting any material-specific goals. Likewise, in an area where the focus is on plastics recycling but a lack of domestic processing options are available, it is wise to consider local capacity in the context of environmental burdens.

Another caution the association points out with the model is the exploration of landfill to combustion. While the research correctly notes that it is common practice for many states to collect co-mingled waste for combustion or landfill—this practice assumes that recyclables are removed from waste collection services—which is not always the case. The recommendation then to burn contaminated mixed paper over landfill due to reduce energy and GHG emissions--assumes that all available paper is first collected and then recycled—there is an assumption that what remains in a comingled waste stream would be unrecoverable.

AMERIPEN notes discussions around collection and how to drive increased recovery of materials needs to accompany many of the model assumptions to ensure we realize the true potential of SMM frameworks for State-based waste management policies. This type of analysis was provided in Dr. Townsend’s first assessment for Florida and is seen in both Maryland and Oregon’s material-specific goal setting.  

Understanding local capacity for recycling or other recovery methods means looking at availability of infrastructure, consumer behavior approaches and material quality. States are likely to adopt different strategies based upon this type of assessment.

Variety of tools

As states begin to adopt SMM as a framework for waste management, AMERIPEN supports the development of tools and models to help implement it a meaningful manner. Dr. Townsend’s work points to the value of a toolbox approach for managing the waste stream and the need to understand the various environmental burdens of different materials and waste management processes in order to reduce our environmental impact. However, the outcome of this work cautions that there is a need to help collect data that is more specific to materials and how they are managed at the end of life in order to set strategy.

Learn more about what AMERIPEN is doing to build greater clarity in defining packaging materials and management processes and advocate for a collaborative effort to formulate a comprehensive U.S. strategy to achieve the ambitious commitments necessary to move toward 100 percent reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging goals that will help lead us to a Circular Economy.


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