Resource Recycling News

In My Opinion: Diversion without data is like sailing without a compass

Will Sagar

Today’s smartphones automatically find your location on a map. Not so for state and local government leaders planning sustainable materials management (SMM). The variances in data reporting from state to state make comparisons and benchmarking difficult.

Because performance in terms of cost effectiveness, continuous improvement and planning matters, collecting data for measuring success is important. We need effective, useable and applicable data to prioritize efforts and measure performance. Each state has its own system with its own terms, definitions and reporting requirements. Some states have mandatory reporting, many do not. This results in gaps in information as it is compared across state lines, making planning for program improvements difficult or impossible.

The need for benchmarks, collaboration and stronger measurement became even more necessary when, in 2015, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. EPA announced a goal to reduce food waste by 50 percent by the year 2030. The goal creates new data challenges. Measurement tools are needed for the overall measurement program.

Program support

Measurement provides more than guidance. When a state lays out the facts showing the numbers, it can make a case to support a good move or stop a potential error in judgement.

Support for proposed programmatic changes and justification for expenditures need concrete data to secure legislative approval. Without supportive data, good ideas may never come to fruition. State program managers often receive inquiries from the legislature about how much material is collected, recycled, or disposed. The legislature often follows this with an immediate “How does that compare to other states?” Establishing the same terms and measures utilized by other states and their communities will provide the information requested.

The private sector of the waste industry frequently looks at metrics to drive route efficiencies, increase profitability, improve driver collection efficiency, track safety and more. Governments at all levels can track performance, make improvements and apply these same types of metrics. Unfortunately, at this time, there is no agreement or standard practice for conducting characterization studies or materials audits, and there isn’t even consistency in the names of material categories.

Steps forward

In 2008, eight southeastern states came together for their annual state managers’ meeting. U.S. EPA Region 4 hosted this meeting to facilitate the joint discussion about advancing material capture. During this meeting, representatives from Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee talked about sharing data from their common online provider. The idea was to discuss areas of overlap the states could share, such as reporting questions, data reports and raw data. From this small beginning grew the State Measurement Program (SMP). Now in its 5th year, the SMP is a collaborative effort among 41 states (and counting) across the USA to share waste and recycling program information and successes. States can share and compare their annual tonnage data (disposal, recycling and composting), tipping fees, staffing levels and funding mechanisms. They can also access visual comparison maps of many of these variables.

In 2012, EPA launched the national Measurement Template, which leverages a web-based commercial service that provides everything the states need to collect, analyze and report all waste and recycling data, using a consistent set of definitions. This system allows local governments and businesses to enter data and immediately satisfy their state reporting requirements without additional federal mandates. States and EPA have discovered that the SMP assists states responding to legislative requests, and it saves valuable time and money. The SMP further allows for the tracking of materials from generators to end-use facilities, better contract management, geocoded facility and user information, peer-to-peer support and a variety of reports. There are numerous benefits to local, state, regional and national users.

The SMP continues to gain participation across the country.

Various trade associations and industrial sectors are also seeking ways to improve their supply chains, products and services to meet the goals of SMM. With the facilitation by EPA and The Sustainability Consortium, Walmart created the first broad-scale Sustainability Index for products. ASTM and ISO are continuing to expand and improve their sustainability standards and protocols while Underwriters Laboratory (UL) is undergoing its process of creating sustainability standards, as well.

What next?

Yesterday, during the Resource Recycling Conference, the fourth-annual Measurement Matters workshop took place, identifying barriers and working to expand the measure of success.

And next February, the first-ever national Measurement Matters Summit will be held in Chattanooga, Tenn. to further bolster local, state and national material measurement efforts. Outcomes will include the adoption of common metrics and enhanced quality in reported data.

The vision has not changed in the 10 years this state collaboration has grown. The goal is still the same: states working with states to share their data in a consistent manner that makes it accessible for research, benchmarking and planning. With this goal, each state will retain control. Measurement Matters is collaboration, a partnership for the states that benefit all.

The future holds many possibilities, including a universal means of “talking” together by using common category names, consistent methodologies and best management practices. The driving force is not from a regulatory initiative, but from a common need to talk and share information.

Will Sagar is executive director with the Southeast Recycling Development Council (SERDC) and a board member of the National Recycling Coalition (NRC).

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not imply endorsement by Resource Recycling, Inc. If you have a subject you wish to cover in an op-ed, please send a short proposal to for consideration.


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