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Measuring Your Recycling Rate: How Do You Measure Up?

“What’s your recycling rate?” That term has been so misused and misunderstood over the years that my long-time colleague Jerry Powell of Resource Recycling Magazine called for the death of recycling rates in a recent editorial.

I feel bad for recycling rates. They have been abused for so long, and now a prominent voice of the recycling movement has called for their outright murder. If used in the proper context, recycling rates do have value. The problem is that many people do not understand the proper context. So before we hire the hit men, and risk throwing out the babies with the bathwater, let me take a stab and unraveling the mess that has become recycling rates. With some understanding, some detox, some tweaking, and a little evolution, we just might be able to bring about the redemption of recycling data.


One of the problems with recycling rates is that few people really understand what they are measuring. There are several related metrics that are often called recycling rate.

% Discards Recycled: If you are a waste generator, this is the recycling rate that most people are talking about. As long as it isn’t abused, it remains one of the best ways to contextualize recycling tonnages. Basically, you are asking of everything that you threw away, both trash and recycling, what % got recycled. The formula is fairly simple with your recycling tonnage as the numerator and total discards (the sum of both recycling and trash) as the denominator.

Recovery rate: If you are a manufacturer, or more likely a trade group representing manufacturers, and talking about recycling rate, you are likely talking about recovery rate. The basic concept is that of everything you manufactured or sold, what percentage was recovered for recycling.

Per capita recycling or per capita trash: This is the other main metric used by waste generators to track their recycling program. This essentially compares recycling rate to population. In the simplest terms, you want to see whether or not your tonnage increase or decrease was merely due to a change in your population or whether it was really due to some change in recycling or trash behavior.

In my follow up posts I will really get into the pros and cons of each metric. The key though is to understand that it’s all relative. No, I am not talking about the title of some sort of taboo incest film. Rather, the key is that these metrics are all putting recycling tons into some sort of context. Is 1,000 tons of recyclables a lot? It depends. It depends on how many people it takes to generate 1000 tons of recyclables. It depends on how long it takes to generate those 1000 tons. It depends on how many tons of material were produced in the first place vs. how many tons got recycled. And it depends on how much trash was generated in the process of generating those 1,000 tons of recycling. You need recycling metrics to give you that context.

There are really 3 reasons why people track their recycling rates

  • Benchmarking
  • Bragging
  • Compliance

I think that benchmarking is one of the most critical tools in the development of any recycling program. If you can’t benchmark, I think it is very difficult if not impossible to improve your program. It is the loss of that tool that I fear in the backlash against recycling rates.

In my opinion, the problems that have happened to recycling rates and the legitimate criticisms of recycling rates have to do with their misuse as a bragging and compliance tool. So did this start off as some sort of deliberate fraud and abuse. No of course not. They all began as well intentioned responses to legitimate recycling problems. However, too often those “solutions” ended up compounding the problem or creating other problems. It may sound cliché but this has really been a case of the road to hell being paved with good intentions. In a subsequent post, I will try to unravel some of this history to see if we can go back and tweak those responses to undo the reciprocal problems that they created.

Recycling rates have become one of the most important issues in recycling today. They are one of the most important tools to improving recycling, but have simultaneously become one of the biggest problems facing recycling today. I hope that you’ll join me in the next couple of posts as I take this on head on and see if together we can fix this issue of recycling rates.

Read on to Part 2 and Part 3.

Written by

Roger Guzowski
Roger Guzowski

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