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Measuring Net Improvements

We talk a lot in absolute terms: “zero waste,” “zero emissions.” But what do we really mean? Are we talking about net improvements, or are we merely transferring problems?

Too often, we measure these things by the snow globe approach. We draw an imaginary bubble around a person or a geographic area and we measure the waste, emissions, or other items of consideration within that “snow globe” bubble. But when we do that, we have to be exceedingly careful, in a way that I don’t think we currently are. Under this snow globe approach, the easiest way to reduce waste or emissions is to transfer that waste or emissions to someone else’s snow globe. The metrics by which we measure recycling, waste reduction, and sustainability have become the equivalent of the “Don’t blame me, I voted for Ross” bumper sticker from the post-1992 presidential election. If we continue down this path, at some point our response to flaws with the status quo becomes less about developing real solutions and more about attempting to absolve ourselves of personal responsibility.If we want to improve the status quo, we can’t live in a bubble. We need to look at our net impact. Let’s think about leaving the imaginary invisible bubbles to Sue Richards and the folks over at Marvel Comics. What are the impacts caused by our actions, regardless of whose bubble they are in?

One of my favorite examples of this issue was a zero waste event that I heard promoted a few years back. The message was essentially: “We are not going to have trash or recycling bins at the event. For any trash that you generate at the event, please bring it to one of the trash bins outside the perimeter of the event.” They then declared the event a zero waste success without anyone ever measuring or accepting responsibility for all the extra waste in those perimeter trash bins. The fact of the matter is that they have absolutely no idea how much waste was generated by their event. They only know that by pushing their waste off onto others, no waste was generated at their event. That is a really important distinction.

Unfortunately, this is also not a small problem. The entire recycling industry is suffering right now because of individual efforts to achieve zero waste and flawed methodologies and metrics for achieving success that are based on this snow globe mentality. The metrics by which we measure “zero waste” look only at the bin that we put waste into within our snow globe. It doesn’t look at what happens to the stuff after it ends up in the bin. That happens in someone else’s snow globe. Thus, the best way to achieve zero personal waste is to contaminate the heck out of your recycling bin. After all, who cares what really happens to stuff once it gets picked up, right? As long as it didn’t occur in your snow globe, it’s all good, isn’t it?

Unfortunately, the result is that the MRFs (material recovery facilities – also sometimes called intermediate processing facilities/centers [IPFs or IPCs]) that process recyclable materials and the mills that utilize recycled materials have been getting buried with trash. Years ago, when I talked to MRF operators most discard rates that I heard were well under 5% (i.e. less that 5% of the stuff coming in was residue that had to be screened out and discarded). Now it is not at all uncommon for me to hear discard rates well into the double digits.

But MRFS are not the only place “recyclables” are getting discarded as trash. The mills that utilize our recycled materials to make new products are also getting buried with trash. For years, a big advantage that some foreign mills had was that they had access to cheap labor. As a result, in order to obtain product, they would accept stuff that had contamination rates that were off the charts compared to what domestic mills would accept. In some cases, I was hearing from the folks that had toured and studied some of those foreign mills that as much as 25% of the incoming material was ending up as trash. That meant that domestic mills had to start accepting more contaminated recyclables in order to compete. But if your recyclables are contaminated with trash, that trash does not somehow become recyclable. What it means is the trash has to get screened out and discarded as trash. As one mill that I had been working with stated publicly at a conference, they have seen their trash levels increase 8 times what it was just a few years ago.

Now, some of those trash levels are part of a business plan. There are some haulers, MRFs, and mills who see a competitive advantage by taking heavily contaminated recyclables. I am actually OK with some of that. As I discussed in my bell curve post a while back, there is a whole range of recycling supporters. I think there is a legitimate niche for some recycling companies to take more-contaminated recyclables because they collect from folks who would not otherwise participate in the recycling process. However, what I think is a significant issue is counting that contamination as “recycling.” Doing so leads to bad decision making. If I said I was going to ship 25 tons of trash overseas, I would be vilified. Yet, if I ship 100 tons of contaminated recyclables overseas, to a mill taking heavily-contaminated recyclables, knowing full well that 25% of it is going to be discarded, somehow under our current snow globe model, I would be praised for my high recycling rate. Is that the model of sustainability and zero waste that we want going forward?

When we don’t count the activities going on in other people’s snow globes, what are we measuring? Are we causing people to abandon recycling programs that have a higher rate of stuff actually recycled by the mill into new products, for those that get you higher “diversion rates” by counting residue and outthrows as recycling? Do we give people a false impression that they are closer to their goal of zero waste when all they have really done is transfer waste from one snow globe to another? Are the steps that we are taking to achieve zero waste actually increasing the net generation of trash? I think in too many cases it is. Is that the sustainable future that we want? If you care about recycling and waste reduction, I think you need to look at net recycling and net waste reduction as opposed to the mere waste-transference that is too often occurring now.

And unfortunately, recycling is not the only area of sustainability in which this is occurring. In your quest for carbon neutrality, when was the last lifecycle analysis that you did? Every product and system has several different impacts. To simplify, every system has production impacts, use impacts, and disposal impacts. Have you checked to ensure that your entire system is a net energy savings, or did you only measure the direct use impacts (scope 1 emissions), declare success and move on? In manufacturing terms, is your factory really carbon neutral or did you just move the emissions elsewhere in your supply chain? Based on the metrics often used to report sustainability success, I am worried that we are seeing too much of the latter. What impacts went into producing that energy-saving device? What impacts will happen when it is finally discarded? Do you really know what its impacts are, or do you not care because those impacts are in someone else’s snow globe?

When you choose among sustainability options that have the most impact, what impact are you measuring? Does your choice have the biggest positive net impact, or are you focusing only on your own bubble? If you are not sufficiently measuring net impact, could you eventually find that the choice that you thought was most impactful was really the least impactful from a net-impact perspective. Even worse, could you discover that some of the initiatives that you touted as a success actually had a negative net impact?

There was a study a few years ago that showed the potential ramifications of this lifecycle analysis. As some of my vegan friends love to remind me, it showed that giving up meat in your diet can have more of a GHG emissions impact than driving a hybrid car. And I think that has been helpful. But my worry is that the impact of this study has been insufficient. I worry that it has merely added Meatless Mondays to our lexicon and checklist of green behaviors, but not really changed how we measure our sustainability impact. I worry that too often, we still focus only on our scope 1 and scope 2 emissions but not at the other emissions caused by our actions, because those emissions happen in someone else’s snow globe.

Our environmental issues are too interconnected and often too big to worry about whose snow globe they started in. A big key to a more sustainable future, is really nothing but net.

Written by

Roger Guzowski
Roger Guzowski

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