In 1806 Noah Webster published A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, credited as being the first truly American dictionary. Now, over a hundred years later, I feel that similar skills are needed within the recycling and sustainable-materials-management industry. As this field has grown since the 1980s, we have added a lot of goals, regulations and reports. And in those, we use a lot of terms. But what do we mean when we use those terms? Too often, what makes a recycling program a rousing success or a spectacular failure comes down not to efforts, investments, programs, but merely definitions.
How do you define “diversion”? Is it “diversion” if you take materials like glass or compost or C&D fines out of the cell of a landfill and put them on top of that cell as alternate daily cover? At the end of the day, if those items are inside a landfill when it is finally closed and capped, is that the diversion that you had in mind when you set your goals or passed your legislation? Should that count the same as someone who ensures that their glass is recycled into new bottles or their compost meets the strictest quality control standards so that it can be used on organic farms?
How do you define waste reduction? If you convert something from a printed page to an electronic form, is that automatically “waste reduction?” Or do you need to be more specific? What happens if someone prints a hard copy of that form for their records? Do you have to account for that, or does merely creating the electronic form get you closer to achieving zero waste? If so, could you get double diversion for that form, once as a “waste reduction” credit for making it an electronic form and a second time as a recycling credit when you recycle the printed copy?
Staying with waste reduction, how do you define something that does not happen? I could have gone to a fast food restaurant today, gotten a mongo fries, superburger deluxe and a mega shake. I didn’t. Do I get to count that as waste reduction? How do you define whether something that did not happen is waste reduction? Do I have to have intentionally skipped that meal because I was consciously trying to reduce waste, or is it just as impactful if I skipped that meal because I wasn’t hungry or thought the food was bogus? In order to determine whether or not someone is complying with your goals will you need special a team with precognitive mutant powers like something out of Phillip K. Dick’s Minority Report?
How do you define “darn close to zero waste”? Do you base that on diversion percentages or the amount of residuals remaining? Can you be closest to zero waste if you have one of the highest per capita disposal rates in the country (if not the world)?
How do you define “recycling” and “recycled”? I’m not talking grade specifications like the scrap specifications definitions from the Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), or similar sheets direct from mills. Those are wonderful and play a part in defining what is recyclable but what about something on a more macro scale? The National Recycling Coalition has defined recycling as follows: “Recycling is a series of activities by which material that has reached the end of its current use is processed into material utilized in the production of new products.” I think that is a pretty good definition. But if you accept that, how then do you measure the success of your recycling effort? Does your definition count recycling at the point at which something enters the recycling bin? If so, are the half-full contents of that plastic soda bottle really recycled, or is only the bottle? Your definition could radically change your recovery rates as the contents may weigh significantly more than the bottle. Similarly imagine the fate of two pieces of wood, one which goes to a C&D recycling facility and the other goes to a waste to energy combustion facility. One is clearly “recycling” and the other is clearly “trash” right? Actually, it may depend on your definitions. What if you found out that the wood from the C&D recycler was being ground and exported to another country where it was ultimately burned as boiler fuel? If the fate of both pieces of wood is to be burned as fuel, do you need to revisit your definitions?
Ultimately these definitions matter. We are asking folks to invest the time and money to create programs to comply with goals and regulations. We are judging their efforts and deeming them a success or a failure. We are convincing folks that their individual efforts make a difference. We are asking investors to commit significant capital to infrastructure. How much will their success or even their livelihood be determined by their efforts and investments and how much will be impacted by definitions?