Do we need a new measurement for packaging recycling rates?

Kyla Fisher

June 21, 2018

8 Min Read
Do we need a new measurement for packaging recycling rates?
What if we looked at packaging's environmental impact using greenhouse gas metrics? Would that help make better decisions about packaging materials used?

Looking at the pros and cons of greenhouse gas (GHG) goals and weight-based metrics for recycling might help states and organizations set their programs and policies for the best environmental outcome. We know it can help us better design packaging at the onset.

“What gets measured matters” is a common refrain we hear in business circles. The prevalent logic goes that a goal is the desired outcome of a measure, or metric. Thus, how and what we measure informs our actions.

Recycling success has been measured for years based on tons diverted, but recently we’ve come to discuss the limitations this metric offers in terms of understanding environmental impact and value.

Is there a viable alternative?

Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduced is one alternative commonly proposed, and The Recycling Partnership has recently been promoting a capture rate to recognize that 100% curbside recycling is not technically feasible.

But what is the best goal, and what are the best metrics to measure our progress towards achieving recycling success? Furthermore, what are the unintended consequences to using one over another?

Weight-based diversion goals are typically measured as a percentage of tons diverted from landfill (disposed - recycled + composted + waste-to-energy [WTE]) compared to the tons of waste generated (disposed + recycled + composted + WTE). This is a relatively straightforward goal and using tons as the metric makes it easy to measure. However, it provides little to no insight into the environmental advantages of diversion from landfill. On a straightforward basis, one ton of plastic diverted is the same as one ton of paper—yet we widely recognize that there are significant environmental and social differences between the two.

AMERIPEN—the American Institute for Packaging and the Environment, a material-neutral, science-based association representing the entire packaging value chain—has met with many recyclers and regulators who have bemoaned the fact that the race to divert tons to meet weight-based goals has led to a race to collect heavier materials. They have seen a focus on materials like construction and demolition debris over lighter-weight curbside materials like packaging.

Furthermore, packaging designers are increasingly optimizing materials and reducing cumulative material use. Yet this success is largely ignored by a traditional weight-based metrics and may in fact hide the true recycling rate by making it appear as if we’re recycling less.

As the concept of sustainable materials management (SMM) has grown across the U.S., there has been a popular emphasis on GHG emissions or energy use as an alternative goal and/or metric. Sustainable materials management is a framework that encourages us to explore the impact of materials across their lifecycle. SMM helps us understand that impacts occur at stages—all the way from harvesting to production to consumption and, ultimately, end of use. Waste is not just what is sent to landfill, but the degradation of our environment through energy consumption, soil degradation, waste water and more.

Under an SMM framework, GHG reduction as a goal can provide insight into hot spots and tradeoffs that may need to occur to ensure we optimize resources across a product’s lifecycle. Examining GHG reduction by converting tons into GHG emissions provides us with a deeper understanding of environmental impact. We gain greater insight into different materials, as well as different choices for manufacturing, end of life and other lifecycle phases.

The risk to using tons converted to GHG as a metric alone and not also as a goal, is a common misperception that measuring recycling impacts via GHG emissions saved creates an argument to exclude materials from curbside recycling. AMERIPEN would argue: When we set GHG as a goal, rather than just as a metric to assess impact, we are encouraged to look across the lifecycle to see where resource efficiency is best achieved for the greatest environmental outcome. We don’t restrict materials from curbside then but, rather, we make decisions on material use based on cumulative impact not just end-of-life impacts.

Lastly, it needs to be noted that converting tons into GHG metrics provides just one assessment of environmental impact. While it’s an easy conversion to do since tools have already been created to do so, we recognize that environmental degradation can occur through more than just energy loss or pollution. As we set goals for recovery or resource efficiency, we may want to include alternative impacts where possible.

Examples of how this works

AMERIPEN believes that a deeper understanding of the environmental advantages of recycling and how to drive recycling success will not come from a single attribute. Rather, it will come from strategic systems thinking and, to do that, we’ll need both weight-based and GHG goals. Measurement metrics will include both tons but also provide perspective on diversion through GHG/energy conversion and perhaps even something like The Recycling Partnership’s capture-rate metric.

Let’s explain how this could work.

In 2008, the State of Florida set an aggressive 75% recycling goal by 2020. In 2016, when it realized it was unlikely it would reach that goal, it began to explore alternative ways to measure and message success. Using its 2008 baseline of tons, it kept a weight-based goal but also measured impact by converting its tons into GHG and energy savings. Informed by tons diverted, GHG emissions and energy saved, the state was able to gain greater insight into strategies to reduce environmental impact through solid-waste management.

Using tons, it could see that heavier materials would drive an increased result in terms of tons diverted. But also armed with GHG and energy savings, it was able to identify specific materials it might want to tackle from a cumulative environmental perspective, as well as recognize the role source reduction and prevention could play in its strategy. Note, when it measured GHG impacts, it saw a significant jump in recycling rates, as well as environmental impact.

The State of Oregon has taken a similar approach. The goal is still expressed as a percentage of tons diverted by recycling but, informed by the lens provided by converting tons into GHG, it has promoted policies to emphasize prevention, recognize source reduction and target certain materials.

In one example, it has a goal of 25% rigid plastic recovery based upon tons diverted. But to reach that goal, it measures not just total tons collected but also permits for policies to recognize the role source reduction can play. Credit is given for light-weighting or use of recycled material. This application of both weight-based and GHG goals and metrics provide a more holistic lens to develop a solid waste strategy and promote the value of recycling as an environmental outcome.

Value in multiple methods

What is exciting is that States aren’t the only ones starting to view waste management frameworks in this manner. Project Drawdown is an attempt by global scientists to identify the top 100 most substantive existing solutions to reduce and reverse climate change impacts. Its goal is GHG reduction but its assessments explore a variety of lifecycle impacts such as economic cost, scalability and more. Prevention of food waste ranks third in terms of cumulative GHG emissions that can be diverted, while household recycling is further down the list at 55. But in ranking solutions, the program architects are not intending to pit one strategy against another, rather, they argue, we need to apply multiple solutions in order to “drawndown” our environmental impact.

In other words, these rankings offer a way to assess tradeoffs and how best to apply limited resources.

Further along these lines, Walmart’s Project Gigaton is a similar approach. The company has vouched to remove one gigaton of carbon from its supply chain and are exploring how materials move across its system to inform where best to target its strategies. Recycling fits into this strategy but so too does material use and source reduction. GHG as a goal, and subsequent metric, gives the mega-retailer the insight into where the best areas for reduction can come from.

In all of these examples, we begin to unveil the value in having both outcome and impact-based goals. Tons can remain the base metric, but from there we convert to GHG or other impacts to better understand how we can reframe recycling objectives to best leverage environmental impact.


Said another way, the discussion should not be which goal or metric is better, but rather how all these different goals and metrics can form a strategy that reduces cumulative environmental impact.

AMERIPEN believes that we need to start looking at the movement of materials across their systems with an eye to reducing that cumulative environmental impact. Goals should be set on impact and outcome. Tons as a primary metric provide a common denominator from which we can convert into GHG to provide another perspective. Depending on your goals, other metrics may also be needed.

This toolbox approach will help us better design packaging and set policy to best inform environmental outcome.

Kyla Fisher is the programs manager for AMERIPEN. She is responsible for leading the association’s various member committees, research and development.


About the Author(s)

Kyla Fisher

Kyla Fisher is program manager for AMERIPEN—a material neutral trade association for the packaging industry. She is responsible for leading the association’s committees and stakeholder engagement efforts, as well as all research and development of the association’s publications and programs. Fisher is also an instructor of strategy at Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability.


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