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Is your recycling rate rubbish?

Updated: Apr 5, 2022

New data integrity measures mean there’s an opportunity now for the property sector to create meaningful, measurable and comparable numbers on recycling and waste management, as PATRICK ARNOLD and SCOTT EBSARY report.

It’s time to stop looking at our recycling figures and ask ourselves: ‘is it really working?’. There is no set standard on how we report on asset waste management outcomes. Many organisations use varying methodologies to report on their waste performance, so is it right for us to set targets when everyone is using different measuring sticks?

Many people have the same notion of what a recycling rate is. Generally, it’s understood as the amount of material diverted from landfill for the purpose of recycling and the recovery of resources. The figure represents the percentage of all materials recycled and provides us with a snapshot of our recovery performance over a specified period of time.

Unfortunately, the process of calculating the recycling rate may differ dramatically from asset to asset, based on the stakeholders involved, the systems on-site and the facility to which materials are taken. Although the concept of a recycling rate is straightforward, the variables and inconsistencies associated with the way waste data is often reported present challenges for the property sector to calculate this figure accurately and consistently, and in a way that allows for meaningful comparison.

While the methodologies of recycling rate calculation may vary, this does not necessarily mean the final recycling rate figure is incorrect. It is only when comparisons are drawn against other recycling rates that an inaccurate picture is made.

For example, imagine two assets, Asset A & B, producing the same type and amount of waste and recycling materials. To make this as simple as possible, each asset only generates two material streams: general waste and soft plastic packaging. Asset A receives a waste report in weight and Asset B receives it in volume.

"Stakeholders may not even be aware that different sites and contractors are using varying methodologies to report their recovery rates."

The recovery rate for Asset A is 39 percent; however, Asset B is 58 percent. Both these figures are ‘correct’ even though they are producing the same type and amount of waste. Looking at this as standalone data, there is no issue in reporting and measuring waste performance figures for an individual asset as long as the methodology stays consistent. The issue arises when drawing on comparisons between sites. In short, a meaningful comparison can only be made where the same methodology has been applied to other sites.

This is of increasing importance in the property sector. As organisations within the industry rely on benchmarks and targets to measure their sustainability performance, there is still a considerable gap in creating meaningful comparisons when reporting on waste and recycling. Properties within the same portfolio may report recycling rate figures using a number of methodologies, as no guidance has been given or standards set. Some of the issues that cause variances to the recycling rate methodology include:

  • material streams reported – are all streams reported for the asset?

  • volume and weight-based reporting

  • density metrics used to convert from volume to weight-based figures

  • on-site/facility contamination, and

  • additional facility recovery.

Stakeholders within the various divisions of a business (site, regional and national) may not even be aware that different sites and contractors are using varying methodologies to report their recovery rates. So, when it comes to measuring portfolio performance, many of the comparisons made may be invalid.

This becomes a big issue when measuring the success of waste and recycling programs/initiatives, understanding waste management spend per tonne and future strategic planning. A solid foundation for monitoring and reporting is required in order to create meaningful change in this space – so what are we doing about this?

A Solution The BBP (Better Buildings Partnership) Operational Waste Guidelines is a voluntary guidebook on best practice waste management for properties, developed in conjunction with the 14 largest asset groups in Australia. These asset groups are committed to the principles in the guide to reform the way in which we manage waste.

One of the pillars of the guidelines is creating transparent and accountable reporting. At the crux of this is the data integrity rating protocol that grades the quality of the data received by an asset.

The lowest grade on the rating table is Nominal, where an industry density and a facility contamination adjustment is applied to unverified contractor data. The BBP has suggested that any data that doesn’t meet the Nominal criteria should not be reported publicly as the data confidence level is too low to allow for any meaningful comparisons or performance reporting. Improved data quality can be achieved by:

  • conducting regular audits to ascertain and apply site-specific densities and contamination adjustments

  • using more than one independent source of data to verify the primary data (i.e. contractor invoices, bin tallies, weighbridge dockets), and

  • obtaining ‘actual’ weights through on-site scales, contractor on-vehicle scales and/or weighbridge receipts.

The data integrity rating protocol levels the playing field and creates a structure of reporting data where comparisons between different assets will now be meaningful. A tier structure of evidence has been outlined to determine levels of data confidence. How would your waste data/reports compare against the below:

  • A nominal rating is received if a site uses industry densities and a facility contamination rate has been factored. Industry densities are usually applied to the number of volume-based systems, such as wheelie bins, that are collected. The facility where your material ends up will also have an impact upon your overall recovery rate. Different facilities have varying levels of contamination outputs that need to be factored in.

  • A bronze rating can be achieved if site-specific densities are used, one source of data is provided and a clear measurement and verficiation process is in place. Site-specific densities provide greater accuracy in reporting the weight of material generated from site. A source of data is required to verify waste data in reports. This may come from waste contractor invoices, cleaner bin tallies, automated bin readers or weighbridge dockets. A clear process is required on-site for collection, management and verification of waste data that is able to validate how these figures have been arrived at.

  • Silver rating is achieved with an additional source of data, an independent audit and applying a site contamination adjustment. An independent audit must be conducted by someone independent of the sources of data. This can typically be done by any stakeholder that is not a waste/cleaning contractor, including building management/owners. The purpose of the audit is to determine that the data presented reflects actual practice. A site contamination adjustment requires an audit to determine the percentage of non-acceptable material (material that is not accepted by the final disposal facility).

  • Gold is the highest level of data confidence and requires that at least 95 percent of the total waste generated has been reported with actual weights. This may be from contractors’ on-site vehicles, weighbridge weights when a compactor or skip bring material to the disposal facility or on-site scales used to weigh bins prior to collection.

The upshot of this new grading system is to increase data integrity and increase the confidence we have in waste data, but many asset groups are concerned that this will result in a drop in their recovery/recycling rate from what was previously reported.

As an isolated issue this would not necessarily pose a significant problem to the asset groups; however, the primary concern results from the fact that most corporate waste targets were set between two and six years ago, and were based on data that we now know to be less accurate than the data we are working with today.

What next? The BBP operational waste guidelines were publicly released in July 2015 and they are still in their infancy. Meeting corporate sustainability targets is a core driver to appease stakeholders, but when we look at the business holistically, we believe a more appropriate core driver for a business should really be creating positive outcomes.

It is difficult to measure positive outcomes when your indicator – the recovery rate – is potentially inaccurate and unreliable. This is a critical stage where the adoption and alignment of new processes should be the focus rather than pursuing arbitrary targets.

"Meeting corporate sustainability targets is a core driver to appease stakeholders, but a more appropriate one is creating positive outcomes."

It’s important to note that despite the perceived/reported drop in recovery rate, the waste programs and recycling efforts of the asset groups are largely unchanged – in most cases they have made improvements to their performance (based on the material that is actually getting recycled). The major change is that we are now better equipped to report waste data in a more accurate way, which has revealed that in many cases what was previously reported may have inflated the recovery performance of many assets.

So now, surely the pertinent concern is not that your recycling rate may be perceived to have dropped due to increased data integrity, but that your corporate recycling target is now obsolete and quite possibly nothing more than an arbitrary number that has little correlation with the actual recycling potential of your asset/portfolio.

This is food for thought in an environment where many corporate stakeholders are taking steps to improve the integrity of their waste and recycling data, while simultaneously having to reconcile the fact that their recycling target may not be relevant in light of their improved, more accurate recycling data.


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