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In My Opinion: Circular Economy Metrics That Matter Most
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The United States has seen a dramatic shift in waste practices over the past several years. While landfills are still the most common destination for waste, individuals and organizations are actively seeking out sustainable alternatives. Traditional recycling facilities have been joined by additional environmental solutions such as composters, e-waste processors and anaerobic digesters.

All of these environmental challenges have been in pursuit of sustainability and the circular economy. Through innovative processes, it has become possible to extend the life of the objects we use every day. As organizations reach for lofty sustainability goals, such as zero waste, a new question emerges: How can you measure success?

Because the closed-loop model is relatively new on a mainstream level, there is a lot of confusion around how to track circularity. In fact, the concept of a “circular economy” didn’t really gain prominence until the Ellen MacArthur Foundation was founded in 2009. It should come as no surprise, then, that there are many opinions and conversations around the best way to measure success. While key performance indicators (KPIs) and measurement tools may still be evolving, there are a three key data points that should be on everyone’s radar.

Diversion

Diversion, a weight-based measurement, is a well-respected and often-used measurement for zero waste credentialing. It refers to the amount of waste material diverted from the landfill. In other words, it’s the amount of waste sorted for recycling, whether that’s headed to a curbside recycling facility or another non-landfill destination.

Diversion is an important benchmark so communities and businesses can track performance over time. That’s why many waste management companies calculate diversion rates when conducting an organization’s first waste audit. It’s still the single best tool to measure recycling. Diversion rates offer a highly accurate standard by which to track improvements, or even setbacks, on the journey to waste reduction and less landfill dependence.

Greenhouse gas emissions

Along with diversion, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions should be a primary metric. To promote GHG tracking and help organizations measure emissions, the U.S. EPA developed the “WARM” model. WARM – derived from “Waste Reduction Model” – calculates total emissions based on waste processing type. This includes source reduction, recycling, combustion, composting, anaerobic digestion and landfilling. With WARM, it’s easier to measure harmful gases released into the environment, such as carbon and methane.

Certain recyclables avoid GHG emissions more than others when compared with sending the same item to a landfill. There are some industry stalwarts who advocate for triaging your trash and focusing exclusively on GHG as the primary metric of waste reduction at the expense of other important environmental benefits of keeping items out of landfills. However, if we focus only on recycling the biggest producers of carbon, we’re neglecting a huge amount of waste that could be recycled to extend its useful life. It’s entirely possible to reduce GHG emissions while still largely adhering to a linear take-make-landfill model – and that’s why tracking both diversion and GHG is so essential.

Diversion and GHG support complementary goals and are not mutually exclusive. It’s not an either/or situation, but rather it’s important to capture both for a more complete picture of sustainability performance and to generate the most positive environmental outcome.

Material lifespan

There is value embedded in the items we use and discard, and they can go on to have another life. In a circular economy, there is no end of life – just a next phase. Currently, this material lifespan is harder to quantify. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation and Granta Material Intelligence developed “Circularity Indicators” to help measure the transition from linear to circular models.

This includes:

  1. Input of virgin resources
  2. Utility during use (how long is the material in use compared to industry average)
  3. Diversion/destination after use
  4. Efficiency of recycling

There’s no clear-cut science to life cycle analysis at this stage, but measurement tools will continue to evolve as more organizations make the transition to circularity. It’s safe to say that if there is value in ‘trash,’ society should be diligent in extracting that value in lieu of diminishing virgin resources to replenish supply chains.

It all comes down to data

No metric is a surefire indicator of success on its own. They all come together to give you a comprehensive look at waste performance. Whichever KPIs you use, having access to data is a critical component of sustainability programs.

Verified sustainability reporting platforms can track detailed waste data from source to disposal site, allowing you to see exactly how much waste your business or city is producing (by location) and where it is going. Some waste technology platforms are also able to provide carbon and methane avoidance data in addition to diversion metrics.

With access to more data – and more metrics – you can make highly informed decisions to help you reach your sustainability goals.

David Rachelson is vice president of sustainability for Rubicon Global, a technology company that provides waste, recycling and smart city solutions to businesses and governments worldwide. The mission of Rubicon is to end waste. 

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not imply endorsement by Resource Recycling, Inc. If you have a subject you wish to cover in an op-ed, please send a short proposal to news@resource-recycling.com for consideration.

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