Calculating Access: A Critical Measure Toward True Recyclability

Beth Coddington

Author: Beth Coddington

Do you have recycling at your home? At your workplace? What about your friend in the apartment building around the corner? Or your cousin in the next town over? The variety of responses to these simple questions provide a glimpse into the complex landscape of access to recycling.

Measuring and analyzing access is critical for the recycling industry, since access is a fundamental prerequisite for recovery to take place. Communities need to track access to evaluate how well they are providing services. MRFs and recycling haulers use it to identify market opportunities for business expansion. And packaging companies and brands require access data as a critical building block of true recyclability. Getting used materials collected, into a bale, and into a new product all begins with having access to that collection in the first place.

But why is access to recycling such a challenging thing to measure? The answer has to do with the patchwork of different ways Americans receive recycling services. Residents in one town may have curbside recycling collected by city employees, while their neighbors need to bring recyclables to a drop-off depot if they want to participate. Other towns may have a hodgepodge of private haulers with recycling available for those who wish to pay for the service. Even in areas with town-wide curbside recycling, apartment-dwellers may not be included – or may only have recycling in their complex if the building manager decides to provide it. The variables of subscription, drop-off, and multi-family services are some of the most-cited challenges in measuring access, but even beyond those, there’s a huge array of ways residents pay for recycling services or even simply receive recycling bins. In the world of drop-off recycling, we consider variables like distance to the drop-off, user fees, and hours of operation.

And then the questions get even trickier when measuring access to recycling for a specific package or product. Do you have access to recycling for plastic grocery bags? You probably have a nearby in-store drop-off, but can’t include them with your curbside recycling. And what materials can you recycle curbside? You may have a list of do’s and don’ts from your recycling service provider, but what about items that are caught in the gray area between the two? Researchers measuring access for specific materials must determine consistent criteria for counting whether materials are allowable in a given program.

All of these decision points involved in measuring access to recycling mean that it’s difficult to compare reported access statistics from different studies. While access thresholds are part of national guidelines for marketing packaging as recyclable, there are no corresponding Federal standards for what actually counts as access. Some states have set definitions of what types of access count toward meeting statutory recycling access goals, but even these aren’t consistent across state lines. Nor is there one accepted methodology for conducting access research. For example, researchers have used random samples of communities to make extrapolations about access rates nationwide. But the fact is, access to recycling is not really comparable to a typical survey question that varies in a statistically normal distribution – which makes the random sample approach lose some validity. For a sample to yield actionable access numbers, it must be adequately stratified to account for the variety of policy drivers and market forces at work, and the research methodology must be verifiable and replicable.

Programs that rely on access metrics need to be aware of these “unknowns” in the measurement process. Without a broadly accepted standard for this measurement, the variables and different methodologies involved in calculating access will have an impact on the results. Recognizing this impact is critical to tracking access consistently across the country and year to year – as well as for comparing access across different regions, or between different packaging types. Ultimately, designing recyclable packages and products in the US requires developing an understanding of the diverse ways that American consumers access recycling in the first place.

And yet this awareness of access is just a piece of what it means for a package to be recyclable. Truly recyclable materials are not only accepted in residential recycling programs, but also must be sortable by recycling facilities, add value as recycled commodities, and be able to be processed by end markets into new products. Keep an eye on this space – further posts will delve into these dimensions of recyclability.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments section below.