by Liz Skolnick
When Long Island Recycling Initiative first started researching how the waste system works back in 2017, one of our burning questions was: How do we know how much we’re recycling?
The answer, it turns out, is that we don’t. Although municipalities have reported their own recycling rates, those figures are far from reliable. Indeed, we don’t know exactly how much waste, recyclable and otherwise, that Long Island generates.
Experts have estimated the Island’s waste stream at between 2.4 million and 4 million tons per year, but they’re not measuring the same things. Most estimates focus on recyclables and municipal solid waste, the stuff generated in single-family homes and delivered to local recycling plants, transfer stations, or waste-to-energy combustion plants. They don’t typically include colossal amounts of yard and compostable waste, street-sweeping debris, incinerator ash, and other materials that private haulers remove from schools, apartment buildings, hospitals, businesses, and construction sites.
We’ve tracked down data from a number of reports—annual reports that each town submits to New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and tallies from waste and recycling transfer stations, private trash carters, and materials recovery facilities (MRFs) like the one in Brookhaven.
What we found:
The numbers don’t always add up. We’ve spent weeks trying to reverse-engineer the totals on facility and carter reports, and comparing them to overall town waste reports. Sometimes, the numbers just don’t jibe. This could be due to honest miscalculations, but painting a blurry picture of the waste stream can be convenient for waste handlers—it can cover up situations where more than the allowable amount of waste was processed. DEC reports ask entities to fill out how everything was measured; the options are “scale weight,” “truck count,” “estimated,” and “other.” Although scale weight is the only accurate way to measure waste, we found that facilities and carters often use other, much less accurate, counting methods.
Inflated recycling rates. Does the recycling rate for your town or village, or the entire state seem a bit high? It’s not just in your head. LIRI spent a lot of time parsing the difference between what a town says it recycles and what actually gets recycled. At the heart of the issue: When a town ships its waste and recycling away, its solid waste report counts everything that is put into a recycling bin as “recycling.” Unfortunately, a lot of that stuff does not actually get recycled, often because the item was never recyclable in the first place (“wish-cycling”). Other times, items are too contaminated with food or other waste, or have become cross-contaminated by other materials in the process of collection. The actual percentage of what gets recycled is generally always smaller than what towns report as “recycling” at the point of shipping it away. This inaccuracy can benefit towns, as well as state agencies and officials, who can tout the high recycling rates. We have heard concerns over inflated recycling rates echoed to us by everyone from waste studies scientists to members of the New York State Assembly.
Double-counting. As items move along the recycling collection and supply chain, they are counted as many as three or four times. Recyclables from several Long Island towns are often combined together at one transfer station to allow for ease of transport. There, they are counted once and reported to the state. They may be counted again by the company that sells the materials, and a third time by the Port Authority as they travel out of the region. Untangling the mess of double-counting is a daunting task, and this confusion can add to the problem of inflated recycling rates and create an inaccurate picture of the waste stream
Not all data is captured. What many people don’t know is that when waste and recycling rates are calculated, it doesn’t reveal the full picture. The town only counts what’s picked up by its own curbside collection or dropped at the dump. This means a huge chunk of waste collected by private carters from housing complexes, construction sites, office parks, and private residences may be misattributed to another town or skip that reporting process altogether if that waste is directly trucked out of the region.
General sloppiness. In many cases, the reports themselves are not filled out clearly or correctly. They are full of illegible numbers and scribbled notes; required values or permit information is often missing or reported incorrectly. We have catalogued more than 30 different types of reporting errors that are repeated again and again in the documents we’ve reviewed.
No accountability, no transparency. As the DEC admits, these various waste tracking reports are completed on the “honor system.” Currently, there is no real way of holding each entity accountable, of checking on the accuracy of their numbers. Private carters have the least amount of oversight from the DEC, which insists that the towns should be checking up on them.
What can be done?
It’s not difficult to imagine a functional data capture system that gives us a clear picture of the waste stream and our recycling success. Many countries and parts of the U.S. have already established successful methods for getting good data. Here are a few recommendations that stem from our research:
Require and fund weighing of all waste and recycling. Too much of the current reporting uses imprecise methods for calculating waste and recycling. In this day and age, there’s really no excuse for not using a scale to get a precise, tonnage-based measurement. We realize that not every transfer station or carter can afford a scale, but the DEC makes funding available for improvements like this. Furthermore, the new Shared Services Initiative is encouraging municipalities to work together to eliminate redundant services. This could be applied to sharing scales and other waste infrastructure. Some argue it’s just “too hard” to make changes. But until we get serious about good measurement, we’re never going to know how much waste we’re generating, recycling, and disposing. This information is essential for creating good policy around recycling and taking action to reduce trash.
Nix the antiquated pen-and-paper reporting. Studies have shown that states and countries using electronic reporting have a better picture of their waste stream. E-reporting systems, when set up well, are easier to use and derive data from. They provide for standardized ways of entering the numbers, and ensure that all required information is given. Though switching over to a more accurate system (which has the added benefit of saving paper!) may be met with some grumbling, this technology is really essential. It’s time to bring Long Island into the 21st century with a good waste management database.
Hold entities along the waste chain accountable. Conversations with waste scientists and personnel from the DEC have made one thing clear: it takes a lot for the DEC to bug waste handlers about their bad or missing data. If a report is several months late or rife with errors, the DEC may reach out with questions, but more often than not the agency’s personnel are left to painstakingly coax bad data into something that seems acceptable. Why is this our standard for accuracy? Whether it’s the DEC’s or towns’ responsibility to hold waste handling entities accountable, someone needs to step in to make this system work.
A Data Success Story
Though Long Island comes with its own set of unique challenges, good measurement is a boon to waste management everywhere. CalRecycle, the agency that oversees the waste system in California, switched the state over to electronic reporting several years ago. Its website has a user-friendly data entry page for waste handling operations and invites their feedback on how to make it easier to report accurately. Lo and behold, California has fantastic metrics for waste and recycling that anyone can access online. Here in New York, it could fall to the DEC to set up this kind of database. Implementing this technology is key to understanding how much waste we produce and recycle, and taking next steps to improve waste management around the state.