How do you measure success in a world of multiple threads that don’t have a starting or stopping place? I was reminded of this at the recent Washington State Recycling Council’s recent conference in Wenatchee in a presentation by Cascadia Consulting Group’s Amity Lumper on Measuring Materials Management and at a presentation of the MRF Material Flow Study Report.
For waste management, waste diversion rates have been the measure of choice. In North America, this measure’s weaknesses have been weathered away to reveal its flaws. Waste diversion does not measure reduction nor does it accurately capture the changes in material composition (e.g. light weighting). This measure is also very easy to manipulate. It all depends what you want to put in the numerator and the (sometimes creative) calculations to get it there. The measure of kilograms of disposal on a per capita basis is a much clearer measure because it is simple. The calculation only requires knowing how many tonnes went to disposal and the relevant population. In the era of the circular economy, where we strive to create a closed loop system bereft of new virgin inputs and residual outputs the relevance of this measure becomes even clearer. The circular economy aspirationally strives for true zero waste to disposal, rather than the Zero Waste meme and in some ways benevolent misnomer that has proliferated in recent years but may be ebbing. As an industry we naturally only measure the back end of the system. The circular economy begs us to measure the inputs more forcefully to determine its success.
I say "naturally" because that is what our jobs ask us to consider. What is leaving the system and where is it going? To expand our measures and add a broader sense of success we need to consider developing a measure to assess a reduction of inbound virgin materials used to manufacture the various products we use. This multi-threaded hydra will be difficult to not tangle because it originates from so many disparate materials and places. We could start by quantifying and then consolidating estimates of all of the materials that are recycled in a jurisdiction, by both the public and businesses. This would be measured at the various recycling facilities that recycle various goods. We would need to consider imported recycled goods and assess when part of a good contains recycled product. This measure would ultimately be expressed as the amount of recycled content (versus virgin) consumed on a per capita basis.
Ultimately, a ratio could be developed to serve as an index of success (i.e. recycled materials/virgin materials). Any result greater than one would mean that we have tipped the balance in favour of recycled materials. The other measure of success would be how much we consume. The circular economy favours sustainable consumption whereas our current system is set up for infinite consumption. The realization of the circular economy would be a paradigm shift on consuming what we need rather than what we want and in such a way that the component parts of all that we consume can stay within this closed system.