Measuring the Success of Public Space Recycling Programs

Bigbelly Smart Waste Measuring Public Space Recycling

Your town or city recently implemented a public space recycling program. After much planning, how will town officials know if it needs adjustment? If it is ready for expansion? If it is working as efficiently and effectively as planned?

Measurement of course will help to determine the program’s impact. The measurements extend well beyond knowing the location and number of recycling containers in public spaces. It requires data turned into information used by all parties involved – Department of Public Works, neighborhood or district improvement groups, waste and recycling haulers, and town and city officials.

Knowing how the overall program performs as well as metrics about the efficacy of each container helps demonstrate the program’s benefits and aids in strengthening community support.

How do municipalities measure recycling program success?

There is ongoing measurement that calculates metrics such as the weight of collected recyclables and the type of recyclables disposed. The economic and environmental value derived from diversion is calculated using weight and type data, which is converted into comprehensive updates for all stakeholders interested in knowing the benefits of the new program. Other items tracked include number of collections and time spent emptying containers, which locations fill most frequently, man hours dedicated to recycling operations, and costs saved such as fuel usage or equipment maintenance. Program managers who avoid tracking results and costs will not be able to advocate for the long-term progress of the program.

A subset to these ongoing measurements is waste stream analysis (waste audit), which generates detailed analysis about both potential and current recycling. This process manually separates a specified waste stream to analyze materials that could be removed through recycling or reuse. The results identify and quantify recycling potential as well as issuing recommendations to reduce waste, establish recycling outlets, increase community education efforts, and reduce the cost of disposal. When combined with results from ongoing measurements, cities can leverage this data to establish future projections and plans.

Bigbelly Smart Waste Audit in Progress at University of California, Berkeley

Waste Audit in Progress at University of California, Berkeley 

Community participation can be calculated based on measuring estimated total number of bottles and cans collected. Essentially, each bottle or can recycled represents one person who recycled. Knowing the number of residents, visitors, and workers within an area or event and comparing the number of bottles or cans collected, it is easy to estimate community participation. On a larger scale, community participation can be measured simply by evaluating trends in how often a recycling bin reaches capacity in various neighborhoods of a community. The higher number of hours or days a recycling container is full, the greater the community participation!

Diversion rate is another useful metric often reported by recycling program managers. It is a measurement of the percentage of recycling diverted from the total amount of waste materials collected – recycling plus trash. This is an important number and is easy to calculate when the waste volume per stream is readily available. For new public space recycling programs, be sure to watch for the trend in diversion rate while the infrastructure is still being built.

Knowing staff time along with the type and amount of waste and recycling materials collected helps leaders determine the resources needed to support ongoing efforts in smart city waste management. They can more readily balance costs versus benefits and share this knowledge with stakeholders who play a role in determining how best to proceed with and expand public space recycling efforts.

When it comes to calculating environmental benefits, there are several models used to convert recycling benefits to energy and water saved and greenhouse gas emissions reduced. The most widely recognized model is the Environmental Protection Agency’s Waste Reduction Model (WARM), which measures carbon equivalents. It helps solid waste planners and organizations track and voluntarily report greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions from several different waste management practices.

This produces a standard language for comparing the environmental impacts of various conservation efforts, namely recycling, transportation, and energy. By comparing the environmental benefits of public space recycling projects to other conservation efforts, groups can establish powerful messages worth sharing with all stakeholders – citizens, staff, and government officials. 

The methodology is described in another EPA guidance document, Measuring Recycling: A Guide for State and Local Governments. State and local agencies are encouraged to distribute standard survey forms to gather information about quantities and types of materials collected, processed, disposed, and recycled. There are six required elements to developing a standard municipal solid waste (MSW) recycling rate:

The standard methodology is based on an equation that calculates a standard MSW recycling rate. Working with EPA, state and local governments have developed this voluntary methodology to accurately measure recycling rates. It enables municipalities to easily and fairly compare recycling rates with other states or municipalities, to know if other states count more materials in their rate, and to feel confident that data is complete and accurate enough to develop a recycling rate.

Smart Cities Take Action with Recycling

Cities and towns should consider what they want to report when deciding their public space recycling program metrics and measures and what messages to communicate. Today, there is an unprecedented amount of real-time data available in regards to recycling programs and smart city waste management. Municipalities can leverage this information in reporting, educating, and evaluating a public space recycling program. Technology and sensors available in public space waste solutions today make it easier than ever to measure success – no matter how large or small – of a emerging public space recycling program in a neighborhood near you!


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