March 23, 2007 | General

Measuring Diversion, Recycling Progress

BioCycle March 2007, Vol. 48, No. 3, p. 52
West Coast Conference Preview
State and local governments are adopting data tracking tools to standardize reporting and identify areas for program improvement.
Nora Goldstein

ONE OF the first sessions at the 23rd Annual BioCycle West Coast Conference next month in San Diego is titled “Documenting Waste Diversion.” When the State of California adopted its AB 939 recycling law in 1989, it established a 50 percent waste diversion goal by 2000. Jurisdictions failing to meet that goal would be subject to fines. A number of other states adopted diversion or recycling goals in the late 1980s and early 1990s. States established requirements for local governments to submit data annually to document recycling and diversion progress. To create incentives, a number of states set up recycling grant programs based on the recycled tonnages reported.
States have developed a variety of tools and methods to calculate diversion and recycling rates. When BioCycle conducts its State of Garbage In America survey (see April 2006 for the most current survey report), it uses tonnage data on MSW disposal, recycling/composting and combustion – provided by state solid waste management agencies – to calculate the national recycling rate, as well as the tonnage of MSW generated in the U.S. The majority of that data has been reported to the states from local governments (municipalities and counties). Therefore BioCycle, and its survey partner, Columbia University’s Earth Engineering Center (EEC), are keenly aware of the need for quality and comprehensiveness of the data being reported.
Because California has built financial penalties into its recycling law, there is great interest in how the state developed its data reporting infrastructure at the local government level. At the BioCycle West Coast Conference, Lorraine Van Kekerix, the California Integrated Waste Management Board’s Acting Deputy Director of the Diversion, Planning & Local Assistance Division, will lead off the “Documenting Waste Diversion” session, talking about the “State of Waste Disposal and Characterization Data In California.” She will review the role of waste disposal measurement in calculating local and statewide diversion of municipal solid waste, and how AB 939 has shaped diversion and disposal data collection and reporting.
Following the 2006 State of Garbage In America survey, Scott Kaufman of the EEC received a grant from Region 9 of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to examine reported MSW generation, recycling and disposal tonnages from states in that region, including California. Kaufman will provide an update on the data analyses during his talk at the West Coast conference.
The third speaker in the session is Rick Penner, founder of Emerge, which has created a suite of web-based tools called Re-TRAC designed to support waste and recycling data management and reporting activities. Penner will present software that can be used to collect, track and analyze food waste diversion program information. State and local governments on the West Coast, as well as in many other parts of the country, have identified food residuals from the municipal, commercial and institutional sectors as one of the largest categories of MSW being disposed (on a tonnage basis). BioCycle invited Penner to speak after learning about the Re-TRAC tools and how they facilitate recycling and disposal data management at the local level, which in turn affects the quality of data collected by state solid waste agencies.
Re-TRAC is part of Emerge Knowledge Design based in Manitoba, Canada. Penner started the company in 2001, after serving as president of the Recycling Council of Manitoba and working for several years helping communities establish recycling programs. His own experience, and that of many others responsible for recycling program management, led him to design the software tools to make it simpler to collect data from municipalities, disposal facilities, processors of recycled materials and others that have data and are required to report it on an annual or semiannual basis. In turn, the tools developed would facilitate the tracking and aggregation of that data by the entities receiving it, e.g., the county or state governments.
To date, there are Re-TRAC users in 20 states, including six state governments – South Carolina, Rhode Island, Nebraska, and Wisconsin, with Tennessee and Georgia in the final contracting stages. (Wisconsin uses Re-TRAC to make local program performance and trend reports available on-line to the “Responsible Units for Recycling” who report recycling information to the State Department of Natural Resources.)
The service is sold on a subscription basis; the fee for the standard system is based on population of the area being serviced. “Jurisdictions are charged one penny per person per year up to 500,000 people with the per person fee declining for any population above that amount,” explains Penner. “For example, a client with a population of 100,000 would pay $1,000/year for the standard system. We priced Re-TRAC to be affordable so that cost would not be a major barrier for interested jurisdictions. In the end the more data there is in the system, the better it is for everyone.”
Data entry screens are configured to collect data that a local government or state requires. This includes recycling and waste management program data; tons disposed and diverted by material; material source and destination; financial data including program costs and revenue received; and demographic information such as population and household income. Once the screens are customized, users are given a log-in password to enter data. Re-TRAC staff will enter historical data into the system so that recycling program managers can do comparative analyses and identify outliers in data reported.
A Transactional System built into the software creates the ability to import data from weigh-scale software used at landfills, waste-to-energy plants, etc. This data is automatically combined with other sources of recycling and solid waste information, facilitating preparation of annual reports. In addition, an On-Line Survey System allows public sector clients to collect waste and recycling data from commercial/ institutional/ industrial generators, processors, haulers and other private sector entities.
While Re-TRAC input screens are flexible and a wide range of data collection options are available, the system can also help clients increase the level of data standardization. “Standardization can help dramatically when implementing Re-TRAC,” says Penner. “Not only does it facilitate data entry into our software, but it facilitates analyses of the data entered. We have a client implementing the system, which will service six counties in its region. Up until this point, each county had its own approach to data collection. With all counties now collecting a standard set of data, the regional agency can track solid waste management trends much more accurately and efficiently.”
Once all of the data has been collected, Re-TRAC then automates the analysis of the information using a built-in library of program performance and trend reports. Clients can select from over 70 different report options to instantly see how their diversion programs are doing and what impacts different program variables may be having.
The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control’s (DHEC) Office of Solid Waste Reduction and Recycling requires the 46 counties in the state to report their solid waste management data on an annual basis. These reporting requirements were adopted in the early 1990s, and include data on recycling in all sectors (residential, commercial, institutional, industrial). In addition, permitted solid waste facilities are required to report landfill data. Data was submitted via “old-fashioned” hard copy on paper, or in an Excel spreadsheet that DHEC created for the counties to use, says Elizabeth Rosinski in DHEC’s recycling program. “We were always flooded with paperwork and when using the Excel spreadsheet, we were limited to the types of reports we could output for our analyses. Basically, the only census-based data trend we could report from the data was solid waste generation per person in the state.”
Last summer, DHEC signed on with the Re-TRAC program. “We worked with the company to create a system unique to South Carolina,” says Rosinski. “We had to manipulate their template to include certain sets of data and not others. Counties were issued a user ID and a password, and several workshops were held to train local governments on how to use the system. The selling point for us was that the only thing counties needed to start up was a computer and an Internet connection. And not everyone had to be on the most current computer software.”
Counties began entering data last July. Re-TRAC staff inputted DHEC’s 2004 and 2005 data. The state is requesting the same information as it always has – tonnages of recycled materials in all categories and across different sectors. Rosinski and her colleague, Pete Stevens (who primarily works with MSW disposal data), previously had set up a comprehensive data verification process once the counties submitted their reports. “By entering the 2004 and 2005 data, we can quickly identify outliers and determine whether it was a data entry mistake or something in the actual reporting,” she says.
All county data has been submitted to DHEC for Fiscal Year 2006 and Rosinski and Stevens are in the data verification stage. Because census data can be entered into the system as well, they will be able to analyze recycling trends based on population, income and other socioeconomic factors. Additionally, counties will be able to generate their own program performance and trend reports for management and annual budget purposes. “They have the ability to generate a report for county coordinators, interest groups and others,” says Rosinski. “The tool also provides an opportunity for county recycling coordinators to enter data on a monthly or quarterly basis, so they can analyze progress and trends over the year.” DHEC paid the set-up costs for Re-TRAC, as well as pays the annual subscription fee; there is no charge to the counties to use the system.
The Hamilton County (Ohio) Solid Waste District (HCSWD) is comprised of 48 cities and towns, the largest of which is Cincinnati. Each city and town has its own recycling program, either through a contract or individual subscription. The Solid Waste District is required to submit an annual report to the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency that details all programs implemented the previous year, as well as the amounts recycled (in tons) from the residential, commercial and industrial sectors. The district surveys recyclers and local industries to gather data on activity in those sectors. Cities and towns are not required to report their recycling data to HCSWD, but have an incentive to report. “We give money back to the communities based on the amount they recycle each year,” says Holly Christmann, Program Manager for HCSWD. “Communities report twice a year on tons recycled, by material type. We set aside $1 million/year, and funds given back to the community range anywhere from $500 to $350,000, which typically are used to offset recycling program costs. All district programs are funded by landfill tipping fees.”
The Solid Waste District staff began using Re-TRAC in 2005 to input data from the communities. “At this time, we are not requiring communities to submit their data on line, as we are changing our incentive program significantly this year,” explains Christmann. “We will be rewarding communities not just on tonnages recycled but on their recycling rate. Those communities with higher recycling rates will receive more dollars/ton recycled. We want communities to be comfortable with this change before we start having them enter their data into Re-TRAC.” She adds that the district has good partnerships with local recycling haulers, who provide data that helps calculate tonnages diverted.
Once data is entered into the Re-TRAC program, reports can be generated quickly. “We do a lot of analysis of changes in recycling tonnages from year to year by community,” notes Christmann. “What used to take staff many hours to gather and analyze data can now be done at the push of a button. We enter disposal data into the system, and use that for comparative purposes as well.” Re-TRAC imported historical data from 2000 to 2004, which assists with trend analyses.
The annual subscription fee is $3,300. HCSWD expects to get the program rolled out to cities and towns over the next two years. They will be given access to the system through a log-in account. The Solid Waste District also started using the On-Line Survey tool for its industrial recycling survey. “We just got that underway this month,” says Christmann. “Industries can continue to use paper, or click on the website and input their data on line. We had one large industry in the district test the survey before we sent the notice to everyone, and they found it very simple to use. To facilitate data entry, we reduced the number of questions and ask for data on materials recycled by tons, cubic yards or pounds. We also are offering a free waste assessment as part of the survey process. There are 483 industries that received the survey.” The response rate to the survey had dropped over the past couple of years, and HCSWD hopes the ability to enter data on-line will boost participation.

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