Based on per capita disposal rates, Nebraskans have the same problem as everyone else in our
consumer culture – we collect too much stuff. As a consequence, we’re generating a lot more waste
than we used to. Nebraska landfill data shows that in 1993 the disposal rate was 1,630 lbs. per person. It steadily rose to 2,600 lbs. per person by 2017, except for a dip in 2008 during the Great Recession when we weren’t spending so much.
There has been a fair amount of discussion in the recycling industry about the changing composition of
the waste stream and the difficulty it poses to collecting actionable data. The preponderance of plastics
in consumer goods and the “light-weighting” of packaging (containers) poses a challenge to traditional
tonnage-based metrics. Compounding the problem is the fact that accurate weight-based metrics are
difficult to obtain. For example, when there are multiple haulers, varying definitions of materials, and/or
no authority to compel data reporting, there can be little confidence in the completeness of the data, let
alone a roadmap for next steps that community programs should take.
Traditional waste characterization studies, considered the “gold-standard” are extremely costly. At the
Nebraska SWANA conference in October, a new measurement tool was proposed by Skumatz Economic
Research Associates (SERA). Called PRR, or Percent Recoverables Remaining, it is a process of sorting
trash to identify the recoverable materials that remain in the trash. These are mini-sorts that can be
ongoing or annual; sorted from trucks, facilities, or cans; and sorted by sector or location. A major
advantage to this method is that it can be matched to three important system goals: 1) targets for
recycling diversion, 2) value of materials being buried, and 3) environmental-based goals, such as
greenhouse gas emissions or toxics in the waste stream. Most importantly, it can guide action steps by
measuring the right thing.
Consumption and waste generation are overwhelming earth’s natural systems. The products we buy
may not directly emit greenhouse gases, but their production and related activities do. The IPCC report
on climate change issued in early October was deeply disturbing. It screams for action. But who should
act? You? Me? How? Communities can start by modernizing data-gathering in order to act in the most
informed, strategic ways to help citizens change behaviors. NRC is here to help.
P.S. for actions individuals can take, check out the plastics pledge!