Calculating and Measuring Recycling and Disposal in California
If you’ve ever wondered how CalRecycle measures and calculates recycling in the state, this is the article for you.
CalRecycle employs several methods to count disposal and recycling rates for various material types. To determine a true recycling rate, you need to have a numerator (what is recycled) and a denominator (what is generated). Material types with a short life span, like single-use beverage containers, are tracked more easily than other materials that have a longer life, such as TVs and computer monitors.
For the California Beverage Container Recycling Program, we calculate the recycling rate by counting the number of containers redeemed and dividing it by the number of containers sold within a year. This information is calculated and reported every six months. In 2017, the overall recycling rate for CRV materials was 75 percent. You can read about individual material types and their recycling rates on this fact sheet as well.
For some material types, like electronics, it is harder to calculate an accurate recycling rate for two reasons. First, given the typical lifespan of a TV, determining an accurate time frame within which to measure is difficult. Additionally, California’s Covered Electronic Waste Recycling Program does not cover all electronics, just those with a video display screens larger than four inches diagonal. While the Covered Electronic Waste program does track payment claims to recyclers for some materials, California does not track sales for all electronics or the total generation of e-waste, thus making it difficult to quantify an electronics recycling rate. CalRecycle addresses the limitations of the current CEW program and tracking in a policy paper titled Future of Electronic Waste Management in California.
Some products are managed by an extended producer responsibility program, also known as product stewardship, like mattresses, carpet, and paint. Soon pharmaceutical drugs and sharps (like needles) will also be managed by a stewardship program. Each of these programs are established by law and each program has different goals and metrics that measure the product stewardship program’s success. To learn more, visit our webpage on extended producer responsibility.
For a big-picture look at recycling in California, the 2017 State of Disposal and Recycling report offers details on the overall recycling rate, which is calculated by subtracting the amount of overall landfill disposal from the amount of waste generated in the state. In 2017, overall disposal increased for the fifth year in a row to 44.4 million tons. By subtracting overall disposal from the 77.2 million tons of generation, CalRecycle estimates that Californians recycled, composted, and source-reduced almost 32.8 million tons. This corresponds to a recycling rate of 42 percent, which has continued to decline since the peak of 50 percent in 2014.
The 2014 Disposal-Facility-Based Characterization of Solid Waste in California report offers a much more detailed analysis of the composition of California’s disposed waste stream. Although it isn’t a calculation of what is recycled, it does highlight what is still available to be recycled. Figure 5 on page 30 illustrates the overall waste stream composition. By far, California’s largest waste stream is organic material. Food waste alone is the single largest stream at 16 percent (see the Key Findings section on page 9). California is tackling organics recycling and edible food recovery with Mandatory Commercial Organics Recycling and statewide residential and commercial organics diversion and recycling (which goes into effect in 2022).
AB 901 (Gordon, Chapter 746, statutes of 2015) changes how organics, recyclable material, and solid waste are reported to CalRecycle. This new reporting system will provide CalRecycle with much more information about materials being recycled. Disposal, recycling, and compost facilities, as well as exporters, brokers, and transporters of recyclables or compost, will be required to submit information directly to CalRecycle on the types, quantities, and destinations of materials that are disposed of, sold, or transferred inside or outside of the state.
The data acquired by the new AB 901 regulations will inform CalRecycle’s understanding of material flows within the state’s recycling infrastructure; allow CalRecycle to better estimate total recycling and composting; and assist CalRecycle to track progress toward several state goals and programs, including the 75 percent recycling goal, mandatory commercial recycling, and organics diversion programs.