Recycling data ‘a mess’

News and analysis by Dan Telvock, Investigative Post's environmental reporter

Comparing recycling rates community to community isn’t an easy task.

In fact, data and reporting inconsistencies make it nearly impossible to make accurate comparisons.

While localities can be faulted for the inconsistent way they track their recycling programs, the state Department of Environmental Conservation has been willing to accept it. As a result, it’s hard to measure progress and hold cities and towns accountable.

“It’s a mess,” said Maggie Clarke, a zero waste consultant and researcher who has done work for the New York State Association for Reduction, Reuse and Recycling, “especially if you are trying to compare one city or state to another or you are trying to aggregate information.”

Investigative Post made curbside recycling rate comparisons using the best data available from the state and the 10 most populated towns and cities in Erie and Niagara counties. Those localities have an estimated curbside recycling rate of about 13 percent versus the estimated national average of 25 percent.

The data we obtained was problematic.

For example, some localities include only what’s collected in recycling totes, while others include scrap metal and yard and electronic waste. Some include waste from a number of small businesses, while others only include residential waste.

“Unless you can get every single reporting entity to have the same definition, then you are going to be mixing apples, kumquats and machine guns,” Clarke said.

The DEC collects solid waste and recycling data from 64 planning units across the state. But the voluntary annual reports are not complete or independently verified.

Even worse, the data is not broken down by city, town and village. That makes it difficult to compare localities, measure progress and pinpoint programs that struggle. Private haulers that pick up residential garbage and recyclables don’t always disclose the data unless the specific city, town or village asks for it.

The lack of recycling data from commercial and institutions such as schools and hospitals is another problem. Rarely is the data collected or reported separately.

Comparing overall recycling rates is just as challenging. Rarely do municipalities count the same items with the same measurements.

For example, one way Buffalo officials were able to show more progress in the city’s overall recycling rate is by including scrap metal. The problem is the city never before included scrap metal and scavengers get to it first. That forces the city to use an estimate for scrap metal collection.

In addition, most scrap metal recycling facilities are exempt from state reporting requirements. Therefore, there is a void of information for scrap metal recycling that makes it difficult to get exact figures.

The DEC is well aware of the poor reporting by municipalities. The agency’s 2010 Beyond Waste report contains pages of criticism about the lack of consistent data and reporting.

As a result, the report says: “disposal and recycling numbers tend to be imprecise at best, with their unreliability compounded when used to compare data across jurisdictions and  across time.”