Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Measuring Product and Packaging Flows for Sustainability

By Bill Sheehan, Executive Director, Product Policy Institute

The importance of product-focused measurement to sustainable materials management
EPA’s Municipal Solid Waste Characterization reports have been invaluable to the development of both Sustainable Materials Management and Extended Producer Responsibility alternatives to traditional waste management approaches.  What has made the data so valuable is the distinction between manufactured (product) and non-product (organic and inorganic) wastes – a distinction that is possible through the materials flow method used by EPA but missing from the traditional end-of-pipe waste characterization perspective.  To be sure, aspects of EPA’s reporting methodology and scope can and should be improved.  But it is critical to continue and expand the use of production and life-cycle data to track the quantities of products and packaging generated and discarded for recycling, landfilling and incineration each year. 

The distinction between product and non-product waste lines up pretty well with the concept of technical industrial and biological nutrients used by McDonough and Braungart in the book, Cradle to Cradle.  It creates the possibility of talking about producer responsibility for manufactured discards and community responsibility for management of non-manufactured discards.  Product Policy Institute used those data in a 2005 report to produce the influential graph above, which makes apparent the contribution of products and packaging (red bars) to the dramatic change in composition of “municipal solid waste” over the last century.

The EPA Municipal Waste Characterization Reports prepared by Franklin Associates track production statistics, adjusted for product lifespans as well as imports and exports. This product-focused approach is best suited to measuring product and packaging flows – recycling as well as waste disposal – as well as critically important industrial waste flows.  Annual reports published by BioCycle magazine, in partnership since 2003 with Columbia University’s Earth Engineering Center, use state reports and questionnaires to waste managers to estimate amounts of material that is received at landfills and incinerators, as well as estimates on collection for recycling.  The wastes tracked in the BioCycle reports include materials not covered in the EPA reports, such as construction and demolition debris, biosolids, special waste, household hazardous waste, alternative daily cover, and auto body scrap. Tracking for these materials varies markedly by state and jurisdiction. 

The EPA and BioCycle approaches reflect different perspectives on the waste stream.  The EPA/Franklin methodology focuses “upstream” and relies on Franklin Associates’ close association with industry trade associations.  By contrast, the BioCycle/Columbia methodology is grounded in the waste management end of the waste stream and relies on a “robust network” of waste managers (Kaufman and Themelis, 2010).  BioCycle is a trade journal for composters.

Is one approach more important to sustainable materials management?  I contend that the EPA/Franklin product-focused approach is the more important of the two, for two reasons.  First, the EPA approach opens the door to the study of  industrial manufacturing solid waste, which is far more significant in impact than “municipal solid waste.”  The last government attempt to measure U.S. industrial waste flows was done in the 1980s under the Department of Energy’s Waste Material Management Program (which sensibly looked at materials and energy together).  A 1993 DOE booklet estimated that municipal solid wastes comprised only 1.5% of all “industrial” waste streams.  Nonhazardous manufacturing wastes have a greater potential impact on sustainability than MSW yet industrial reporting requirements are largely lacking.  This is an area in which EPA should do more.  The EPA/Franklin product-focused approach can and should be expanded further “upstream” to include manufacturing wastes.

Second, the most problematic materials in the MSW stream are manufactured discards – products and packaging -- because they are the fastest-growing component of MSW and they are often designed for disposal or contain toxic components.  The proliferation of toxic and throw-away products has been accommodated by an expanding municipal solid waste management infrastructure operating independently from the decision-makers that design, market and use products and packaging (Product Policy Institute 2005).  Put another way, the separation of the costs of waste management from product prices is a market failure driving social costs associated with waste.  Modern materials management policies, such as Extended Producer Responsibility, aim to correct this market failure.  While accurate measurement of disposal is important, in a sustainable materials economy management of manufactured discards will increasingly become a producer responsibility, and less of a public sector responsibility.  For those wastes, product-focused measurement approaches will become increasingly important.

The EPA/Franklin methodology should be more transparent, include the vast universe of hidden industrial waste flows and construction and demolition discards, and include reuse.  However, it should be expanded, not abandoned.  Governmental and non-governmental organizations developing effective policy measures to prevent waste at the source rely on US EPA’s valuable tracking reports. 

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