People and organizations define and interpret “recycling rate” differently, and it is causing a lot of unnecessary greenwashing.

Calculating the rate depends on two numbers, both of which can be contentious. How much total material is “out there” available to be recycled? And how much is recycled? How these numbers are derived can lead to different answers. Even once you have settled on the two numbers, you still need to be very clear on exactly what you are describing.

For example, the amount of Blue Box material available in Ontario households in 2018 was calculated using a combination of retailer/producer reports to the province’s then EPR industry body (Stewardship Ontario) and waste audits of select areas that were then extrapolated statistically to cover the whole province. So, an estimated number of generated Blue Box material.

Then you get to estimate how much of this was “recycled.” And this is often where problems arise because there are differing interpretations of what “recycling” and a “recycling rate” is. Currently there are at least three different ways people are measuring this (which leads to confusion, poor comparisons, fake aspirational recycling targets, and greenwashing):

  1. Where a “recycling rate” is, in fact, a collection rate. British Columbia’s Blue Box EPR program is an example of this. BC’s so-called 75% “recycling rate” is really an estimate of how much Blue Box material was collected from households and depots. It does not subtract contamination removed at a materials recovery facility (MRF) or what is lost in further processing, or take into account the yield losses of the material being remanufactured.
  2. What I will call the “sent for recycling rate.” This is the amount of material that has been collected and processed at a MRF (so some contamination has been removed) and then sent on, usually in bale form to a broker or to an end-market. This is what Ontario calls its Blue Box “recycling” (or to add more confusion, its “recovery” rate).
  3. Then there is the “real recycling rate.” This is the amount of material that is collected, processed, sent on to an end-market where it undergoes further processing and where yield losses occur before the material is recycled into a new product. Depending on efficiencies and contamination, the real recycling rate can be 30% lower than what some people are calling a recycling rate. So, there is plenty of opportunity for confusion and greenwashing!

If you want to read more on this subject, check out my blog Blue Box Blues: only a third of Ontario Blue Box material makes it into a new product or better still, check out my book Little Green Lies and Other BS: From “Ancient” Forests to “Zero” Waste.