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'Suspicions confirmed' over inconsistent EU recycling data

Recycling rates cannot be accurately compared across Europe because the methods used to calculate them are too inconsistent, research has found.

A report commissioned by the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management (CIWM) to mark the start of Professor Jim Baird’s term as president, found anomalies in figures from EU member states.

In addition to differences in data capture and definitions of what constitutes ‘municipal solid waste’, the four calculation methods set by the European Commission gave different results even when the same original data were compared, with an average variance of 8.6% between the highest and lowest.

The work was carried out by a team from Social, Environmental & Economics Solutions (Soenecs) and the University of Brighton.

Speaking at his inauguration in Glasgow, Baird, pictured, said: “The CIWM has repeatedly expressed concern about the accuracy and value of comparative recycling statistics and data across Europe, and this report confirms our suspicions. 

“A measurement framework that can deliver this level of variation with the same set of data will simply not be up to the job as we move into the more ambitious territory of the circular economy.”

He said that if higher targets were set for the circular economy, more robust calculations and tighter definitions would be needed to allow for meaningful comparisons.

The report found “significant inconsistency in data capture and interpretation of the definition of municipal solid waste”.

One issue was that the materials included varied from country to country, for example the inclusion or exclusion of home composting, packaging and waste from small businesses.

The four calculation methods were applied by researchers to data from nine towns, and they found an average variance of 8.6% between the highest and lowest recycling rates.

“Overall, the research shows that the different data parameters, definitions, interpretations and methodologies presently being employed limit the potential for accurate recording and comparison of member states’ recycling performance,” the report found.

“Unresolved, this issue undermines the validity of all recycling rates reported.”

Researchers said their findings highlighted the need for further analysis of the interpretation of definitions, in particular of whether post-treatment fractions are included in the definition of municipal solid waste and whether recycling is counted on the basis of the tonnage after primary sorting and processing, or at the reprocessing stage.

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