How SWEEP Key Performance Indicators Can Change Local Recycling Outcomes

Have you ever wondered how your waste management and recycling program performance compares with other municipalities? Have you tried to find a set of objective criteria that can consistently evaluate the performance of these programs and found no basis for comparison? After a program has achieved initial goals, have you ever wondered what your city or town could do next to keep improving?

When you ask a waste professional to explain the sustainability of their waste management program, you’re asking for an assessment of the efficiency and effectiveness of a sustainable materials management program and its environmental performance. But, for this assessment to be meaningful, it must be assessed on the same basis as other programs.

Like the LEED program, which scores the environmental performance of a building, the Solid Waste Environmental Excellence Performance (SWEEP) Standard is designed to be the definitive, comprehensive framework for defining environmental performance in the solid waste industry in North America. It helps move the industry and our economy from a linear take–make–waste structure to a more circular sustainable materials management (SMM) structure. The standard being piloted right now, SWEEP+ (SWEEP-Plus), is a leadership standard targeted at the performance levels that define the top 25% of the market.

Learn The Terms

In short, SWEEP gives you and your community the basis for comparing its performance to others. There are a few terms and acronyms to learn. Still, the effort can help you have a productive discussion with local leaders about improving your solid waste system. Over the course of a series of articles this year, Earth911 and SWEEP will provide a guide to understanding and using the standard in your community.

Each of SWEEP’s five Performance Categories offers key performance indicators (KPIs), defining what leadership performance in each of these areas requires, starting with the SMM Policy section of the program:

  1. Sustainable Materials Management Policies (SMMP), which deal with the performance of the waste system;
  2. Waste Generation and Prevention (WGP),
  3. Solid Waste Collection (SWC),
  4. Post Collection Recovery (PCR),
  5. Post Collection Disposal (PCD).

These KPIs are organized around tracking these outcomes:

  • Efficiency and Effectiveness,
  • Environmental Performance,
  • Economic Performance,
  • Working Conditions, Social Impact, and Public Participation.

The benefits of a comprehensive and consistent sustainability program like SWEEP include:

  • Improved efficiency and effectiveness of your local waste and recycling program,
  • Improved community environmental performance and conditions,
  • Economic growth and additional jobs created through the collaboration of municipal, private, and nonprofit entities,
  • Helping a vital community service to become circular, equitable, and healthy.

Apply Your New Knowledge

What YOU can do:

  • Citizens: Learn about SWEEEP and ask your local government to get involved!
  • Leaders: Learn about the elements and performance benchmarks of sustainable materials management. Through SWEEP, begin incorporating these best-practice elements into your programs and verify and validate your efforts through SWEEP Certification.

Let’s see how SWEEP’s KPIs define sustainable materials management performance to give you and community leaders a common language. Taking the time to learn a bit of waste management jargon can unlock your power to influence the process.

Sustainable Materials Management Policies (SMMP)

The performance approach aims to identify the discarded materials with the highest environmental or energy impact and devise programs to optimize recovery of those high-impact resources. Paper and metals, for example, are materials with high energy or environmental impacts that also carry large economic benefits when recovered.

SWEEP offers two pathways for demonstrating the efficiency and effectiveness of a local government’s sustainable materials management framework. The first is a “performance” approach that establishes high-level benchmarks without determining how these benchmarks are achieved. The second pathway is a “prescriptive” pathway that is more specific and focused in its requirements that define how a waste system operates effectively.

Typically, prescriptive requirements are more straightforward to achieve, but have much less flexibility in programmatic approaches. On the other hand, performance requirements are more difficult to define and implement, but typically allow much greater flexibility and potential for program achievement.

Weighing Progress

In evaluating how to define environmental performance through SWEEP, our committees and contributors focused on the inadequacy of using the weight-based “ton” to measure program performance. Although it’s not too difficult to measure and track weight, the ton tells you nothing about how your program is performing economically or environmentally.

Compare a ton of grass clippings to a ton of aluminum. It doesn’t tell you how many trucks you need to collect material. It doesn’t tell you how much airspace is used or remains in your landfill. In both the collection and landfill cases, the density of the material is critical for determining the impacts of this ton on collection capacity or how much airspace is needed upon disposal. Tons also tell you nothing about either material’s economic or environmental value.

If not the ton, then what? Consistent with the move toward a more performance-oriented evaluation of program achievement, SWEEP has devised two Performance Path options for assessing the impact of materials and how they are handled in your community:

  1. Energy and emissions results from the EPA WARM modeling are used to describe the carbon emissions associated with the material. A ton of grass has a very low carbon impact compared to aluminum, which must be mined, transported, refined, and manufactured into a product before it reaches the consumer.
  2. A lifecycle impact modeling evaluation based on the MEBCalc or another lifecycle assessment (LCA) tool, such as SimaPro or Sphera. These tools help the waste management system assess the full impact of the material on the environment.

SWEEP’s Prescriptive Path under SMMP rewards jurisdictions for adopting recycling/diversion goals and requires regular waste characterization studies.

If your community follows the prescriptive option, SWEEP also gives credit to municipalities that have a policy to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of its waste management program and credit for policies to promote source reduction.

Ready For The Next Step

Communities must look beyond the environmental impacts to the economic performance of their waste system, which must be affordable for citizens and businesses. SWEEP gives credit for policies that promote market-based waste management programs. The typical approach to pricing program services is based on the amount of material generated through various forms of “pay as you throw” (PAYT) services, which have been amply demonstrated to reduce the amount of waste generated by consumers and businesses.

Finally, SWEEP rewards having public input into the development and implementation of waste management policies through public participation in committee meetings or having a citizen solid waste advisory board. To summarize, a community can earn up to 21 available SWEEP points through by improving its SMMP outcomes.

In our next article, we’ll introduce the Waste Generation and Prevention (WGP) and Solid Waste Collection (SWC) components of the SWEEP Standard.

In the meantime, you can begin your local journey to recycling and responsible disposal influence by asking your community’s solid waste management office, “How’s your SMMP?” If they don’t have an answer, call your city council representative to ask them to create regulations that require the city to disclose solid materials management performance to citizens.

Learn More

This article, contributed by SWEEP founder Rob Watson, is part of a series that will summarize the standard and its potential applications in U.S. communities. Discover more about the SWEEP Standard: