The introduction to this Task Force Report summarizes much of the data currently available about the Penn State waste stream at University Park. Collecting this data required considerable effort, both by campus staff and external consultants, and represents a careful and comprehensive analysis in terms of material quantities, the effectiveness of current collection systems, and the purity and disposition (recycled versus landfilled) of the different streams. From a practical and cost basis, these are critical metrics. Waste stream program design and implementation needs to leverage this information in evaluating tradeoffs and making evidence-based decisions. Additional metrics are also needed to assure these decisions fully reflect institutional values, are affordable, efficient and effective.

One of the available metrics that is particularly important is contamination. Presently, Penn State University Park is paying fees for every contaminated bag, and in 2018 sixty-six tons of material collected as recyclables was redirected to landfill because of this issue. To put this in context, across all recyclable streams other than cardboard (OCC), the contamination rates measured in the audit ranged from 12 percent to 43 percent (Figure 3). The worst offenders were the plastics categories (plastic bottles and film/miscellaneous plastics) and compost, and the least contaminated bins were metal and paper. Furthermore, the audit of Housing buildings told an interesting story. Contamination rates were significantly lower than other buildings on campus, ranging from 10 to 20 percent, but recovery rates were very low. This correlation helps to shed light on considering potential infrastructure changes and behavior modification as discussed in the Traditional Recycling section recommendations. [1]

Another measure of success would be to increase the capture of acceptable recyclables, sending less as refuse to the landfill. There is the potential to increase overall recovery rates 10 to 28 percent by collecting more recyclable material from the refuse stream. According to the 2018 audit, one-third of the waste in the refuse stream cannot be recovered, largely due to contamination by food and beverages. However, roughly 60 to 70 percent of the refuse stream includes materials that can either be recycled or composted. The Task Force recommendations include several strategies to reduce these losses of recyclable and compostable material to the refuse stream, and if these are effective the total quantity of refuse should drop over time. However, to fully measure the success of these strategies will require additional audits. As is often said in the management consulting world, “you cannot manage what you do not measure.”

There are several other metrics that are not adequately measured at present, which will be important to understand for future waste stream decisions. Foremost among these is the lack of data at the Commonwealth Campuses comparable to the data available at University Park. Penn State’s campuses have a diversity of recycling and refuse contractual arrangements, either with local communities or the private sector. A top priority should be getting information about quantities, purity, and “leakage” of recyclables into the refuse stream. Only with that data can locally relevant strategies be developed.

In addition to basic information about waste stream flows and contamination levels, there are many other metrics that reflect Penn State values as previously described, but are either not available for our specific waste systems or are only available at a general level. These include greenhouse gas emissions, nutrient pollution, recovery efficiency, human and ecosystem toxicity, and resource scarcity. Quantifying these impacts is complex, but tools do exist from the field of industrial ecology and life cycle analysis. Prior research indicates that the outcomes of these metrics vary widely among recycling pathways, even for the same material, and for both recycling and refuse also vary widely based on transportation distance and local processing options. Because Penn State does not market its own recyclables, it is difficult to know what recycling pathways are most relevant for a life cycle analysis, and these will shift over time as regional and international recycling markets evolve and adjust. While documenting and evaluating these pathways will take considerable effort, such analysis should be part of the ongoing assessment of success.

This report represents an important milestone as Penn State advances its leadership in sustainable operations to steward our planet’s resources. To fully realize and maintain that leadership will require dedicated operational staff and academic support. Data and analysis will be central to that process, and in that context, we envision four key roles needed to design, implement, and maintain improvements the solid waste system. Two of these roles would be full-time staff positions, one in procurement and one as a recycling coordinator. These staff would be supported by two graduate students, one focused on human behavior and one focused on life cycle analysis. The first three positions are discussed in other sections in this report, while this metrics section provides the primary justification of the life cycle analysis graduate student. Modeled after the extremely successful partnership between academic researchers and operations staff that for decades has documented the safety and improved operations of the Living Filter, this graduate student would be dedicated to analysis of both internal and external metrics. The goal would be to inform evidence-based decisions about future system enhancements and investments in our solid waste system, as the circular economy of materials continues to rapidly evolve.

Recommended goals and principles to impact Penn State’s waste stream using metrics:

Short term

  • Fund and hire a graduate student to focus on Life Cycle Analysis, supervised jointly by a faculty member with LCA expertise as well as Recycling and Procurement staff.
  • Build a team that formalizes metrics and coordinates ongoing data collection and analysis
  • Report semi-annually to the Sustainable Operations Council

Long term

  • Integrate metrics into policy development and justification
  • Provide data to support sustainability scorecards
  • Reassess and revise metrics as necessary


[1]Fall 2018 Waste Audit Results; Draft Technical Memorandum. Kessler Consulting, Inc.