The misuse of statistics, like the right to write badly, is a widely used privilege. Within that context, the American Plastics Council decision to alter the way it calculates the plastic bottle and rigid container recycling rate is likely to be cited by environmental groups as an example of industry duplicity.
In this case, though the change is politically expedient, it also happens to be justified.
APC switched to a more generous formula, counting as recycled all plastic collected for post-consumer recycling, not only the material that ends up as finished products. In other words, some previously uncounted waste from recycling operations, which ends up in landfills, beginning in 1996 was counted as recycled. As a result, APC was able to claim a 21.2 percent recycling rate in 1996, instead of what probably would have been a significant (but as yet unquantified) drop from the 22.2 percent rate in 1995.
Washington-based APC is in the unusual position of being the only organization to sponsor comprehensive data on plastics recycling rates. In fact, the government depends primarily on APC for its plastics recycling data, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The result is a sort of fox-guarding-the-henhouse situation, but APC has taken steps to assure the public (including some skeptical plastics recyclers) that the data is solid.
The risk of APC's action is that it could undermine the association's credibility. The risk is not inordinately high, however.
The collection of plastics waste is the most visible part of the recycling process, and the segment that the public most readily associates with recycling. A more detailed accounting of what actually happens to what is collected is critical industry market data, but not something the public has clamored to hear.
Regulatory bodies and congressional assistants do ask for more precise statistics, which is why the information is so pertinent. An important point about the new recycling rate methodology is that it more nearly aligns APC with the way other industries calculate recycling rates, and with EPA's reporting method.
Perhaps the first step toward demonstrating the data's credibility should be to rename APC's figure the plastics collection rate, not a recycling rate. Although plastics may now be in line with competing materials, the industry could have taken the high road and avoided taking credit for material that ends up as trash.
Nevertheless, local collectors and recyclers don't stay in business by gathering trash. They have a vested interest in minimizing waste, so the public can count on both groups to prevent overinflating APC's new, more lenient recycling rate.