What use are waste statistics?

The online business blogger Zerohedge recently published a post entitled ‘The Danes Are Europe’s Biggest Wasters’. This presented Eurostat data from 2016 showing that Danish per person waste generation was 777 tonnes, considerably ahead of Germany (623 tonnes per person) or Sweden (a mere 443 tonnes).

What’s going on here? Is Denmark really Europe’s biggest waster? An argument can perhaps be made that runs along these lines: Denmark has an extremely sophisticated waste management system and a high level of recycling. People are therefore relaxed about generating waste, as they know it will be treated properly rather than being dumped. Therefore, a high level of generation doesn’t matter, is to be expected and is even a good sign!

I’m not sure how plausible I find that argument. In any case, it falls down when looking at generation across Europe. Neither Sweden nor Germany are backward when it comes to waste treatment, as, as seen above, they have considerably lower generation levels. Do these people not realise how much more they could be wasting?!

The simpler answer to the Danish question is of course that the Eurostat data is not yet at a point where it can be considered comparable. Sadly, this is true when comparing between countries and also over time for a single country. I looked at some regional Eurostat data over time:

eurostat

The first thing to note is that Danish waste generation has been considerably higher than in Finland or Sweden for the past two decades. It grew sharply until 2008, since when it has levelled off. The same pattern, though far less pronounced, can be seen in Finland and Sweden.

You will have already spotted the data for Norway, which is all over the place. Here’s a clue I think. Norway reported a per person level of waste generation similar to Denmark’s until the year 2001, when it dropped sharply to 361 tonnes from 613 tonnes a year earlier. That can only be explained by a change in reporting methodology; a change which Denmark it would seem has never made. From 2001 to 2015, Norway is broadly in line with its nearest neighbours.

Curiously, the Norwegian figure for 2016 is back again at ‘Danish’ levels. Again, such a rise compared with the previous year cannot plausibly represent reality, but rather a change in methodology or reporting completeness. It will be interesting to see if this renewed higher figure is present when the 2017 data is published.

So I doubt that Denmark is really such a big waster; it’s far more likely that they fill in the figures differently. As do, on occasion, Norway. Plenty of other anomalies can be spotted across the Eurostat data, and this has great implications for anyone trying to use it for their strategic planning.

For much of Europe, reported waste treatment figures are identical to reported generation figures. Leaving aside whether that is in itself wholly plausible, we can delve a little deeper into the waste treatment data. This shows that Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Norway share very similar characteristics for waste treatment. Landfill is barely used, while 50-56% of waste is incinerated. Almost all the remainder is recycled in some way. So in this respect, none of these countries is doing anything radically different from its neighbours.

Denmark and Norway – the two outlier countries in 2016 – are however notable for relatively large per person treatment figures for WtE incineration and in particular recycling. The Danish figure for recycling in 2016 was 371 tonnes per person, 72% higher than the 216 tonnes reported by Sweden!

To return to Norway, the sharp drop in 2001 was due to a fall in the level of landfill, from 336 tonnes per person in 2000, to 92 tonnes in 2001. Assuming there was, in fact, no ‘real world’ sharp fall in generation, what happened to this waste which was formerly landfilled? The Eurostat data shows a modest rise for WtE incineration and a fall for recycling. Either a sizeable proportion of Norway’s waste fell out of the figures in 2001, or there was a serious overcount prior to 2001. Tentatively, I’d say the latter, given the comparison with Sweden and Finland. Reported treatment figures are inconsistent, and these get reported as generation, since one is assumed to equal the other.

In contrast, and finally, I promise, the high Norwegian figure in 2016 was due to an 83% rise in WtE incineration and a 60% rise in recycling, all in one year. Once again, it doesn’t seem terribly likely from a waste generation (or indeed treatment) point of view.

Business planners should be aware of these issues. I’ve singled out Eurostat here, but the rest of the world is worse; the attempted comprehensiveness of European statistics simply makes it easier to spot the problems. The data is far from worthless, but great care needs to be taken when comparing between countries and across time. At AcuComm we make little direct use of these statistics, preferring to rely on our own data which shows actual levels of investment across the waste sector, and in a more timely manner too.

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