“It's much easier to view recycling trends, such as tonnage diverted, now than with spreadsheets,” says Tom Adams, recycling manager at the Lancaster County Solid Waste Management Authority. Image: Emerge Knowledge Design Inc.

Pennsylvania is one of 20 states that require counties to submit an annual recycling report to the Department of Environmental Protection. So every year, the Lancaster County Solid Waste Management Authority faces a major data-management headache.

In addition to collecting and consolidating information on its own operation — a landfill, waste-to-energy facility, transfer station, and household hazardous waste facility serving 502,370 residents of south-central Pennsylvania — the authority collects and reports on the residential and commercial recycling programs of 44 cities.

Waste haulers submitted paperwork at the transfer complex, waste-to-energy facility, and the landfill. Authority employees input data from the weigh scale program into Microsoft Access and then to Excel, where they then painstakingly added data from local businesses. The data had to be entered twice: once into the spreadsheets themselves and again into the state's online reporting system.

It was a cumbersome task that took months to complete until the authority began using a suite of customizable Web-based tools designed specifically for managing and reporting recycling and solid waste program data. Developed by Emerge Knowledge Design Inc., Re-Trac is used by seven U.S. states and three Canadian provinces in addition to 42 counties and four cities.

The software is designed to collect information from most waste streams and from most sources, import data directly from weigh scale software such as WeighMaster, and import historical data as part of the setup process. An annual subscription is $3,300 plus 1 cent/person for jurisdictions of up to 500,000 residents. The per-person fee drops to half a cent for jurisdictions with populations of more than 500,000, and to a quarter-cent for populations of more than 1 million.

The software offers users more than 70 standard report options, so when unusual configurations are required — such as the authority's need to match the way data must be submitted to the state each year — there's no additional charge for customization. As part of the customization process, Emerge Knowledge Design employees worked with authority employees to define requirements, including the design of data input screens. Now, authority employees generate reports that show countywide program performance and trend information that they use to track diversion rates and identify the communities that are most successful at recycling.

Assembling the data in spreadsheets had prevented the authority from easily tracking recycling progress from one community to the next, so the real-time availability of data greatly improves the program's efficiency. “As the data come in, we can instantly generate a report and see how their programs are coming along,” says Recycling Manager Tom Adams.

Census data may be entered into the system as well, allowing for recycling trends to be analyzed based on demographic changes.

“Standardized reports can help us do a better job to advance and promote recycling — not just to the municipality, but also to the public,” Adams says.