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Fact-based Advocacy: Why It Matters

Originally posted at: WasteRecycling Magazine

If you tried to purchase a car in the last two years, you might recall it was a nerve-wracking experience. Increased prices, limited stock and delays on custom orders all contributed to a unique and stressful purchasing experience. The culprit was eventually revealed as a chip shortage, a term bandied about freely but perhaps not entirely understood. The average consumer has never seen a semiconductor chip, has no idea how many common items contain one (or thousands) and couldn’t possibly explain what it does. Still, the shortage almost crippled a $3 trillion industry. These chips are unnoticed and unsung, but they play a pivotal role in our lives. In a very similar way, that’s how science informs advocacy.

Credible science is mostly unrecognized. It’s crucial to the function of advocacy and policymaking, but you might not realize it until it’s too late. Peer-reviewed scientific research creates more informed policies that are better and stronger; it identifies practical problems and presents realistic solutions. Credible science provides evidence-based information that empowers advocates and decision-makers to pursue policies that will have tangible consequences for producers and consumers alike.

The National Waste & Recycling Association (NWRA) has long relied on credible science in its efforts to promote and protect the waste and recycling industry. In 2019, the Environmental Research & Education Foundation (EREF) conducted research into degradable organic carbon (DOC) values and how the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) uses them for its Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program. For almost 30 years, the average computed DOC value for municipal solid waste (MSW) using state data was 0.191, or roughly three-fifths of the MSW guideline value. The average computed DOC value for bulk waste using state data was 0.167, or roughly four-fifths of the bulk waste guideline. This analysis suggests that the EPA’s guideline DOC values of 0.31 for MSW-only landfills and 0.20 for bulk waste at facilities accepting non-MSW Subtitle D wastes overestimate DOC at these landfills, possibly resulting in inaccurate estimates of landfill gas.(1) EREF’s robust research highlighted a significant disconnect between how these values are computed from an operational standpoint and what policies should be implemented as a result.

Fact-based research can result in advocating for new policies, policy changes and sometimes no policy at all. In 2009, EREF was asked by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) to conduct research on tritium levels in the state’s 54 permitted landfills. Tritium is not only produced naturally in the upper atmosphere but also as a byproduct in nuclear power production. It is most notably found in the emergency exit signs that we walk under every day. Those signs often end up in landfills, despite regulatory requirements, and the tritium within is not a treatable constituent in landfill leachate.

PADEP made the wise decision to ascertain credible science before enacting new policies for disposal or treatment. Though tritium was detected, and PADEP recognized a potential problem, EREF’s research revealed that tritium levels were considerably lower than estimated. In fact, the problem didn’t actually require a solution, as EREF’s research found "no adverse impact from 3H at the drinking water intakes(2) ." As a result, this research has saved landfill owners millions of dollars in monitoring fees and also indicated that the risk to human health and the environment is below EPA regulatory guidelines.

It’s important to note that science is not advocacy. Fact-based, credible science does not have policy positions or advocacy goals. If a traveler chooses to make a trip from Washington, D.C., to New York City, there are three main options: fly, drive or take the train. Within each of those options, there are more options. For example, they can depart from Dulles International Airport or Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and arrive at John F. Kennedy International Airport, LaGuardia Airport or Newark Liberty International Airport. Each airport has advantages and disadvantages that will influence travel decisions. If a traveler opts to drive, they’ll take I-95, but there are bypasses, scenic routes and traffic conditions to consider. Airports and highways don’t advocate for themselves; they simply exist for consumers to analyze options and make the best choices. But if these airports and highways existed and were never used, what would be the point?

The same idea can be applied to science and advocacy. Every day, researchers all over the world conduct essential analyses of the many challenges we face. If their results do not inform action and advocacy, what’s the point? Science for the sake of science is valuable, but science used to advocate for policies that improve everyday life is practical, tangible and invaluable.

In the information age, there’s no shortage of available material to defend or disprove any view. It can be challenging to discern strong opinions and good ideas from credible science. Without the use of peer-reviewed research, policymakers and advocates are left to rely on expert opinions, consultants, untimely data and other nonreliable sources. These can often conflict and present an incomplete or inaccurate representation of serious issues that require immediate action. The most credible advocacy argument is grounded in the most credible sources and science. It may be unseen and unheard, but it’s there. Just as your car, your computer and maybe even your toothbrush won’t work without a semiconductor chip, advocacy doesn’t work without a solid foundation in fact and science.

Staley, B.F. and Kantner, D.L., Estimating Degradable Organic Carbon in MSW Landfills and the Impact of Non-MSW Materials, EREF—Environmental Research & Education Foundation, 2016, Table 1, p.4.

Safety and Ecology Corporation, Radiological Investigation Results for Pennsylvania Landfill Leachate: 2009 Tritium Update, EREF—Environmental Research & Education Foundation, 2009.

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