What Is a Capture Rate?

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  • Written By: Terry Masters
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 17 October 2019
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Many different types of analysis use the concept of a capture rate to express the number of items that a process is able to pull from a larger group. A photographer speaks in terms of a frame capture rate when taking a picture, and scientists use capture rates when describing experiments. One of the most common uses of capture rates is in environmental management, however. A capture rate in this context is the percentage of recyclable material diverted from the trash system.

Municipalities look for ways to divert trash from ending up in landfills or on trash barges floating on the ocean. The earth has a limited capacity to accommodate trash, so trash management is often a critical issue for governments. Curbside recycling programs are popular ways to decrease the amount of trash a community generates. Recycling identifies consumer trash that can be rescued and reused and either requires consumers to segregate those items out for pick-up by recycling trucks or makes the practice optional.


In the context of recycling, a capture rate is the amount of recyclable material collected divided by the total amount of recyclable material generated. Essentially, it is the percentage of recyclables that have been captured out of the trash system, compared to how much could have been captured in an ideal world. People are never 100% efficient in segregating their trash for recycling. The capture rate reveals the effectiveness of a recycling program and tells governments where to devote more resources to achieve better results.

Capture rates are a key part of waste audits. These types of audits use statistics, like capture rates, to better understand consumer behavior so waste diversion programs can be improved. For example, a waste audit might reveal that the capture rate for newspapers is much higher than the rate for aluminum cans. This might lead the government to establish a can deposit program where a consumer is charged a deposit at purchase that is returned when the can is returned for recycling. Likewise, a waste audit might reveal that the total capture rate for recyclables in multifamily buildings is much lower than for single family homes, leading the government to design special advertising that is focused on apartment buildings.

The important part of using capture rates to analyze recycling habits is that the rates allow study on the level of specific recyclables, like cans, while also accommodating program-wide study that can be used to compare rates between communities. In environmental management, the capture rate of recyclables is part of an overall diversion rate. A diversion rate measures the effectiveness of all types of waste diversion programs, of which curbside recycling programs are only a part.


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