Recycling and waste prevention are important ways to shrink your carbon footprint.

Over forty percent of US greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are directly tied to making, moving, and disposing of all the things we use – and throw away – every day. The good news is that this big number presents a big opportunity. Waste prevention and recycling are powerful ways that each of us can use less energy, reduce GHG emissions, and contribute to a healthy climate.

Think about it.

Everything we consume – from a can of soda to a sheet of paper – requires energy for its manufacture, transportation and disposal. This energy is usually produced by burning fossil fuels such as coal or gasoline, and burning fossil fuels means that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere.

Greenhouse gas levels are increasing at an alarming rate, and have the potential to produce dangerous changes in our climate. Americans have a special responsibility to waste less and protect the climate. Though the U.S. represents less than 5% of the world’s population, we use 30% of the world’s resources, create 30% of the world’s waste, and generate over 22% of the world’s CO2 emissions.

Waste prevention and recycling work together to shrink your carbon footprint in three important ways:

  • reducing emissions associated with the energy needed to produce and transport new products
  • reducing emissions from incinerators and landfills filled with our trash
  • increasing “carbon sequestration” in trees left standing when we use recycled paper

Did you know that by simply growing larger, trees work to actively remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and “sequester” – or capture – it in their wood? Recycling paper leaves more trees standing, and is good for our forests – and the climate!

It just makes sense.

First, when we waste less and choose products made with recycled materials, less energy is needed to extract, transport and process raw materials and to manufacture products to support our lifestyle. Recycling one aluminum can, for example, saves over 95% of the energy that would be required to produce a can from all new materials.

Next, recycling and reducing waste plays an important role in climate protection by keeping trash out of incinerators and landfills, where it can produce powerful GHG emissions. The decomposition of organic waste in a landfill leads to the production of methane gas, an important GHG that traps over 21 times more heat in the atmosphere than CO2.

Composting is especially important in keeping organic waste out of the landfill, reducing methane emissions and working to capture carbon in the soil where it cannot be released into the atmosphere as CO2. When our trash is disposed of in an incinerator, it releases both carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide into the atmosphere. An extremely powerful GHG, nitrous oxide traps over 310 times more atmospheric heat than CO2!

Finally, recycling and waste prevention help protect the climate by boosting the natural process of “carbon sequestration”. Recycling paper allows more trees to remain standing, where by simply growing larger they actively work to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and “sequester” – or capture – it in their wood.

This natural process called “carbon sequestration” cleans GHG emissions from the atmosphere and helps combat global climate change. Together with energy savings, this benefit can add up! By recycling its office paper for one year, a business with 7,000 employees reduces its GHG emissions by 570 metric tons of CO2e. This is like taking 370 cars off the road for an entire year!

So curb your carbon footprint!

Wasting less and recycling more saves energy, saves money, and is one of the fastest, easiest, and most effective ways we can all do our part to curb climate change.

 

Sources:

US EPA. Climate Change and Waste Website.  Accessed 6/23/10. http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/wycd/waste/index.html

US EPA. State and Local Climate and Energy Program: Solid Waste and Materials Management. Accessed 6/23/10/ http://www.epa.gov/statelocalclimate/state/topics/waste-mgmt.html

 

Additional Resources

More information on the connection between recycling and climate change can be found at the following recommended websites:

 

Carbon Footprint

A carbon footprint measures the total greenhouse gas emissions caused directly and indirectly by a person, organization, event or product. The size of a person’s carbon footprint is the measurement of their contribution to climate change based on how much carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are produced as a result of their actions and lifestyle choices.

Source:UK Carbon Trust. Accessed 6/23/10.

US EPA: Climate Change – Waste Website

State and Local Climate and Energy Program: Solid Waste and Materials Management

National Recycling Coalition: Climate Change Initiative

Campaign for Recycling: Fact Sheet — How does recycling reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions?

Sierra Club: Zero Waste and Climate Change Committee

EcoCycle: Stop Trashing the Climate Website

StopWaste.Org: Recycling for Climate Protection Programs

Grass Roots Recycling Network: Zero Waste, Recycling, and Climate Change

 

Links to on-line carbon calculators that include recycling:

How big is your carbon footprint? The following online carbon footprint calculators and tool take recycling into account:

EPA Household GHG Emissions Calculator

EPA Kids Climate Change Calculator

EPA Waste Reduction Model (WARM)

EPA Recycled Content (ReCon) Tool

Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator

NERC Environmental Benefits Calculator

EPA Electronics Environmental Benefits Calculator

Environmental Defense Paper Calculator

 

Links to vetted educational resources about the topic:

The following resources are recommended for detailed information on the link between waste management and climate change:

Waste Life Cycle

Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2008. Chapter 10: Waste Management. U.S. EPA. April 2010. (PDF)

Solid Waste Management and Greenhouse Gases: A Lifecycle Assessment of Emissions and Sinks, 3rd edition. U.S. EPA. September 2006. (PDF)

Climate Change and Waste Fact Sheet: Reducing Waste Can Make a Difference. U.S. EPA. Accessed June 2010. (PDF)

Explaining the Connection Between Climate Change and Recycling: A Layperson’s Guide. NorthEast Recycling Council Powerpoint Presentation. 2008. (PowerPoint)

Recycling and Climate Change: Realizing the Environmental and Economic Value of Recycling in a Carbon-Constrained World. National Recycling Coalition Whitepaper. Accessed June 2010. (PDF)

West Coast Forum on Climate Change, Waste Prevention, Recovery and Disposal Website. EPA Region 10. Accessed June 2010.

Opportunities to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions through Materials and Land Management Practices. US EPA. September 2009.

Waste Management, In Climate Change 2007: Mitigation. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [B. Metz, O.R. Davidson, P.R. Bosch, R. Dave, L.A. Meyer (eds)], Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.