In July, an article in the journal Environmental Research Letters addressed closing the gap between climate education and efficacy of individual action.
The goal is sound. It is critically important that we align policies and recommendations with those practices that achieve the greatest reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, particularly those that have the least financial and quality-of-life impacts.
However, the authors characterized recycling as having only a moderate beneficial impact and concluded that other personal actions, such as having fewer children, avoiding airplane travel, living car-free and becoming a vegetarian, should be prioritized.
All of these actions are laudable and will undoubtedly result in fewer GHG emissions; however, how likely is the average person to adopt them? Furthermore, we’ve seen this message downplaying recycling in a variety of formats before, but the reality remains the same: Recycling is a proven way everyone can help address climate change with comparatively minimal effort and lifestyle change.
Fundamentally, the authors reached their conclusion through an unsubstantiated low value for recycling’s GHG benefits. The U.S. EPA has found that the full life cycle of materials management, including the provision of goods and food, is responsible for 42 percent of U.S. GHG emissions. It is precisely for this reason that governments and policymakers have focused efforts on improving how we manage waste and materials. For example, the European Union (EU) found great success in better waste management. By 2009, the EU’s efforts around recycling and landfill diversion had achieved the largest GHG reductions on a percentage basis of any sector in the EU economy: 34 percent.
In an analysis I co-authored, we found better waste and materials management could reduce GHG emissions by 1 billion metric tons of carbon equivalent per year by mid-century. Better solid waste management could be as effective as closing 1,000 large coal-fired power plants, building two million 1 megawatt wind machines, or doubling global nuclear power plant capacity.
Translating these global benefits to an individual scale are compelling. Looking specifically at North America, we found that transitioning from a 26 percent to a 65 percent recycling rate could save 184 million metric tons of carbon equivalents per year when the energy, process emissions and forest GHG benefits of recycling are considered. On a per-capita basis, this equates to a GHG savings of 1,450 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent per year, nearly seven times the value reported by the article.
U.S. EPA data reveals similar GHG benefits of recycling. The U.S. EPA estimates that recycling an average short ton of mixed recyclables saves 2.82 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. Americans generate, on average, 1.3 tons of municipal solid waste per capita per year. Recycling 50 percent of this waste, based on the U.S. EPA estimate, would save 1,830 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent per person per year.
Most importantly, comprehensive recycling is something within the reach of most people and is far less intrusive than many other options provided. Yet, recycling rates are stagnant. A failure to price environmental externalities in the U.S. and low commodity and energy prices are threatening the economic drivers to recycle. Expanding recycling depends on the active role of individuals, communities and governments. If anything, we need more education and government recommendations focused on better waste and materials management, not less. EU member states and many U.S. communities have proven that concerted effort reaps results. And the data on potential GHG benefits are clear: It is worth the effort.
Michael Van Brunt is senior director of sustainability at Covanta.
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