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The New Math, Part 5

As a result, and discussed in Part 1 of this blog post, when we talk about climate action plans and greenhouse gasses, I find it nearly impossible to have that conversation without talking about “stuff”. I would argue that any climate action plan that omits “stuff” – the stuff we buy, the stuff we use, the stuff we throw away – is at best incomplete.

So, hopefully after reading the first four parts of this blog series, if you are in the business of “stuff”: making stuff, buying stuff, transporting stuff, reusing stuff, disposing of stuff and recycling stuff, you have been convinced to make the climate-change aspects of the “stuff” part of your lexicon. And conversely, if you are in the climate action business, hopefully these posts have convinced you to take a closer look at “stuff” as part of your climate action plan.


But before publishing your own “stuff-related” emissions info, or looking at someone else’s, there is one last consideration to add to your lexicon: scopes. When people look at greenhouse gas inventories, they are generally classified into three scopes or categories:

  • Scope 1 emissions – these are the emissions directly emitted by you or within your borders. This is essentially what comes out of your tailpipe(s) and smokestack(s).
  • Scope 2 emissions – these are the emissions related to your electricity use. Scope 2 recognizes that the emissions related to your electrical use may not be in your geographical borders.
  • Scope 3 emissions – this is a broad category for those emissions caused by your consumption and daily business practices that are outside your geographical borders.

Scopes and waste

One of the big issues related to “stuff” and greenhouse gas reporting is what different measurement tools measure. More specifically, the issue is how such tools account for the process that returns resources back into the manufacturing stream. That includes processes like recycling, reuse, and composting that displace some of the impacts of extracting virgin natural resources in the manufacturing process.

Some systems measure impacts only in terms of avoided emissions at the point of disposal. That includes methane emissions avoided at the landfill, or CO2 emissions avoided at the waste-to-energy facility. They do not include the emissions from displaced natural resources or manufacturing process.

Other systems, like WARM, look at the entire lifecycle of each process, both in terms of avoided landfill and emissions from the natural resource extraction, processing and manufacturing that comes from re-entering those recycled products into manufacture.

As a result, people can take the exact same recycling data and come up with two very different results, depending on what they are looking at. That can be infuriating, but there is a method to the madness.

Inventories versus Actions

One of the reasons for the difference in methodologies is that it depends on what you are measuring for: inventories or actions.

Let’s say you are trying to create a global inventory of greenhouse gas emissions. If so, you really only want to count Scope 1 emissions. After all, your Scope 2 or Scope 3 emissions are someone else’s Scope 1 emissions, and you want to avoid double counting. If you do include any Scope 2 or 3 emissions (e.g. there is something that you know no one else will put on their ledger sheet and thus might not get counted if you don’t include it in your inventory), you are going to do so in the most bare bones form possible, so as to avoid double-counting of emissions. In those instances, it might make sense to use an inventory that does not include life-cycle impacts.

But let’s say you instead are trying to put together a list of actions that you can do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Then, I think, it becomes critical to include indirect impacts. If not, you may find yourself merely moving emissions from one ledger sheet to another, rather than reducing emissions. Every product (including an energy product) goes through six stages: resource extraction, processing, manufacturing, sales, use, and disposal. If you are only measuring the impacts of one or two of those six stages (i.e. use, or use & disposal), are you really measuring your impact or getting an accurate agenda for action?


So, how will you incorporate a climate-change lexicon into your recycling and sustainable materials management programs? As justification for expanding or preserving a program? Using emissions and equivalencies as part of your education and promotional efforts? Better incorporating recycling and SMM into your climate action plan and emissions reporting? All of the above? Join in the discussion and share your successes and frustrations.

Don’t forget Parts 123, and 4 of our 2014 Earth Week series

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Roger Guzowski

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