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Impact of Recycling, Part 1

How You Recycle Matters

Why do you recycle? At some point, we have to talk about impact. Because not all recycling is created equal. How you recycle stuff matters. In some cases it matters as much if not more than whether you recycle at all. For many materials, if you look at the life cycle benefits of recycling, most of recycling’s benefits come not from avoided landfilling but from displacing “virgin” natural resources in the manufacturing process.

Lets Start with a Case of Paper Recycling

If you are a government office, college or university, or a commercial office building, much, if not most of the paper that you generate is high-grade printing and writing paper. What is the impact of your paper recycling program? Using the data from a recycled fiber fact sheet from the Green Press Initiative, let’s look at the impact of not just whether you recycle that paper but how you recycle that paper.

If you recycle in a way that keeps that high-grade paper separate and uses it to make new recycled-content printing and writing paper, you are displacing a net of about 3 tons of virgin wood for every ton of new recycled paper that you make. However, if you recycle that paper in a way that downgrades it so you are only making a low-grade paper product, you are only displacing a net of about 1 ton of virgin wood for every ton of recycled paper that you make. Thus, from this forest-resource utilization standpoint, the decision to keep your high-grade paper separated in a way that recycles it back into high-grade printing and writing paper (as opposed to just recycling it into low-grade products) is more than twice as impactful as the decision to keep it out of the trash to make low-grade paper products.

Given that, I wonder how so many sustainability metrics and recycling legislative requirements can justify counting every ton of paper recycling equally. When you look at your recycling program, are you measuring impact or just quantity? Let’s say you had a way to collect 20% more paper but to do so meant that you could no longer turn that paper back into high-grade paper products, it could now only be made into low-grade paper products. Should you be celebrating the 20% more tons that you collect or should you be critically looking at the fact that your paper recycling program now only has 60% of the impact that it used to have?

Recycling Glass Back to Glass Bottles

The same is true of recycling glass bottles. It takes less energy to melt glass cullet back into liquid glass to mold into new products than it takes to melt sand, soda ash, limestone and the other ingredients that make virgin glass into liquid glass. When you look at the energy impacts and greenhouse gas impacts of using recycled glass to make new glass bottles, that energy savings can be significant.

When you recycle glass back into new glass bottles, you realize those benefits. Because you do not have to heat the furnaces so hot, you avoid a ton of greenhouse gas emissions for every 6 tons of glass you recycle.

However, a lot of the end markets for glass do not realize those energy savings or those benefits. Once glass bottles are smashed into small enough pieces that they can no longer be color-separated, your primary markets for glass are civil engineering applications like alternate daily cover at a landfill or drainage ditch fill. And while all those uses are beneficial in terms of not wasting the valuable space in the cell of a landfill with inert glass, they do not have the energy savings impacts of glass-back-into-glass recycling. If you implemented your recycling program as part of your broader sustainability program, why are you recycling? Is it to collect materials in a way that doesn’t take advantage of their energy saving benefits? Are you really climate-neutral and zero-waste if you are passing on the energy savings of glass recycling to make daily landfill cover?

Why do you recycle? When it comes to recycling, what is your impact?

Written by

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Roger Guzowski

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