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The New Math, Part 2

For the folks who have been in the business of stuff: making stuff, buying stuff, transporting stuff, reusing stuff, disposing of stuff and recycling stuff, climate change represents both a new opportunity and a new challenge. There is a new math of greenhouse gas accounting by which some people are viewing and evaluating everything.

The Process from a GHG Lens

Stuff involves a manufacturing process. Each step in that manufacturing process uses energy and generates greenhouse gas emissions. As I have been saying in presentations since the late 1980s, the advantage of recycling, composting and reusing materials is that it reduces or eliminates many of those impacts at various points in the manufacturing process. Where in the process depends on what and how you are recycling.

In a manufacturing process without recycling, you start with a natural resource. That natural resource is extracted, processed into a form that can be used during manufacture, manufactured into a new product, and sold to consumers (after which it is used by consumers and eventually discarded).

When you have recycled feedstocks or reused components as inputs for manufacturing, you don’t have to extract natural resources (or at least not as many). These are not the days of Paul Bunyan when resources were extracted by strong arms and sharp axes. Extraction equipment is typically big industrial equipment that uses a significant amount of energy and generates significant greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, those recycled and reused feedstocks are typically already in a more processed form (e.g. in the case of steel, the steel has already been extracted from the iron ore), reducing or eliminating the need for the processing step during manufacture and thereby further reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Some recycled feedstocks even reduce emissions during the manufacturing process. For example, when you make glass from recycled glass cullet, the furnaces don’t need to be heated as hot, saving energy and reducing greenhouse emissions.

Recycling, composting, and reusing also reduce emissions generated from the disposal of materials (e.g. methane in landfills from the anaerobic decomposition of paper and organic products or CO2 generated from the combustion of fiber and plastic products).

And that doesn’t even count the damage from the resource extraction process, the damage to ecosystems and carbon sinks. Trees, soils, oceans and grasslands are the “lungs” of the planet that take CO2 out of the atmosphere and store it. When you damage those ecosystems, their ability to take CO2 out of the air is disrupted and in some cases the CO2 they are storing is released back into the atmosphere. When you add up the emissions savings for the steps in the process for the thousands and thousands of tons of stuff that gets collected for recycling and are manufactured into new recycled products every year, those savings are significant.

If you already have a climate action plan, does it sufficiently account for stuff? I absolutely think that it is important to reduce the climate impacts of our personal transportation. But does driving a Prius or Volt or Tesla to the mall really allow you to claim that you are closer to zero emissions if you are not accounting for all the emissions caused by the stuff you are going to the mall to buy? If you are in the business of reducing the impact of stuff, have you embraced the new math and started counting your climate-related impacts?

Missed Part 1? Catch up here: The New Math, Pt. 1.

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Roger Guzowski

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