Recycling is a manufacturing process. Pause for a moment and re-read that first sentence. It is the core of any recycling program, but too often is missing from any discussion about recycling. At its core, recycling is more about making our manufacturing and consumption more sustainable than it is about landfilling or waste management.
If your only goal is to keep stuff out of the landfill, littering does that as well as recycling. What we often fail to remember is why recycling is better than littering. Recycling is not good because landfilling is bad. Recycling is good because recycling is good. In a manufacturing process without recycling, a natural resource (trees, iron ore, bauxite ore, silica, etc.) is extracted, processed, manufactured into sellable consumer products, consumed, and then discarded – typically into a landfill or combustion facility. Recycling is that same manufacturing process, only instead of extracting natural resources, we get those resources from stuff that someone was discarding.
Here’s the thing: This is not some J.R.R. Tolkien fantasy land. Trees don’t magically walk themselves out of forests. Iron ore and bauxite ore aren’t brought up to the surface in the backpacks of magical pick-wielding gnomes. These are not the days of Paul Bunyan in which timber is collected by hand with a sharp ax and strong ox. All of these are very industrialized processes that take a lot of energy and generate a lot of greenhouse gasses. And too often, they leave behind a legacy of damage to the ecosystems that we need to help sequester the emissions that those processes create.
Stuff = greenhouse gas emissions. Recently, the EPA re-looked at our greenhouse gas emissions from a systems view (see “Opportunities to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions through Materials and Land Management Practices” by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response – September 2009). What that found is that almost 30% of our total greenhouse gas emissions come from the “provision of goods.” That’s the stuff we buy and use and discard every day. And that’s just our domestic emissions. That number goes up significantly if you include all of the foreign emissions that are the direct result of extracting, processing, and manufacturing to supply our consumption.
That’s where recycling plays a big role. For most materials, it takes less energy and generates fewer emissions to manufacture stuff from recycled materials than it does from virgin natural resources. For example, if you were an engineer and developed a widget that cut energy emissions at a factory by 10%, you would be lauded as a climate hero. Yet using 30% recycled glass to make new glass does just that and too often receives no attention.
The cumulative impact of all that recycling is pretty impressive. According to the U.S. Department of Education, there are a little over 18 million students enrolled in degree granting institutions. If every one of those students recycled just one additional aluminum can each month instead of sending that can to a landfill, each year it would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of taking more than 10,000 cars off the road. Want to learn more? The EPA has a great new tool called WARM that lets you compare a variety of recycling, composting, and waste management options for a wide variety of materials.
The key to all of this though is that we have to provide manufacturers with the quality recycled feedstocks that they need to manufacture the products we want to buy. When you purchase a can or bottle, you look for one without a big gaping hole in the side of it. If you buy a sheet of office paper, you need something that will run through your printer without problems. For manufacturers to make the products that we want to buy, we need to supply them with the quality feedstocks that they need. Don’t put something in the recycling bin because you feel guilty about throwing it away. Instead, focus on putting the right stuff into the recycling bins to help make manufacturers and our economy more environmentally sustainable.