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They’re Coming. Are You Ready? Part 2

In part 1 of this post, I talked about how much the world has changed. I urged readers to think about their recycling programs and to update them accordingly. The question is how?

I think the answer goes back to “galvanizing moments”. Issues can simmer for years, but it often takes a “galvanizing moment” to get the general public to pay attention. Such moments have long shadows and shape the recycling and environmental field for years after, often until the next galvanizing moment comes.

If you started in this field in the 60’s and 70’s, the moment that got you into this field was likely reading Silent Spring by Rachael Carson, or the first Earth Day in 1970.

The most recent galvanizing moment was the movie “An Inconvenient Truth. “ It caused an explosion of interest in sustainability. I believe that one of the keys to reaching the class of 2015 (and any class since 2010) is to tap into that interest in sustainability. We need to reframe the recycling discussion to better fit it into the sustainability model.

The good news is that sustainability gives us a framework and language that allows us to better have the lifecycle discussions we were not able to have in the landfill diversion model of recycling. For example, in 2009, the U.S. EPA produced a study : “Opportunities to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions through Materials and Land Management Practices.” That study looked at U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2006 by system as opposed to the more traditional sector-view. What they found is that the “provision of goods” was the largest slice of that emissions pie, 29% of domestic emissions, larger than passenger transport or building HVAC & lighting. What we buy and throw away matters and so does the way we do it. “Provision of goods” includes far more than just recycling and trash, it includes resource extraction impacts, production impacts, transportation of goods impacts, etc. But when you start to look at that methodology, it starts to look eerily familiar to anyone who has looked at the life cycle impacts of recycling.

The even better news is that there is a tool, or combination of tools, that lets you apply this sustainability framework to your own sustainability program. The U.S. EPA has a tool called WARM (the Waste Reduction Model) that lets you measure the greenhouse gas impacts or energy impacts of your recycling program. I highly recommend using that tool to revamp the way that you promote and measure your recycling program.

The first key to using WARM effectively understanding (and being able to explain) that all of your impacts are relative. The impact recycling program depends on what you are comparing it to. For example, the greenhouse gas impact of recycling paper is different depending on whether you would have otherwise sent that paper to be burned in a waste-to-energy facility (where it would release CO2) or sent it to a landfill where it would release methane as it anaerobically decomposes (methane is more than 20x more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas). As another example, this time utilizing waste reduction, it is generally more impactful to reduce wastes that would otherwise go to a landfill than it is to reduce wastes that would otherwise get recycled. It generally makes sense when you stop to think about it, but can be confusing the first time that someone uses the EPA WARM tool (major kudos to EPA though for making the new version much more user friendly in this regard than the original).

The second key to using WARM effectively is understanding that no one outside of the sustainability field understands (or dare I say cares) what a “metric ton of carbon dioxide equivalent” is. The WARM tool by itself will only get you that type of data. It is the companion tool to WARM that makes WARM more impactful. That companion tool is the EPA’s greenhouse gas equivalency calculator That tool allows you to plug in your raw greenhouse gas data from WARM and convert it to equivalencies that the general public can understand (# cars taken off the road, gallons of gasoline not burned, # propane BBQ grill tanks not burned , etc.).

The class of 2015 is coming. Is your program ready?

Join in the discussion. What was the galvanizing moment that got you interested in recycling? Are you ready for the class of 2015 when they impact your program? Let us know.

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Roger Guzowski

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