What the Recycling Industry Can Bring to Climate Change Discussions

What the Recycling Industry Can Bring to Climate Change Discussions

The unfolding string of chaotic climate events around the world is disturbing to anyone paying attention, but as a father I can tell you that it is absolutely terrifying to our children who are old enough to understand what is happening. The generation that is coming of age at this time, the millennials, are some of the smartest and globally-aware young adults that the human race has ever produced. That is both good and bad news as it relates to climate change and what the world is doing about it.

There is zero time to waste since delaying climate cooling solutions today only increases the price tag in the future–a burden we shouldn’t be passing on to future generations. The time to act is now, and we need solutions that are ready to go, cost-effective and impactful.

Fast, cost-effective and proven

That’s what we as a recycling industry can bring to the climate discussions: Proven strategies that can be implemented today at reasonable costs with meaningful impacts. We can’t solve the whole problem because there is a lot of long-term large-scale work to be done on our energy and transportation systems, but investing in zero waste today is one of the best short-term strategies that helps buy time to work on these longer-term problems.

Unfortunately, the recycling industry has been excluded from the climate conversation, save for a small foothold around methane. In most local greenhouse gas inventories, “waste” is only 2-5 percent of the problem, so it doesn’t look like a sizeable part of the problem or the solution. But that’s only because we’re calculating it incorrectly. We’re only measuring the methane contribution from landfills and not the emissions from making and transporting products and their packaging.

We need to get behind a new climate accounting system that looks beyond landfill emissions and measures the impact of producing, consuming and disposing of all our stuff. It’s time for consumption-based accounting.

Game-changer: Consumption-based accounting

We know that consumption affects climate change: The bigger your house, the more stuff you buy, the bigger your climate footprint.

Yet most greenhouse gas (GHG) inventories don't measure the impacts of consumption. Nor do they measure the benefits of recycling and composting, which help reduce GHG emissions. For example, a community that recycles 100 percent of the scrap metal in their town, which would save a huge amount of energy and significantly reduce carbon emissions in producing the next metal product, doesn’t get any credit for this impactful program. We just aren’t measuring the right things if we’re only looking at emission sources like smokestacks while ignoring all the energy that is not burned thanks to recycling. According to Dr. Jeffrey Morris, a resource economist, around four barrels of energy are saved for every ton of municipal solid waste (MSW) that is recycled.

The EPA published a groundbreaking report in 2009 that described how “materials management and food systems” in America are responsible for 42 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. Let that sink in for a moment: The way we manufacture, use and dispose of our “stuff,” is responsible for nearly half of our climate impact.

Since that big news, some communities are starting to change the way they look at consumption and waste in their climate action plans. Places like San Francisco and Washington’s King County have published consumption-based inventories and are changing the conversation about how zero waste can be a short-term climate solution priority.

Portland, Ore., is leading the pack. Their 2015 Climate Action Plan offers both a traditional GHG inventory and a consumption-based inventory. As a result of looking at their emissions from both angles, Portland has more options on the table, and zero waste actions are included as important short-term priorities. A few of the climate action steps in Portland include expanding business and multifamily recycling, promoting reuse opportunities like thrift stores, fix-it clinics and tool libraries, as well as product stewardship. The city is aiming to reduce waste generation by 33 percent and has seen per capita generation drop 10 percent below 1996 levels.

How you can get started

The counting of “consumption emissions” is still in its infancy and there’s no standard protocol for communities to use. That’s the first thing we need to change on the local, state and national levels.

We also need to change the conversation about greenhouse gas emissions and what is it that is driving those power plants and truck tailpipes so hard? Eco-Cycle Solution’s new 6-minute video, The Zero Waste-Climate Solution, helps you understand the issue and introduce zero waste into your local climate discussions. And visit the West Coast Climate Forum for a great series of webinars and background reports on climate and materials management.

The escalating climate crisis is enough to make a person feel overwhelmed and helpless–but for waste management professionals it is also an opportunity to be part of the solution by recreating our industry into a “resource management” industry. It’s time that we sit at the grown-ups table in the fight against climate change. Zero Waste offers fast, cost-effective, ready-to-implement solutions to help reducing greenhouse gases quickly and in large numbers. The world needs to hear our good news stories and consumption-based accounting will help us tell it.

Eric Lombardi is the executive director of Eco-Cycle International and has had a long career in community resource conservation, social enterprise development and non-profit (NGO) organizational management since 1980.

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