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Carbon Will Be the New Currency—Is Our Industry Ready? (Commentary)

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It’s always tempting to pen an article in early January filled with predictions for the coming year, but after what we all collectively endured in 2020 and thus far in 2021, my hat goes off to anyone who has the confidence to make predictions again. Looking back at the past four years in recycling, we’ve faced unprecedented market turbulence following China’s ban on recycling exports, and now extraordinary operational and health challenges in a global pandemic, all set amid the national backdrop of escalating racial tensions and mounting polarization in politics.

Suffice it to say, “normal” is long gone.

There is no doubt we are in a period of sweeping change, both nationally and as an industry. While we do not know where 2021 will take us (it’s been a pretty wild ride just in the first week), I can say with a high degree of confidence that in the coming years, the U.S. will see a new national focus on climate change as one of the paramount issues of our time. The recycling industry has so far struggled to fully integrate ourselves in the climate movement as a key partner and a tremendous opportunity to help reduce carbon emissions. We need communities and governments at all levels to understand and recognize the climate value of recycling and composting programs so they will be prioritize as climate solutions. Now is the time to change that and here are some strategies to do so.

HOW TO INTEGRATE RECYCLING, COMPOSTING AND WASTE REDUCTION INTO THE CLIMATE MOVEMENT

  • Change the narrative beyond landfills.  Communities, businesses and residents understand the need for climate solutions, but as long as our prominent narrative is still that "recycling and composting save landfill space," recycling and composting programs will not get the emphasis needed to realize their potential.
  • Champion as a proven solution. Recycling and composting are already making a big impact on reducing our carbon footprint nationwide. By recycling and composting 94 million tons of materials in 2019, the U.S. saved over 193 MMTCO2e. This is comparable to taking almost 42 million cars off the road in a year. That is a lot!! Yet we do not do enough at the local, state or national level to champion our strong contribution to reducing emissions. I urge you to make sure you emphasize the role of recycling as a climate solution in each and every conversation you have with elected officials, policymakers and the general public, and to publish and promote your local GHG reductions from recycling (you can calculate them using the WARM model).
  • Explain and promote how it works. There are three main ways that recycling and composting can reduce climate change:
    • Save energy and GHG emissions by using recycled materials to make new products. On average, recycling one ton of materials saves three tons of carbon emissions.  
    • Reduce methane emissions from landfills, which results when organic matter is landfilled. Methane is a powerful, short-lived climate pollutant and priority for short-term reduction (84 times more powerful than CO2).
    • Pull carbon out of the atmosphere by applying finished compost to our soils to increase their ability to sequester carbon. Carbon sequestration through composting is one of most promising opportunities to draw down emissions and reduce our current atmospheric CO2 levels.
  • Scaling a circular economy as a climate solution. Closed Loop Partners and Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) are both making strong cases for a circular economy as a climate solution. EMF found a circular economy can provide 45% of the emissions reductions needed to reach our climate targets. In addition, ICLEI, one of the leading networks of local governments for sustainability, recognizes recycling and composting as some of the most cost-effective actions local governments can take to reduce community GHG emissions.
  • Broaden beyond waste to address consumption. The carbon footprint of some of the world’s biggest cities is 60 percent larger than previously estimated when all the products and services a city consumes are included. These emissions are often excluded from GHG inventories because they occur outside of city or state boundaries. In doing so, we are gravely underestimating the potential to reduce GHG emissions through cost-effective programs to increase recycling and composting, decrease wasted food, and buy less. At a national level, the EPA found 42% of our climate impact in the U.S. comes from our stuff and our food — how we make it, haul it, use it and throw it away.
  • Change the conversation on plastics. Plastic pollution has been viewed largely as a litter and waste management issue, but plastics are made almost entirely from fossil fuels, a leading cause of climate change. The plastics industry could account for 20% of the world’s total oil consumption by 2050. This means reducing plastic production is a key strategy to reduce fossil fuel use.
  • More than just climate: Recycling, composting and circularity all have ancillary benefits in terms of creating local jobs, reducing resource use, reducing air and water pollution, etc. in addition to the climate benefits. We are a win-win solution.

Graphic caption: The city of Portland makes it easy for residents to recognize recycling and consumption as a critical part of the climate solution. (Source: www.portlandclimateaction.org)

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ROLE FOR NEW EPA LEADERSHIP

The EPA has done some good work around consumption and climate in the past, including the WARM model, the 2009 report “Opportunities to Reduce Greenhouse Gases through Sustainable Materials Management and Land Management Practices,” and the West Coast Climate and Materials Forum. Good first steps for the new administration would be to update the 2009 report on the impacts of consumption on climate to strengthen the connection, and to develop tools to quantify consumption-related emissions in local, state and national climate action plans so we recognize that we are missing big opportunities to reduce emissions.

Further, the EPA’s draft National Recycling Strategy should not be a stand-alone document. At the local, state and national levels, we need to stop this siloed approach to treating recycling as its own thing separate from climate or environmental justice. They are all interconnected and dependent upon each other for success.

What I like most about recycling, composting and waste reduction as climate solutions is that they are tangible, meaningful everyday actions that are accessible to everyone. Many Americans feel powerless against climate change, given the enormous infrastructure and policy changes needed to transform our electricity sources, our transportation systems and our extraction industries. Recycling doesn’t replace this work; it compliments it, and it gives us all a clear thing we can do each day.

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Kate Bailey is the Policy & Research Director at Eco-Cycle, one of the oldest recycling organizations in the U.S.

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