Recycling Combats Climate Change

September 1, 2000

4 Min Read
Recycling Combats Climate Change

Sonya Newenhouse

Americans may be able to help lessen the effects of climate change by changing their recycling habits. Alexandria, Va.-based National Recycling Council (NRC) is helping organizations integrate waste reduction and recycling into regional climate change action plans by providing a forum for online discussions and by matching recycling professionals with climate change planners.

Through online discussions, the NRC brings recycling and other waste management professionals together to share information about the link between climate change and solid waste. In addition, NRC's Climate Change Peer Match Project allows recycling professionals share climate change information. The peer match program is designed to raise awareness and assist government officials with incorporating waste reduction and reuse into action plans.

Climate change refers to the projected increase in global temperature due to higher greenhouse gases concentrations in the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases occur naturally, but are increasing at an unprecedented rates due to human activities. According to the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA), Washington, D.C., climate change website, the "global mean surface temperatures have increased 0.6 degrees to 1.2 degrees Fahrenheit since the late 19th century. The 20th century's 10 warmest years all occurred within the last 15 years."

Carbon dioxide and methane are the two predominant greenhouse gases attributable to solid waste activities. Carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere when fossil fuel-derived waste is incinerated, and methane is the result of waste decomposing in landfills. While energy recovery from incineration and landfills can offset some of these emissions, both carbon dioxide and methane emissions from disposal can be avoided through source reduction and recycling.

Several organizations already have benefited from these online exchanges. For example, the Center for Ecological Technology (CET) in Northampton, Mass., has completed a three-year project to build a market-based system to compost commercial food waste. Though the online discussion, CET and was able to directly share their findings with an interested audience.

In CET's report, more than 70 businesses participated and diverted approximately 22,000 tons of organic material. The food waste was transported to seven composting farms and reduced approximately 5,700 metric tons of carbon equivalent (MTCE). To calculate these reduced greenhouse gas emissions, CET used the EPA's Waste Reduction Model (WARM), which is a computer model that calculates the impacts of various waste management options on greenhouse gas emissions.

In 1990, the New Jersey the Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP), established a greenhouse gas emissions reduction goal of 3.5 percent by 2005, which translates into a 20.5 million MTCE. To reach their goal, NJDEP has completed a Sustainability-Greenhouse Gas Action Plan that links recycling with energy conservation and greenhouse gas emission reductions. By establishing an inventory of greenhouse gas emissions sources and sectors that include residential, commercial, industrial, agricultural, government and transportation, NJDEP found that reductions easily could be made if residents recycled more plastic. Mike Winka, who manages the greenhouse gas initiative for NJDEP states that "Reducing global emissions is as simple as putting recyclables on the curb."

Also, NJDEP found that landfills account for 72 percent of methane emissions in the state, which means that installing methane collection systems at landfills would reduce greenhouse gas emissions substantially.

With assistance from the Tellus Institute, Boston, Mass., Iowa also has completed a Climate Change Action Plan (CCAP). The CCAP discloses 16 options to reduce greenhouse gas emissions between 1990 and 2010, such as stricter vehicle emission efficiency and reforestation.

Waste diversion practices also play a significant role. The Tellus Institute found that the state would reduce carbon emissions by 42 percent if it achieved a 50 percent waste diversion goal. Iowa will divert waste through efforts as simple as increasing the number of aluminum cans recycled.

In addition to the NRC efforts, other organizations are researching the link between climate change and waste management. For example, the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI), Berkeley, Calif., has published "Solid Waste Management and the Greenhouse Effect." This report provides climate change explanations and data such as for every ton of aluminum recycled, 13 tons of carbon dioxide is prevented from emitting.

Also, the EPA has published "Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Management of Selected Materials in Municipal Solid Waste," which provides an analytical framework for estimating greenhouse gas emissions from waste management operations. This report and other EPA climate change information can be found at www.

The next round of online discussions will be held on September 28 and October 26. In September, the discussion will focus on how organizations are documenting recycling's and source reduction's impact on greenhouse gas. October's online forum will discuss emerging issues on solid waste and climate.

Additionally, a satellite conference, "Why Waste a Cool Planet: MSW Solutions for Global Climate Change" will be held on December 7, 2000 to help educate businesses and government about the relationship between solid waste management and climate change. The conference will be hosted by the EPA. Interested viewers should visit mswclimate to download registration information.

For more information about the NRC's projects contact the organization at

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