Let’s Talk Trash
Each week in this column we’ll attempt to answer a local recycling or conservation question. This week we tackle a big one: Does recycling really make a positive difference for the environment?You may guess the answer – yes. In the big picture, recycling a product instead of burying it in a landfill keeps the embodied energy already in that product in use. And making new products out of old ones requires less energy, water and raw material input.But with many environmental issues these days, the issue is complex and there are qualifiers and distinctions in the equation.Both the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Recycling Coalition have conducted extensive studies on the life cycles of various recyclable materials. The results of these studies are a series of calculations that create an “environmental footprint” of recycling.For example, in 2005, Summit County residents recycled 7,225 tons of material and buried 54,852 tons of material in the local landfill. This results in a waste diversion rate of about 12 percent – a long way to zero waste, but a great start. Just as important as landfill savings are the global impacts of local recycling efforts. By returning 7,225 tons of various materials to the manufacturing loop in 2005, Summit County reduced 2,411 metric tons of carbon emissions (the equivalent of removing 1,819 passenger cars off the road); conserved 48,005 million BTU of energy (enough to power 456 households of four for one year); reduced 3,680 tons of airborne emissions and 14 tons of waterborne wastes; and left 9,579 40-foot douglas fir trees standing.The environmental benefits detailed above take into account the environmental impacts of manufacturing new products out of old ones, including the energy and raw material inputs. However, the environmental benefits vary widely by material. For example, the energy savings from recycling aluminum are about six times greater than that of plastic.Then, there are the environmental impacts of transportation to consider in recycling’s big picture. Glass is heavy and requires more energy to transport than paper, making local markets critical to ensuring environmental benefits. And what about plastic? Even though it’s lightweight, the environmental benefits of shipping any amount of plastic to China for recycling are unclear. Unfortunately, there are no conclusive studies or models for local communities to refer to with regards to environmental costs of transportation, only common sense.But, fortunately, the Summit County Recycling program managers have considered the environmental impacts of transportation costs in their selection of end markets. They have made a commitment to keep materials collected in Summit County, from electronics to plastics to paper, in the US to be recycled and they seek local markets first.You can feel good when you toss that bottle in the recycling bin in Summit County. You are making a positive difference locally and globally. To go the next step, shop for recyclability and purchase recycled-content products when you can. Both of these steps support growth in recycling infrastructure, an important component of any sustainable society.Carly Wier is the executive director of High Country Conservation Center, a non-profit 501(c)3 organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. This weekly column is dedicated to exploring local waste and conservation issues. Submit questions to firstname.lastname@example.org with Trash Talk as the subject or by snail mail to High Country Conservation Center, P.O. Box 4506, Frisco, CO 80443.
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