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Source Reduction and Recycling:
A Role in Preventing Global Climate Change

Recycling Grows Green Logo

Click here to view a printable version of the Source Reduction and Recycling: A Role in Preventing Global Climate Change (8 pp, 564KB, About PDF) fact sheet.

More Links and Resources

Source Reduction and Recycling: A Role in Preventing Global Climate Change Fact Sheet (PDF) (8 pp, 564KB, About PDF)

Climate Change and Recycling Links and Resources

Click below for links to economic and community resources:

The Economics of Recycling in the Southeast: Understanding the Whole Picture

Recycling: A Component of Strong Community Development

Recycling has many direct benefits (e.g., resource conservation); however, the indirect benefits of recycling, while often overlooked, are also significant. Indirect benefits of recycling can range from creating jobs and tax revenues to make communities stronger and more appealing to residents. The production, transport, and disposal of municipal solid waste leads to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. GHG emissions trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere. The release of these gases occurs at every stage of a product’s life-cycle, thus contributing to climate change. However, certain measures can be taken to reduce the potentially negative effects on human health and the environment due to changes in the Earth’s atmosphere.

EPA estimates that cutting back waste generation to a level consistent with 1990 could reduce GHG emissions by 11.6 million metric tons of carbon equivalent (MMTCE). Increasing our national recycling rate from its current level of 28% to 35% would reduce GHG emissions by 9.8 MMTCE, compared to landfilling the same material. Together, these levels of waste prevention and recycling would slash emissions by more than 21.4 MMTCE–an amount equal to the average annual emissions from the electricity consumption of roughly 11 million households.

Carbon Equivalents

GHG emissions in the U.S. are most commonly expressed as 'million metric tons of carbon equivalents' (MMTCE). Global warming potentials are used to convert GHG to carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalents. CO2 equivalents can then be converted to carbon equivalents by multiplying the CO2 equivalents by 12/44 (the ratio of the molecular weight of carbon to CO2).

Recycling and Climate Change Topics

The Link Between Solid Waste and GHG Emissions

Product Life-Cycles Diagram

The Role of Recycling

The Role of Source Reduction

What Are Other Communities Doing to Curb Their Impact on Climate Change?

How Can State and Local Governments Get Started with Waste Reduction?

The Link Between Solid Waste and GHG Emissions

The disposal of solid waste produces GHG emissions in a number of ways.

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Product Life-Cycles Diagram

Image showing the  life cycle of PET plastic bottle

The diagram above illustrates the four main stages of product life cycles, all of which provide opportunities for GHG emissions and/or offsets.  These stages are raw material acquisition, manufacturing, recycling, and waste management.

Energy and GHG Emissions Facts

CO2 and Discarded Packaging

In 2005, EPA’s Waste Reduction Model (WARM) showed that GHGs equivalent to 99 million metric tons of CO2 were released as a consequence of discarded packaging alone. It would take almost 83 million acres of pine or fir forest one year to store that much carbon.

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The Role of Recycling:

How Can My Community Reduce GHGs Through Recycling?

When a material is recycled, it is used in place of virgin inputs in the manufacturing process, rather than being disposed and managed as waste. Collecting and processing secondary materials, manufacturing recycled-content products, and then purchasing recycled products creates a loop that ensures the overall success and value of recycling and thus leads to an overall success of reducing GHG emissions. Here are some ways to make a difference in your community through recycling efforts:

What about composting yard debris and food residuals?

Another form of recycling is composting. Composting is the controlled biological decomposition of organic matter, such as food and yard wastes, into humus, a soil-like material. Composting is nature's way of recycling organic waste into new soil, which can be used in vegetable and flower gardens, landscaping, and many other applications. In 2006, data on U.S. Municipal Solid Waste generation indicate that of the 251 million tons of solid waste generated, 12.9% is yard waste and 12.4% is food residuals. A large portion of food waste is generated from food processing, pre- and post-consumer utilization, and institutional locations (i.e., hospitals, universities, etc.).

When yard waste and food residuals are composted rather than landfilled the amount of GHG emissions are reduced since composting is a biological process of decomposition which produces CO2 both during the composting process and after the compost is added to the soil. Because this CO2 is naturally-occurring and returns to the atmosphere through photosynthesis, it is not counted as a GHG in the Inventory of U.S. GHG Emissions and Sinks.

EPA. 2005. Inventory of U.S. GHG Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2003, Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Policy, Planning and Evaluation, Washington, DC. EPA 430-R-05-003.

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The Role of Source Reduction:

How Can My Community Reduce GHG Through Source Reduction?

Source Reduction

Source reduction is possible in several industries. Georgia-based Mohawk Industries uses one-third of all polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic, including beverage containers recovered in North America in the production of their carpet.

Source reduction is the most effective way to prevent waste. When a material is source reduced, GHG emissions associated with producing the material and the management of post-consumer waste is avoided.  Source reduction can be achieved using various practices, such as:

By educating the community about the opportunities for avoiding unnecessary material waste, great energy and environmental benefits can occur. One way to do this is through the development of by-product synergy partnerships. By-product synergy occurs when one entity utilizes certain waste materials in their production practices that another entity typically discards. Therefore, a loop is formed and excess materials are prevented from entering the waste stream.

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What Are Other Communities Doing to Curb Their Impact on Climate Change?

U.S. Conference of Mayors' Climate Change Protection Agreement

Reducing GHG emissions is becoming an increasingly important issue for local government. As of June 2008, 850 mayors representing nearly 80 million Americans signed The U.S. Conference of Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement, in which supporting mayors pledge to reduce CO2 emissions by 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. This agreement is the only climate protection agreement of its kind among U.S. elected officials. Participating cities commit to:

Recycling programs can play a role in helping meet GHG emission reduction goals by reducing emissions generated due to waste disposal, extraction of raw materials, and manufacturing of new products.

State data from Georgia show that during 2004, 526 thousand metric tons of CO2 equivalent were emitted as a consequence of landfilling, while 7.2 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent were prevented from being released due to recycling.

In Kentucky, the first recycling grant was awarded in June 2007 for a total of $2.3 million.  With the influx of the recycling grants, rural areas in Kentucky that do not have recycling opportunities will have the funding to develop a recycling program to educate their citizens.  Increased participation in recycling will inevitably serve to further reduce GHG emissions.

In January 2008, the State of North Carolina banned the disposal of beverage containers by certain permit holders. Due to a high demand for products made from recycled glass and ready markets both in the state and nearby, certain restaurant and bar establishments must ensure that valuable containers are not discarded. The ban will benefit glass, aluminum, and plastic suppliers. Not only will energy be saved by avoiding the extraction of raw materials for production, but the reduction of valuable commodities from the waste stream will prevent the release of GHGs into the atmosphere.

South Carolina No. 1 in Tires

According to the Rubber Manufacturer’s Association in their report, US Scrap Tire Markets 2005, South Carolina is the No. 1 state for tire recycling in the country. The 8 million tires that the state annually sends to recycling markets result in a GHG savings equivalent to removing 71,080 cars from the road. In addition to this accomplishment, the State set up The Waste Tire Grant Program. The program is funded by a $2 fee placed on new tires. Fifty cents of that fee goes to the South Carolina Department of Health, and Environmental Control (DHEC) and is used for waste tire recycling grants for counties or local governments.

In 2006, Mississippi recycled over nine million waste tires, representing the largest amount of tires ever processed in the state. All 82 counties in Mississippi offer waste tire collection centers for residents. The Rubber Manufacturers Association (RMA) ranked Mississippi 5th nationally in state performance for scrap tire programs in the 2005 Edition of Scrap Tire Markets in the United States.

According to the EPA, in 2006, Americans recycled 82 million tons of solid waste (32.5 percent of waste generated), providing an annual benefit of 49.7 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent of reduced emissions, or the equivalent to taking 39.4 million passenger cars off the road.

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How Can State and Local Governments Get Started With Waste Reduction?

States are developing and implementing a range of programs and strategies that are cost-effectively reducing GHGs, improving air quality, enhancing economic development, and creating jobs. Local governments across the U.S. are implementing energy efficiency and renewable energy actions that can have multiple benefits, including saving money, creating jobs, promoting sustainable growth and reducing GHGs and air pollution.

So, how do you get started?

Life Cycle Inventory

A studyExit EPA Disclaimer conducted by Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to assess packaging options for shipping soft goods in e-commerce and catalog sales, utilized a Life Cycle Inventory Analysis to evaluate natural resource use and environmental burdens from production to disposal for 26 different packaging options for non-breakable items. The study found that minimizing box size and total fiber content results in the most significant environmental savings.

Every Other Week Collection

Although you may think that every other week collection of recycling saves energy by reducing fossil fuel combustion from trucks by 50%, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality found that the consequences of this collection method actually outweighs the benefits. Less frequent collection leads to 9 to 20% fewer participants, fewer recyclables, and greater time for contamination of recycled materials.

Florida Governor Signs Executive Order on Climate Change

According to the Governor’s Action Team on Energy and Climate Change, in 2005, approximately 15 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent was released from Florida’s municipal solid waste (MSW) landfills. By recycling common MSW materials, the amount of gases released from landfills can be greatly reduced. On July 12 and 13, 2007, Governor Charlie Crist hosted “Serve to Preserve: A Florida Summit on Global Climate Change.” The summit brought together leaders of business, government, science and advocacy to examine the risks of global climate change to Florida, and the nation, and to explore the business opportunities that can come from an aggressive response to climate change. At the conclusion of the summit, Governor Crist signed three Executive Orders and two international partnership agreements, adding Florida to the states actively working to address global climate change. For more, visit the Governor's Action Team on Energy and Climate Change - State of FloridaExit EPA Disclaimer.

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