Putting Recycling in Perspective (A Perspective on Recycling)

Posted on July 10, 2008. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , |

I spend a lot of time in the classroom. Often when I’m making my first appearance in front of a particular class, I will begin by asking the students to “grade” Rice’s sustainability efforts. After I’ve tallied the votes for the various letter grades, I will then ask for comments for why people voted as they did. The replies are almost always about the same thing: recycling.

I love recycling. I’ll readily confess that I derive perhaps a bit too much satisfaction out of recycling oddball items like worn-out athletic shoes and 80’s-vintage personal computers. My garage is full of miscellaneous items waiting to be recycled. For those of us who were kids in the 70s, how could you not feel good about recycling after watching all of those Keep America Beautiful commercials with “the crying Indian” (see here and here)? Certainly a campus solid waste recycling program needs to be a component of a university’s overall bundle of sustainability initiatives, but if students are viewing recycling as the most critical initiative, is it time that we put recycling into perspective?

Suppose for the sake of discussion that we believe global warming to be our greatest environmental challenge. Let’s then assume that Rice neither recycled nor composted a single pound of waste, and instead all of that material was trucked to a landfill without methane capture. The result would be that our solid waste would account for about 2,000 metric tons (“tonnes”) of CO2-equivalent emissions each year, which sounds like a lot but is actually just below 2% of the university’s total annual greenhouse gas emissions for 2006, far behind energy consumption (first) and transportation (a distant second). Under this scenario, if we recycled or composted everything, then we’d avoid emitting those 2,000 tonnes, which is the combined annual carbon footprint of about 150 of our students.

However, our solid waste goes to a landfill with methane capture used for electricity generation. Even if we didn’t recycle or compost anything, this switch to a better landfill reduces the greenhouse gas impact of our solid waste by 85%, down to about 300 tonnes. At best, if we recycled or composted everything, we’d avoid emitting those 300 tonnes, which is the combined annual carbon footprint of about 22 of our students.

We do of course recycle and we compost much of our landscaping waste too. In total, our institutional solid waste stream including recycling and composting accounts for just 0.25% of our total campus greenhouse gas emissions. If contribution to global warming is your yardstick for measuring the success of a university’s sustainability initiatives, then you’ve lost your sense of scale if you grade that program based on recycling.

Looking beyond just global warming impact to total ecological footprint, we see a similar conclusion: it’s all about energy. The report Ecological Footprint of Nations: 2005 Update shows that more than 90% of the ecological footprint of the United States is related to the production and consumption of energy.

Some of you might be gritting your teeth at this point because I’ve not discussed the upstream impacts and benefits of recycling, which are much more significant than the downstream effects, and I’ve also treated recycling as if there’s no connection to energy consumption. Fair enough. For years recycling has been represented as a necessary action due to vanishing landfill capacity, which is an argument that misses the big picture. The reason to recycle is because of the upstream benefits. In our economy, only 4% of the materials that we extract end up in actual products, and the other 96% are already waste by the time we’ve even purchased the products.[1] Then most products we buy are thrown away almost immediately, meaning perhaps just 1-2% of the materials in our economy end up in goods of long-term value. The rest is waste. By recycling, we can eliminate a considerable share of this “upstream” environmental impact. Forget the landfill; recycling is all about preventing the future extraction and manufacturing of materials, the consumption of energy to drive these processes, and the associated environmental consequences of each. This is especially true for the recycling of metals.

What does recycling mean from an energy perspective? According to the US Green Building Council, the heating, cooling, and powering of buildings accounts for 39% of our national energy consumption, followed by the fueling of the transportation sector at 32%, and finally industry at 29%. The energy benefits of recycling are most likely to be realized within the industry category. While I have no sense of the exact amount of such benefits, it certainly would not exceed the total share of energy consumed by industry. Again, this simply helps us to see recycling in a proper scale.

This brings us back to the classroom. Despite the overwhelming number of responses concerning recycling, there is always at least one student who comments that our buildings are over-cooled, and that student is the one on the right track. Another might then ask where our energy comes from, and that is critically important, but it’s not a question that I frequently hear.

Yes, there are numerous environmental benefits to recycling, and beyond just that, it’s conceptually representative of the kind of closed-loop materials economy that we need to be moving towards. There is genuine value in people participating in such a system in a reflexive and visible way. However, more importantly, that closed-loop economy needs to be powered by clean, renewable, affordable energy. So is recycling an important part of a campus sustainability program? Yes. Should it be the primary measure by which a campus sustainability program is judged? Absolutely not.


[1] Data obtained in personal communication with Professor Robert Ayres in 2005. See his work in Frontiers of Environmental Economics, edited by Folmer, Gabel, Gerking and Rose (Elgar, 2001).

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