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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Observations from and about the Sustainable Operations Summit

Posted on June 25, 2008. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , |

Campus sustainability professionals are barraged by marketing. Each day, I receive several calls or mailings from sales representatives interested in doing business with Rice University, offering everything from energy-efficient lighting fixtures to carbon offsets to the latest in air filters. When a profile of Rice’s campus sustainability efforts was published in our alumni magazine in early 2007, I quickly learned which of my fellow graduates now held sales positions. Sustainability is hot, and companies see campus greening as a way to make money. Let us be thankful for that.

I attend several conferences every year, and I have come to expect marketing to occur at these events in one of two ways. First, a company co-sponsors the event, and in exchange their logo is featured in the conference program, and perhaps they are allowed to set-up a booth for passers-by or even to address the attendees for about two minutes in the gauzy marketing-lite style that is now permissible on PBS. Or second, the conference features a vendor expo that is of course voluntary for attendees, with the understanding that once you step foot inside the expo hall, you are fair game for the marketing sharks. Swim at your own risk.

A few weeks ago, I attended the Sustainable Operations Summit in Monterey, California, a conference with an unusual – some might say controversial – format that turns the traditional models for marketing at conferences upside-down. Yes, there are the familiar keynote speakers, session tracks, and panel discussions that we all recognize. And yes, there is also an expo hall, featuring booths from about 30 vendors representing a wide range of product offerings. However, the expo hall is part of the conference program itself, and entering that hall is not voluntary. Rather, each attendee is scheduled for a series of half-hour, one-on-one, “mandatory” meetings with vendors as part of the overall conference experience.

During the registration process for the Summit, the attendee is asked to select a minimum of ten vendors from a list of about thirty with whom they would like to meet, and similarly vendors are allowed to review the registration rolls and set meetings with particular attendees. When attendees arrive at the Summit, they receive an itinerary that includes the conference schedule and as well as their assigned vendor sessions. The first time I attended the Summit, I had about eight vendor meetings interspersed throughout the two-day event. This time, thirteen. The vendors of course pay mightily for this privilege, and these fees enable the conference organizers to pay for A-list speakers like Al Gore and Paul Hawken while keeping the all-inclusive registration, lodging, food, and golf (not me!) package at an arguably inexpensive rate for attendees.

With the prospect of spending six and a half hours in a two-day span meeting with corporate sales representatives, I found myself questioning my comfort level in participating in this format, and wondering more broadly why it is that I go to conferences in general, and what it is that I hope to gain when I attend a conference. Perhaps by answering these questions, I reasoned, I could properly assess the value in my attending the Sustainable Operations Summit.

So why do I go to conferences? We each have our own reasons, of course. My primary motivations are to:

  • Gather insights and otherwise learn from others
  • Be inspired
  • Present my work
  • Network with my peers

I personally feel that if I leave a conference with a potentially actionable great idea, then my time was well spent. So what great idea did I take with me from the Sustainable Operations Summit? Actually, I’m happy to report that there were two.

First, Wendell Brase from the University of California at Irvine (UCI) presented several strategies for reducing energy consumption in laboratory buildings. One that particularly struck me as an excellent idea is rethinking discharge velocities from the exhaust stacks on top of the building. The typical value is 3,000 feet per minute, which is required to overcoming cross-winds so that potential contaminants in the building’s exhaust stream are thrown high enough into the air so that they won’t blow back down onto people in the immediate vicinity. But why maintain this velocity as a constant? UCI is experimenting with using appropriate controls systems to lower the velocity if the crosswinds are minimal, or if the exhaust stream is free of contaminants. The potential energy savings could be significant.

Second, I have found a potential new direction for our construction waste management initiatives. Over the past 18 months or so, Rice has been actively recycling construction and demolition waste from many of our construction waste sites. To our surprise and delight, we are seeing diversion rates of over 80% – and in one instance over 90% – on several of our projects [I will cover this in greater detail in another posting]. But as I realized at the Summit, regardless of whether these construction materials are recycled or end-up in the landfill, Rice bought the materials for the purposes of constructing a building. We are paying for waste, possibly even 20% more than we need to be paying for our building materials. What this suggests then is that we need to work directly with our design and construction teams up-front on a program of source reduction, which should lower the overall cost of materials for a project. What’s interesting to note is that this idea came not from a speaker or a peer, but from a vendor during one of my “mandatory” meetings.

So under what circumstances can these vendor meetings be productive for campus sustainability professionals who otherwise disdain hardball sales tactics? I advise the following steps:

  • First, set the tone. Learning about new products is an important part of our jobs, and the chance to meet directly with a vendor to discuss the latest in photovoltaics or water-efficient toilets or green cleaning supplies has real value. But you have to run the meeting, or at least set the tone about your expectations. If you don’t, you’re likely to get the full sales pitch, and if that’s not what you want, then you’re going to walk-away dissatisfied with the experience.
  • Second, have a conversation. Some people do want to start from square one and hear a vendor’s pitch, so that communication is going to be primarily one-way, at least for a while. But chances are you already know something about what the vendor has to offer. So rather than sit back while they turn-on the powerpoint or flip to page one of their sales brochure’s statement of the company’s environmental values, you should take the initiative and ask what’s cooking in the R&D lab. Can they give you a peek at what they plan to feature at NeoCon or GreenBuild? I’ve found that this helps to orient the meeting towards a real discussion.
  • Third, provide feedback. Use the opportunity to tell vendors what you’re looking for from their industry, and even their company. If you’re meeting with a carpet company, and if your hope is that they take back and recycle all carpet – even their competitor’s brands – that is removed as part of a new installation of their product in your facilities, and that they should do this free of charge, then tell them that. If you expect paper products manufacturers to use only 100% post-consumer content recycled fibers without chlorine bleaching, then tell them that. These are people who have the ability to influence product and service development within their companies, and they care about what the customer thinks. They are looking for ideas too!

I found that by following this approach, I was able to turn what otherwise could have been an uncomfortable – and even questionable – use of my time into a productive activity. Still, we all have our limits, and 13 sessions of corporate one-on-ones was a bit beyond my limit. So in the spirit of my third suggestion above, that is exactly the feedback that I provided to the conference organizers.

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    Insights and observations on the campus greening movement, from the perspective of a campus sustainability professional

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