Zero Waste and Climate Change

Zero Waste, Recycling and Climate Change

Bill Sheehan, Ph.D.
GrassRoots Recycling Network
October, 2000

Save Energy | Save Forests | Landfills, Incinerators and Composting | Take Action

Climate ChangeHigh levels of energy and materials consumption in industrial countries are the driving force behind the decline in virtually all major life support systems on Planet Earth. Over the last decade an increasing number of scientists and other thoughtful people have come to conclude that modern levels of materials and energy consumption are having a destabilizing influence on the world's atmosphere.

Energy consumption contributes directly to climate change by adding carbon-based molecules to the atmosphere in excess of naturally occurring amounts. Carbon molecules, primarily carbon dioxide from burning petroleum products, trap radiant heat and keep it from escaping from the Earth's atmosphere. The resulting warming of the air is changing our global climate.

Materials consumption contributes indirectly to climate change because it requires energy to mine, extract, harvest, process, and transport raw materials, and more energy to manufacture, transport and, after use, dispose of products.

The United States consumed 30 percent of the materials produced globally in 1995, while it accounted for less than 5 percent of the world's population.[1] Of all the materials used in products, only 1 percent is used in products 'durable' enough to still be in use six months later, according to industrial ecologist Robert Ayres. This wasteful consumption of materials wreaks havoc on our land and water resources. What’s seldom appreciated is that it also wreaks havoc on our atmosphere and contributes to climate change. Waste prevention and recycling are critical to stopping climate change.

A growing international Zero Waste Movement is calling for radical resource efficiency and eliminating rather than managing waste – strategies that have major benefits for slowing climate change. There are zero emission cars and zero accident worksites; Zero Waste is a goal for how we should responsibly manage materials and the energy required to make them. Zero Waste is a 'whole system' approach to resource management that maximizes recycling, minimizes waste, reduces consumption and ensures that products are made to be reused, repaired or recycled back into nature or the marketplace. As Jeffrey Hollender, President of Seventh Generation puts it, “Zero Waste is the mother of environmental no-brainers.”[2] For suggestions on how to get involved with the Zero Waste movement, read the section below, Take Action

Zero Waste systems – including waste prevention and recycling -- reduce greenhouse gases by:

  1. Saving energy – especially by reducing energy consumption associated with extracting, processing and transporting ‘virgin’ raw materials manufacturing with recycled materials uses less energy overall compared with manufacturing using virgin materials;
  2. Increasing carbon uptake by forests (recycled paper, for example, leaves more trees standing so they can breathe in our carbon dioxide); and
  3. Reducing and eventually eliminating the need for landfills (which release methane) and incinerators (which waste energy relative to recycling and reuse).

1. Recycling, Waste Prevention and Product Redesign Save Energy top
Wasting materials causes massive amounts of energy to be used to extract and manufacture natural resource replacement materials. Reducing material use through waste prevention and increasing material efficiency through product redesign have the greatest beneficial impact on climate change. Recycling adds further to greenhouse gas savings by reducing the need for energy-intensive resource extraction.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that by cutting the amount of waste we generate back to 1990 levels, we could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 11.6 million metric tons of carbon equivalent (MTCE), the basic unit of measure for greenhouse gases. Increasing our national recycling rate from its current level of 28 percent to 35 percent would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 9.8 million MTCE, compared to landfilling the same material. Together, these levels of waste prevention and recycling would slash emissions by more than 21.4 million MTCE – an amount equal to the average annual emissions from the electricity consumption of roughly 11 million households. [3]

Manufacturing using recycled rather than virgin material saves substantial energy in virtually every case.[4]

[ image of table: Virgin Materials - virgmat.jpg - locate ]

  • Net carbon emissions are four to five times lower when materials are produced from recycled steel, copper, glass, and paper. They are 40 times lower for aluminum.[5]
  • Making a ton of aluminum cans from its virgin source, bauxite, uses 229 British thermal units (Btus). In contrast, producing cans from recycled aluminum uses only 8 Btus per ton, an energy savings of 96%.[6] Despite this, 45 billion aluminum beer and soft drink cans were wasted in the U.S. in 1998.[7]
  • Likewise, extracting and processing petroleum into common plastic containers (No. 1 ‘PET’ and No. 2 ‘HDPE’) takes four to eight times more energy than making plastics from recycled plastics. Yet the recycling rate for these plastic containers was only 20.2% in 1998.[8]

Of course, energy conservation is just one of the environmental benefits attained by eliminating waste, increasing material efficiency and manufacturing products from recycled rather than virgin materials. As noted by Jeffrey Morris, virgin materials extraction (including drilling, digging, cutting, refining, smelting, and pulping) also: “(1) releases chemical substances, carbon dioxide, waste heat and processing refuse into air and water and onto land; (2) impairs the health of people exposed to polluting chemical releases; (3) dislocates and destroys habitat for a wide variety of non-human creatures and organisms; (4) diminishes productivity in natural resource industries that depend on healthy species and ecosystems; (5) impairs ecological functions and biological diversity in ecosystems; and (6) alters the sights, sounds, smells and feelings humans enjoyed in many previously pristine, natural places."[9] Such consequences create an important difference between recycled material– and virgin material–based systems that is not adequately captured by life-cycle inventories.

2. Recycling, Reducing Paper and Wood Use Save Forests that Suck Up Carbon from the Atmosphere top
Recycling a ton of paper saves about 24 trees, which absorb 250 pounds of carbon dioxide from the air each year, reducing the global greenhouse effect.[9a] Trees take carbon from the atmosphere and store it in their tissues for long periods.

In the United States, the amount of forest land (33 percent of total land surface area) has remained fairly constant during the last several decades. Intensive tree farming practices and regeneration of previously cleared forest areas (particularly in the East) have offset tree harvesting and urban sprawl into forested area, resulting in an annual net uptake (i.e., sequestration) of carbon.[10]

While the net increase in tree biomass in the United States is good news for climate change, it is not necessarily good news for biodiversity or other aspects of environmental quality. That’s because the dominant trend in forestry today is harvesting by clear-cutting and conversion of ecologically complex forests to single-species, single-aged tree farms. E.O. Wilson, a Harvard biologist and Pulitzer Prize winner, estimates that a pine plantation contains 90 to 95 percent fewer species than the forest that preceded it. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that pine plantations now make up 36 percent of all pine stands in the South and within 20 years will make up 70 percent.[11]

More importantly, waste prevention and recycling reduce greenhouse gases by saving trees that take up carbon dioxide. Protecting and restoring diverse forests requires addressing the staggering waste of forest products. Consider:

  • The U.S. sends more paper to landfills and incinerators than all of China even uses, despite its being the world's second largest consumer.[12]
  • While the timber industry touts advances in paper recycling, unsustainable paper wasting rates are seldom mentioned: 58.3% of all paper and paperboard is dumped in the landfill or burned in incinerators.[13]
  • Paper and wood account for almost half of all waste that goes to landfills and incinerators. Forest products (paper and wood) constitute 38.3% by weight of ‘municipal solid waste’ and 51.9 percent by weight of all products (i.e., excluding food scraps and yard trimmings) sent to municipal waste facilities.[14]
  • Wasted paper alone constitutes 48 percent of the greenhouse gases emitted during the production of products that wind up in a ton of 'municipal waste' sent to landfill, and 64 percent of commonly diverted waste.[15]

3. Reducing Landfilling and Incineration cuts Methane, Saves Energy top
Landfills and incinerators contribute to global climate change by destroying resources, causing more new resources to extracted (see Section 1 above). We mixed 156 million tons of used products and packaging together in 1997, called it trash, and buried or burned it. Then we extracted from the environment billions of tons of virgin materials to make new products and packaging to replace those we wasted.

We should not just look at weight diverted as a measure of system performance, but rather prioritize recovering for reuse and recycling the materials that otherwise would waste so much if they had to be replaced by products made from scratch from natural resources. For example, some complain, “Why all the talk about soft drink containers when they are only 2 per cent of the waste stream?” Well, aluminum cans only comprise 1.4 percent of the entire waste stream by weight, but they contribute ten times as much -- 14 percent -- of the emissions embodied in a ton of divertible waste sent to landfill.[16] Likewise, as the graph above shows, plastic containers take large amounts of energy to manufacture.

Landfills and Methane Landfills are the top human-caused source of methane: 36 percent of human caused methane releases come from our municipal solid waste landfills, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.[17] Organic materials (derived from living organisms) produce methane in landfills when they decompose without oxygen, under tons of garbage. Methane gas is a potent greenhouse gas, 21 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. A ton of municipal solid waste landfilled produces 123 pounds of methane. [18]

Some landfills operators try to recover methane. This is a voluntary effort at all but the largest landfills. According to one expert, “60% is about the best recovery of methane being reported, and most landfills that collect methane recover somewhere around 40%.” In 1996, only 14 percent of landfill methane was captured (most landfill methane is flared on site, some is used to produce energy). [19]

Landfills vs. Composting Current ‘state of the art’ landfill design aims to entomb garbage and keep it dry forever. Many engineers, and even U.S. EPA, acknowledge that this is impossible, that all landfills will eventually leak and pollute groundwater. Recently, new systems are being developed, called ‘bioreactors,’ to try to capture methane more effectively. By recirculating leachate (garbage juice) and adding water, decomposition rates can be increased, making methane recovery more economical. This also compacts garbage, further increasing the value of remaining landfill space.

From the limited perspective of managing waste, this may seem reasonable. But from a Zero Waste perspective of managing resources, bioreactors make little sense. Over 62 percent of what gets buried in municipal landfills is readily recyclable or compostable organics, including paper, wood, yard trimmings and food scraps.[20] Organic material is needed to replenish our depleted, eroding and artificially-fertilized soils.

Yet when paper, wood, yard trimmings and food scraps are mixed with the myriad toxic products in household and industrial waste, they become too contaminated to apply to soils. The rational solution is to separate clean organics at the source and compost them into soil amendments.

When done properly, both centralized and backyard composting generally result in no net greenhouse emissions, according to U.S. EPA. Somewhat like trees, application of yard trimmings compost to degraded agricultural land results in carbon storage (more so at low rates than at high rates).[21]

Incineration vs. Recycling One might think that burning garbage for energy production would ameliorate global climate change by reducing the need to burn other fuels. There are two serious problems with this notion.

First, any gains in energy are outweighed by the production of toxic emissions and toxic ash, even in 'state-of-the-art' incinerators. Incinerator emissions of acid gases, mercury, dioxins and furans have led to widespread protests in North America, Japan and continental Europe, forcing the closure of plants and the abandonment of plans for new ones. In the U.S., 248 new municipal incinerators have been blocked and the number still in operation has fallen from 170 in 1991 to 119 in 1998. In 1997, 17 percent of U.S. municipal discards was burned (in a relatively few states), 55 percent was landfilled and 28 percent was recycled.

Second, the energy produced by burning garbage is only a quarter of the energy saved by recycling. Recycling used resources has energy impacts, but they are much less than burning those materials. Richard Denison of Environmental Defense examined detailed life-cycle studies and concluded:[22]

  • When all activities entailing energy use are tallied, MSW [municipal solid waste] incineration results in only 28% of the net reduction in energy use realized through residential MSW recycling.
  • Within the waste management system itself, recycling uses somewhat more energy than the other options; system-wide, however, recycling uses the least energy by a large margin.
  • From a system-wide view, recycled production plus recycling collection uses the least energy, considerably less than virgin production plus incineration … This difference is due to the substantial reduction in energy use associated with manufacturing processes that use recycled materials relative to those that use virgin materials.
  • Transportation energy required to ship processed recyclable materials to market (i.e. points of remanufacture) is quite modest, amounting to at most a few percent of manufacturing energy.

Take Action: Getting to Zero top
Implementation of Zero Waste resource management systems is arguably one of the most important steps to the sustainability of the earth’s atmosphere and ecosystems. Zero Waste confronts the whole idea of endless consumption without needing to say so, by enabling even those who are locked into the system to challenge their own behavior in a positive way without immediately threatening it.

The GrassRoots Recycling Network (GRRN) has been spearheading the North American arm of a growing international movement that promotes Zero Waste as essential to reversing current unsustainable resource practices and policies. GRRN is building effective coalitions and partnerships for Zero Waste policies based on government, corporate and individual accountability for waste.

GRRN has identified the following outcomes as essential to move us towards a Zero Waste society: (a) Extended Producer Responsibility for Waste; (b) Consumer Action Against Wasteful Corporations; (c) Deposit Programs; (d) Jobs Through Reuse and Recycling; (e) Incentives for Reducing Trash; (f) Full-Cost Accounting and Life-Cycle Analysis; (g) Minimum Recycled Content; (h) Ending Subsidies for Extracting Virgin Resources; (i) Shifting Taxes from ‘Goods’ to ‘Bads’; (j) National Resource Policy; and (k) Campaign Finance Reform.

Recognizing that the implementation of Zero Waste is a long-term, ambitious goal, a key component to our outreach is to educate other organizations whose work/mission might not be readily identifiable as impacted by Zero Waste. Practical strategies and actions can be taken by all sectors of society in all institutions. GRRN invites all interested parties to join GRRN’s campaigns and share your experiences on our listserve, GreenYes.

Thanks to Arthur Boone for EPA Region 9 and Susan Kinsella of Conservatree for reading commenting on an earlier draft..


U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Climate Change and Waste website

Ozone Action

Center for Environmental Citizenship - Climate Change News

Climate Ark - dedicated to promoting public policy that addresses global climate change through reductions in carbon and other emissions, energy conservation, alternative energy sources and ending deforestation. - forest conservation archives & portal.

Climate Change and Solid Waste Management National Association of Counties

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Greenhouse Gas Emissions From Management of Selected Materials in Municipal Solid Waste, September 1998 [EPA530-R-98-013]

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990 – 1997, April 1999 [EPA 236-R-99-003].

GrassRoots Recycling Network, Wasting and Recycling in the United States 2000, researched by Institute for Local Self-Reliance, March 2000.

Richard A. Denison, "Environmental Life-Cycle Comparisons of Recycling, Landfilling and Incineration," Annual Review of Energy and Environment, 1996.

Ted Williams, "False Forests," Mother Jones, May/June 2000.


[1] John Young, “The coming materials efficiency revolution,” in B.K. fishbein, J.R. Ehrenfeld and J.E. Young, Extended Producer Responsibility: A Materials Policy for the 21st Century, INFORM, Inc

[2] Jeffrey Hollender, "Getting Wasted...A Fresh Look At The State Of The Art Of Recycling," Non-Toxic Times, Vol. 1, No. 9 (June 2000)

[3] EPA Climate Change Website, browsed August 25, 2000

[4] Jeffrey Morris, "Recycling vs. Incineration: An Energy Conservation Analysis," Journal of Hazardous Materials 47 (1996), pp 277-293. (also in 3 issues of the Monthly UnEconomist)

[5] Same as Endnote 3.

[6] GrassRoots Recycling Network, Wasting and Recycling in the United States 2000, researched by Intstitute for Local Self-Reliance, March 2000, page 24

[7] Container Recycling Institute

[8] Same as Endnote 7.

[9] Jeffrey Morris, "A Tale of Two Realities," The Monthly UnEconomist, June 1999. (free download)

[9a] Susan Kinsella, personal communication.

[10] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990 – 1997, April 1999 [EPA 236-R-99-003] “Globally, the most important human activity that affects forest carbon fluxes is deforestation, particularly the clearing of tropical forests for agricultural use. Tropical deforestation is estimated to have released about 23 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions from anthropogenic sources during the 1980s." In the United States,"The net carbon sequestration reported for 1997 represents an offset of about 14 percent of the 1997 carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel combustion."

[11] Ted Williams, "False Forests," Mother Jones, May/June 2000

[12] Janet Abramovitz, “Paper Cuts: Recovering the Paper Landscape,” Worldwatch Report, 1999.

[13] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Characterization of Municipal Solid Waste in the United States:1998 Update

[14] Same as Endnote 13.

[15] Usman Valiante, "Energy to Waste?" Solid Waste & Recycling, April/May 2000, pages 8-11.

[16] Same as Endnote 15.

[17] Same as Endnote 10.

[18] Same as Endnote 10.

[19] Same as Endnote 10.

[20] Same as Endnote 13, pages 31 and 144. Total organic fraction of what we waste in MSW landfills is 85.6%; that includes materials that could be designed to be compostable: plastic, leather and textiles.

[21] Same as Endnote 10.

[22] Richard A. Denison, "Environmental Life-Cycle Comparisons of Recycling, Landfilling and Incineration," Annual Review of Energy and Environment, 1996.

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