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The Environment

The environment is the air, water and soil that sustains all life on the planet. It also includes all the human-made things from cars to buildings as well as the chemicals and other matter we put into the air, water and soil as we make these things. A Thriving Planet needs a healthy environment. This segment offers facts about environmental issues as well as information and ideas from top scientists and other experts on ways to keep this place we call home healthy and thriving.

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The Impact of Recycling on Climate Change: Not just a drop in the bucket

by Vicki Wolf

Recycling for the 21st Century can make a significant impact on climate change. Recycling lowers the greenhouse gas emissions associated with extraction of raw materials to make products, manufacturing and waste disposal. What you see in the landfill is just the tip of the iceberg: For every ton of municipal trash, 71 tons of waste are produced during manufacturing, mining, oil and gas exploration, agriculture and coal combustion.

Instead of looking only at what comes out of the tail pipe or smokestack, it’s time to look upstream at the products we use, how they are made and how we use them. It’s about taking a systems view instead of looking at the end of the pipe, explains Robin Schneider, Texas Campaign for the Environment executive director. “Food waste and packaging as well as the durable and non-durable goods we use are a huge part of the pie,” she says. “If we look at how we make and use these goods, make them more sustainable and less toxic, and recycle these resources, we can cut the greenhouse gas problem down dramatically.”

The untold story

While regulation of carbon dioxide emissions falls to state and national government, recycling is a local option. State government also has a broad role on trash and recycling. “This is where the government closest to the people can have the most impact,” Schneider says. But she says the impact of recycling on climate change remains an untold story. The news media isn’t saying much about it, and most cities aren’t including recycling in their climate protection plans. “When Austin announced its climate protection plan, we made sure that they mentioned Zero Waste. But it was not integrated into the plan,” she says. “There was nothing mentioned in the recent Climate Protection Conference and Expo. We asked the city to please include experts on recycling and Zero Waste, and they assigned the topic at the last minute to a city staff who did not have a deep knowledge of the topic.”

“Pay as you throw” and mandatory recycling are two ways cities have been able to significantly increase residential recycling. Sarah Mason, City of Houston environmental analyst, says these options have been “politically unpopular” there. She says Houston has a five-year rollout for single-stream recycling (one bin for all recyclables) for the 350,000 single-family residences in the city’s solid waste pick-up area. Currently about 170,000, or half of these residences, have curbside pick-up. The city also charges a fee for a second garbage container to discourage waste and encourage recycling.

This spring, the City of Houston is launching a campaign to encourage “grasscycling” - leaving cut grass on the lawn instead of bagging it - and composting of land trimmings. Houston also has a tree waste program. In the clean-up of Hurricane Ike the city recycled five million cubic yards of tree waste into compost and boiler fuel.

Recycling saves energy

An increase of the recycling rate in the United States, from the current 32 percent to an achievable 65 percent, could mean an additional 180 million tons a year of less greenhouse gas emissions, according to a National Recycling Coalition (NRC) white paper on recycling and climate change. That would bring the total reduction of greenhouse gases from U.S. recycling to approximately 360 million tons. A fact sheet from the NRC also notes that the recycling items that can be included in a city’s curbside recycling can save a surprising amount of energy and make a significant impact on the amount of carbon dioxide that goes into the atmosphere. The amount of energy lost last year from throwing away aluminum and steel cans, plastic PET and glass containers, newsprint and corrugated packaging was equivalent to:

The amount of electricity consumed by 10 million Americans in one year

17 percent of annual nuclear electricity generation in the United States

4.6 percent of the annual electricity generated from fossil fuels in the United States

6 percent of the energy produced by coal fired power plants in the United States

The energy supplied from 2 percent of barrels of crude oil imported into the United States

The amount of gasoline used in 6.5 million passenger automobiles in one year

Recycling and composting reduces landfill greenhouse gas emissions

“Taking organics out of landfills and going to zero waste is like taking 21 percent of power plants offline,” says Robin Schneider, executive director of Texas Campaign for the Environment. Fifty-four percent of waste goes to landfills, a top source of methane gas. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas: Over a 20-year period, methane is 72 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide (CO2).

Diversion of organic materials - food scraps and yard trimmings - from landfills into composting operations is a core climate protection strategy, acccording to Brenda Platt, author of Stop Trashing the Environment. Composting organics instead of dumping them in landfills:

prevents landfill methane emissions

stores carbon

improves soil’s ability to store carbon

provides natural fertilizer and eliminates need for energy-intensive fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides

improves plant growth, and thus carbon sequestration

reduces energy use for irrigation

What one city can do

Crockett, a small town of about 8,000 people in the Texas Piney Woods, was the first city in the state to have 50 percent recycling. More than 20 years ago, the city passed an ordinance for mandatory recycling. Crockett’s landfill is some distance away, and the price for disposing garbage into the landfill kept going up. Now residents put the garbage in clear plastic bags. If garbage collectors see recyclables in the bag, they don’t pick it up. They leave a note on the back that is titled “Oops!” in big bold letters.

What volunteering to recycle can do

The Environmental Health Section of the Department of Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine (BCM) and a group of BCM medical students launched a pilot paper and aluminum recycling program in 2006 with only $1,250 for signage and recycling bins and volunteers. At that time there was no recycling of paper and cardboard at BCM. Student volunteers would pick up the recycling and take it to recycling facilities in their own cars. That year they managed to recycle 21,440 pounds of garbage per month.

The BCM administration has recognized the positive impact of recycling and has provided a$40,000 seed fund for infrastructure in support of the initiative. BCM now averages about 55,000 pounds of recycling a month. With the program’s growth and success, they now have one salaried person, a panel truck, two Abitibi Paper Retriever bins and an industrial cardboard crusher. They earned the salary for the paid person with landfill cost avoidance.

Every floor in the BCM main building has a recycling bin. Volunteers collect recycling every other day and separate plastics and aluminum in the sorting room. The recycling program has expanded to include Baylor Clinic and all Baylor buildings as well as Medical Towers (BCM Faculty Center) and surrounding businesses, including Starbucks, Chipotle and A&E – The Graphics Complex. The students take the truck once a week to pick up at the other buildings.

Winifred Hamilton, PHD, BCM Environmental Health Section director has been involved in the recycling effort from the beginning. She says now, people come to BCM to learn about their recycling project. “Greater Houston Partners are coming over for a tour,” Hamilton says. “The big thing that we can offer other people who want to start a program is no capital investment. This program has paid its way.”

The 2009 report on the new BCM Sustainability Internet site shows:

and Cardboard Recycled - 704,060 lbs. or 352.03 tons (12.3 % increase)

Metal Recycled - 105,000 lbs. or 52.5 tons (8.7% increase)

Plastic Recycled - 3400 lbs or 1.70 tons (1.5% increase)

The resources conserved by BCM’s 2009 recycling included: 58.75 truck loads of trash and 1056 cubic meters of landfill space; 4,642.7 tons of carbon dioxide emissions; and saved 5,984 trees.

What we can do

Globally, the United States takes the cake when it comes to consumption and waste. This country has 4.6 percent of global population; consumes one-third of the Earth’s timber and paper; generates 22 percent of global CO2 emissions; and produces 30 percent of the world’s waste.

According to Brenda Platt, author of Stop Trashing the Environment, moving toward zero waste is key to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Reducing waste by prevention, reuse, recycling and composting can save 406 megatons of CO2 emissions a year, compared to 240 megatons for more energy efficient lighting, and 195 megatons for vehicle efficiency. Recycling also provides more jobs: one job is created for every 10,000 tons of material put in a landfill compared to 10 jobs for recycling of 10,000 tons of material.

Recycling doesn’t require a bill to be passed or a regulator to regulate. If each citizen makes a commitment to reduce waste, reuse, recycle and compost we can make a big impact on climate change, reduce toxic emissions, conserve resources and create jobs.

To have a greater impact, let city leaders know that in addition to policies that encourage recycling, you want policies in place to discourage the use of single-use containers and plastic bags. For example, Brownsville, Texas and San Francisco, California have banned non-recyclable food containers in restaurants. San Francisco also has banned plastic bags in grocery stores and pharmacies.

For a better understanding of unsustainable consumption and the truce cost of products from the extraction of raw materials to end of life, check out The Story of Stuff at The book will be available in bookstores March 9.

This article was originally the website for Citizens League for Environmental Action Now (CLEAN). Visit CLEAN at


So fragile this petal the earth,
as fragile as

-- Mirabai

Biomimicry offers solutions hidden in plain sight for many of the modern world’s environmental problems. To find out more, click here.

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According to the EPA, the average U.S. household is responsible for the emission of almost 60 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) annually. Of this CO2 footprint, approximately 32 percent (or about 20 tons of CO2) is controllable. To find out more, click here.

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What would U.S. streets and neighborhoods look like if there were no system for neatly disposing of waste? While garbage is kept out of sight, landfills grow and multiply like a cancer across the country, natural resources are wasted and cities spend billions of dollars dealing with trash. To find out more, click here.

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