I’m a compulsive recycler, and I intend to stay that way. Just about every life cycle study I’ve found shows that recycling beats landfilling by a country mile. So if I’ve got a choice between tossing something in the trash and recycling it, I figure that I should always recycle.
Still, I keep running across evidence that a narrow focus on minimizing trash isn’t always the best way to reduce your impact on the planet. A colleague recently sent me a few new examples. The first comes from a 2005 Oregon DEQ analysis of shipping with bags vs. boxes. And as the chart below shows, bags use way less energy than boxes — even if the boxes contain lots of recycled content, and the bags have almost none.
The top two rectangles represent comprehensive energy consumption—considering everything from raw materials extraction to manufacturing to transportation to the waste stream—from plastic shipping bags. The bottom rectangles show total life-cycle energy from shipping in cardboard boxes. Bags are so light and compact that they wind up using far less energy than boxes, regardless of how much recycled content they have. In this case, DEQ advises shippers to be wary of choosing a particular packing method solely to minimize landfilled waste:
Just because a packaging material is easy for consumers to recycle in curbside or other recycling programs, it may not have lower environmental burdens over its life cycle than materials for which widespread recycling programs are not readily available.
And here’s a second chart, also from Oregon DEQ, comparing several framing options for walls in homes and commercial buildings (see. p. 18 the pdf). A few of the framing methods they considered allow for superior insulation, which leads to major reductions in life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions—even though they ultimately send more waste to the landfill than other alternatives. Here, too, minimizing landfill doesn’t mean minimizing impact.
Just to be clear: these two charts DO NOT undermine the importance of recycling or composting. However, they do clearly show that minimizing trash just isn’t the same thing as minimizing impact.
But there’s an even bigger lesson here: this stuff is really complicated!!! Intuition, guesswork, and rules of thumb aren’t always all that helpful in living more lightly on the planet. Even if you try to keep yourself informed of the latest and greatest research, you’re bound to make some mistakes.
Which, in my mind, is a great argument for the sorts of comprehensive climate solutions—like putting an upstream cap (or a stiff price) on climate-warming emissions—that will protect the climate regardless of how well we do our homework.