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.
David Allaway, Oregon DEQ
Hi Clark. Thanks for the nice summary of some of our work here at Oregon DEQ. Another way of thinking about the topic is this: the waste management hierarchy (“reduce, reuse, recycle, compost”) offers a hierarchy of preferences for managing discards (although “reduce” really isn’t about managing discards, but rather not having them in the first place). Where we run into trouble is when we use the hierarchy to inform purchasing decisions. Purchasing decisions are not the same as waste management decisions. Our research suggests that sound purchasing decisions require a broader, more holistic view. When it comes to managing discards, the time-worn hierarchy is a good general guide (it works well most of the time).
Thanks for making the distinction that this information isn’t “anti-recycling.” When we have discards, recycling is often the best way to manage them. But recyclability just doesn’t consistently correlate with “sustainable” or even “reduced impact” once we enter the realm of purchasing decisions.
Thanks for bringing up the issue of consumption vs. waste, Clark. To often we get hypnotized by our urge to recycle everything – losing sight of the real lifecycle impacts. Kudos, too, to Oregon DEQ for their continued leadership in conducting Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) research. These are great examples. The recent study by Oregon DEQ on water bottles comes to the same conclusion….it’s not necessarily about what we throw away – but what and how we consume, that’s important.
Rob Harrison AIA
I’m not sure I buy the idea as it applies to building, at least in the way its illustrated by the DEQ chart. Do you know if the DEQ took into account the GHG-producing potential of the typical foams used in Insulating Concrete Forms and Structural Insulated Panels in compiling the data for that chart, some of which have literally thousands the GHG-producing potential of CO2? Likewise, using cellulose (recycled newsprint) or mineral wool (which also can have recycled content) can reduce GHG emissions over fiberglass used as insulation in stud bays. Their assumptions on the R-value of strawbale would be interesting to know too.
Great points. It is however important to weigh the whole costs of landfilling waste, which vary by region: shipping distance, mode of transportation, lifetime monitoring of landfills (methane and toxic leachates).
The best and first step should be waste prevention–green purchasing, durable goods, restoration (fixing your stuff).
Excellent post, Clark. Thanks for highlighting the good work by Oregon DEQ. Your summary points are well put — this is complicated stuff, and we need to be driven by *real data*, not just conventional wisdom or even supposedly “green” wisdom.
This kind of LCA also relates to the paper vs. plastic debates that are now raging in many cities (bag bans): since single-use plastic bags are so much lighter, they actually have less life-cycle GG impact than paper bags.
And this then pushes us to clarify our priorities — is our biggest concern greenhouse gas production, landfill volume, ocean pollution, wildlife impacts, etc.? Different priorities lead to different “best practices”. It’s a tough one to navigate, but we do our best…
Very interesting post, Clark. It reminds me of a post on Sightline (Tidepool?) years ago regarding Seattle’s curbside recycling program. The original motivation for Seattle’s recycling initiative was “zero waste,” i.e. to minimize the waste stream.
We now recycle a lot, but the total sum of our recycling plus trash – our total waste stream – has grown dramatically since Seattle started its recycling program. I think the conclusion was that in starting a recycling program, we got just what we asked for. It just wasn’t what we wanted.
So, to my point: requiring product and packaging take-backs would minimize the total waste stream. Things would then be DESIGNED to minimize waste (trash and recycling). Not sure what it would do to GHG emissions. But I could make some good arguments that it would reduce those as well.
Sustainability and judicious use of all 5 R’s of Pollution Heirachy essential as we evolve to a more Sustainable Society – see Sustainable Conservation Loop Concept
Even different stroke for different folks and common sense – Diversity of Package
Enthusiastically Promoting Allthings Sustainably