Recycling, Climate Change, & Blogher08
A week ago, Siel wrote a great post called De-Plasticking BlogHer 2009! in which she discusses all the plastic at Blogher08 and ways that the next Blogher conference could be even more eco-friendly. And right after the conference, I too blogged about the plastic waste at Blogher.
Among the comments Siel received were several that questioned the wisdom of a hotel providing durable dishware that must be washed vs. disposable/compostable containers. The commenter felt that saving the dishwashing water and energy made disposables worth it.
In fact, unless a region is experiencing a severe drought, washing a few plates and utensils in an automatic dishwasher is going to be more environmentally-friendly, especially in the area of global warming. The link between waste reduction and climate change has been brilliantly detailed in a report that came in out in June of this year called Stop Trashing The Climate.
Stop Trashing The Climate is a joint effort among the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Eco-Cycle, and Global Anti-Incinerator Alliance, which was published in June of this year. This report describes the multiple ways that waste affects our climate, some obvious, and some that may not immediately come to mind.
First, of course, there are the gases produced by landfills and incinerators. These gases are the direct effect of dumping or burning our waste. According to the report, "Landfills are the largest source of anthropogenic methane emissions in the U.S., and the impact of landfill emissions in the short term is grossly underestimated -- methane is 72 times more potent than CO2 over a 20-year time frame." But what about methane captured for energy? At the Hay Road landfill that I visited with Janice Sitton last January, we were told that the methane from the landfill is captured. But according to the findings of the Stop Trashing The Climate report, "The portion of methane captured over a landfill's lifetime may be as low as 20% of total methane emitted."
And incinerators emit not only CO2 but also nitrous oxide (N2O), a greenhouse gas that is 300 times more potent than CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere. In fact, the authors of the report recommend that "Existing incinerators should be retired, and no new incinerators or landfills should be constructed." But what about filters on incinerators that trap the gases and other pollutants?
Here's where we come to the main point of the report, the indirect results of landfilling and incineration that trapping the gases and other discharges from landfills and incinerators doesn't address: "Wasting directly impacts climate change because it is directly linked to resource extraction, transportation, processing, and manufacturing."
The more materials we send to the landfill or incinerator, the more materials must be extracted in order to replace them. And transported. And processed. And every step along the way uses more energy and produces more greenhouse gases than reusing or recycling the materials we already have.
In the case of plastic, that means more drilling for oil to make the plastic and all the problems associated with that process. It also means transporting the oil, usually from places that are very far from where the oil will be used. And then processing the oil into new plastic pellets. And then shipping the new plastic. Then creating the new plastic items. And then shipping those items.
In the case of compostable corn-based plastic, it means more chemical fertilizers and pesticides, many of which are petroleum-based, to grow the corn, as well as water and other inputs, along with all the transportation and manufacturing costs.
I think you can see that producing new disposable items, whether petro-plastic or bio-plastic, is more energy-intensive than simply washing what already exists.
For info on all the other environmental costs involved in creating new plastic, including marine pollution and toxic accumulation, I encourage you to read my post, "Plastic is made from oil." But isn't it bad enough what the creation of new plastic is doing to our climate?