The One Billion Ton Opportunity Cont'd - Part V: Waste, Recycling and Responsible Consumption


UPDATE 3/18: Table edited.

Today Matt Eisenson continues his blog series on the NRDC-Garrison Institute Behavioral Wedge—a.k.a. the “Billion Tons Project”—with his fifth and final post.  The theme today is reducing waste.  To catch up on Matt’s earlier posts, see his blogs on reducing emissions from transport, household energy use and food.

When it comes to reducing our personal carbon footprints, the three R’s—reducing, reusing, and recycling our waste—offer a rich crop of low-hanging fruit.  For this project we targeted five easy and impactful actions that cut global warming pollution and increase the efficiency of our waste stream:

Figure 1: Proposed measures for reducing waste-related emissions.


We all know that recycling is important.  An across-the-board 50% increase in recycling rates would yield an annual reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of more than 105 million metric tons  carbon dioxide equivalent (MMtCO2e) in 2020—more than the combined emissions of Switzerland (54 MMtCO2e) and Singapore (48 MMtCO2e).

An additional 60 MMtCO2e of reductions will be possible through more responsible consumption of paper and plastics, two materials which comprise 31% and 12% of total municipal solid waste (MSW), respectively.  Together, recycling and responsible consumption (using less and buying right) will cut almost 165 MMtCO2e in 2020.

Recycle More

According to recent EPA data, just over 33% of municipal solid waste (MSW) is recycled.  The 83 million short tons recycled in 2008 offset about 182 MMtCO2e of emissions, which is equivalent to taking 33 million cars off the road.  To calculate the savings of a 50% increase in recycling, we multiplied the current masses of each material recycled by 0.5, and multiplied that figure by the corresponding EPA factor for the carbon benefit of recycling over landfilling (we excluded textiles, rubber, leather, and other miscellaneous wastes due to the lack of consumer-accessible recycling centers).  Considering that per capita MSW generation has remained nearly constant—fluctuating between 4.5 and 4.6 lbs/person/day over the past two decades— we adjusted the calculated savings directly for projected population growth.  The total savings come to over 115 MMtCO2e in 2020, the vast majority of which (96 MMtCO2e) comes from paper.  Subtracting the rebound effect for smarter consumption (10 MMtCO2e for paper, negligible for plastic), the total is closer to 105 MMtCO2e.

But can we reasonably predict such a steep increase?  The present rate of recycling does indeed represent a dramatic improvement over the past three decades.  As you can see in the EPA chart reprinted below, the current national recycling rate is more than double the rate in 1990 (16.2%) and more than triple the rate in 1985 only five years earlier (10.1%).  From 1980 to 1990, and again from 1990 to 2000, the rate increased by more than 50% per decade.   Over the past decade, however, the growth of recycling rates has slowed considerably. 



(Source: Municipal Solid Waste Facts and Figures 2008, EPA)

Historical trends give a mixed message.  But with the right combination of market-based innovation (see recent press coverage of RecycleBank and and increased demand for recycled products (another important measure in the behavioral wedge, described later), we believe the 50% increase is feasible.  EPA estimates we could ultimately recycle 75% of waste.

Responsible consumption of paper and plastics; stop the catalogs!

Each year, 19 billion catalogs are mailed to American consumers, the majority of which are unwanted.  According to a recent report published by Forest Ethics, the production and distribution of catalogs is responsible for more than 20 MMtCO2e of emissions per year.  Fortunately, a number of nonprofit organizations, such as CatalogChoice, now offer free removal from mailing lists and facilitate switching to e-catalogs.  Opting out of 2/3 of catalogs would reduce emissions by 15 MMtCO2e in 2020 (assuming that catalog distribution would grow with population under business-as-usual projections).

Use less paper

For the past two decades consumption of printing and writing paper in the United States has hovered consistently around 30 million tons per year; the average office worker consumes 10,000 sheets, or 20 reams, annually.  The recovery rate for this paper is now greater than 50% due to the success of recent recycling efforts and the increased availability of curbside recycling.  Unfortunately, the majority of this paper still comes from virgin pulp, much of which is extracted from virgin forests.  Post-consumer recycled (PCR) content comprises a tiny 6% of the present mix of printing and writing paper.  The annual environmental impact of this consumption, including land-use change from deforestation, is almost 80 MMtCO2e of emissions.

Fortunately, there are several easy and proven ways to reduce paper consumption at home, at school, and in the workplace.  Fixing printer default settings to print double-sided will achieve a nearly immediate reduction (see how Rutgers saved 1,280 trees in one academic year).   Reductions are also possible through decreasing the number of printers available—using shared office printers as opposed to individual desktop printers—using print preview to prevent wasted pages, adjusting page margins, and promoting a general culture of paper conservation.  If the United States reduced printer paper consumption by 1/3, it would preclude roughly 26 MMtCO2e of emissions in 2020, according to this EDF paper calculator.

Choose recycled paper

 Paper with a high rate of post-consumer recycled (PCR) content is increasingly becoming available and affordable to consumers.  Up to 30% PCR the price is usually competitive with virgin paper; higher recycled content is still slightly more expensive.  Ambitious changes in institutional procurement policies and more conscious consumer choices will be necessary to increase the average PCR content in paper to 50%.  As of fall 2009, the Government Printing Office prints the Congressional Record on 100% PCR paper, and the Office of Federal Procurement Policy already stipulates that the government purchase paper with at least 30% PCR content; additionally, many universities are beginning to demand 100% PCR paper.  By increasing the average PCR content of printing and writing paper (after volume reduction), we could reduce GHG emissions by roughly 10 MMtCO2e in 2020.

Figure 3: the share of total projected emissions reductions achieved through each of the recommended waste-related measures.



Carry a reusable water container

Americans consumed more than 33 billion liters of bottled water in 2007—a 70% increase from 2000.  It appears that per capita consumption has finally begun to level off.  We propose a 50% reduction from the present level.  Bottled water is a big problem, and the carbon impact tells only part of the story.  An estimated 2.5 million bottles are discarded daily, the majority of which are not recycled; as many as 845 bottles go to the landfill every second.  (For a satirical spin on this sobering fact, check out this brilliant piece from The Onion).

And the carbon impact?  A recent study from the Pacific Institute showed that the lifecycle energy demands of bottled water consumption in the U.S. were equivalent to 32 to 54 million barrels of oil, or 0.33% of total U.S. energy use.  If we assume that demand for bottled water would increase proportionately with population growth, the emissions impact of bottled water use would exceed 16 MMtCO2e by conservative estimates in 2020. A 50% per capita reduction in bottled water consumption over the next 10 years would eliminate 8 MMtCO2e in 2020 and save much precious landfill space (for these calculations we converted the energy cost of bottled water [5.6-10.2 MJ] to gallons of gasoline and derived the emissions from combusting that quantity of MJ of gasoline).

Recycling is a necessary component of lowering our carbon footprint, but not sufficient grounds for complacence (click here to learn more about the trap of the single action bias, of which recycling is a notorious culprit).  Responsible consumption—essentially, buying less of what we don’t need and wasting less of what we buy—is an equally important piece of the puzzle. 

Stay tuned for our Fact Sheet and interactive tool synthesizing the work covered in this blog series.  In the meantime, we invite you to join the Simple Steps community at “My Simple Steps” to track your progress in reducing emissions through behavioral change.

This project is collaboration between NRDC and the Garrison Institute’s Climate, Mind and Behavior (CMB) Project,  working to integrate emerging research findings about what drives human behavior into new thinking on climate solutions.  It envisions a "behavioral wedge" empowering people to eliminate a gigaton of GHG emissions by simply changing our behavior, starting now, even as we continue to work on other fronts to achieve institutional, regulatory and market changes.  CMB is convening leading thinkers and practitioners in the fields climate change and environmental advocacy, neuro-, behavioral and evolutionary economics, psychology, policy-making, investing and social media, working together on ways to shift behavior on a large enough scale to realize this potential 1 gigaton emissions reduction.