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Think about this for a moment… over 2.6 billion tons of solid waste end up in landfills each year around the world.  2.6 billion tons per year is 82 tons per second.

Once solid waste goes in the ground, it produces greenhouse gases. Specifically, landfills emit methane, a greenhouse gas 22 times more potent than CO2. In fact, landfills are largest anthropogenic source of methane emissions in the world, accounting for 4% of global carbon emissions.

This problem is compounded by the other environmental problems that landfilling helps create: groundwater pollution, odor, rodents, disease, and urban blight.  So the need to reduce the impact of landfills is real and needs attention.

Appropriately, the environmental community has consistently advocated for using a three “R” hierarchy when it comes with minimizing and managing “waste”:

1.      Reduce – Anyone that has recently bought a toy, a cell phone, a container of pre-washed lettuce, or anything that arrives in a box cannot help but notice the extra waste bound up in the wrapping and packaging, much of which ends up in a landfill.  In fact, product packaging accounts for about 1/3 of all consumer trash thrown away in the U.S.

2.     Re-use –While slightly less desirable than reducing waste outright, re-using things we already own is the next step.  My wife and I reuse shopping bags, food containers, and zip-lock bags. Our kids reuse plastic bottles when they are desperate.  Yet I am struggling to expand the list. Can I count leftovers? My propane tank? My point is that even with good intentions, much of what we buy isn’t designed for re-use.

3.     Re-cycle: Even though recycling is at the bottom of the desired hierarchy, it seems to get the most attention, and by many measures has been the most successful. In the U.S. we recycle about 33% of our waste and everyone in the supply chain, from producers to consumers, has a heightened sense of awareness about the benefits of recycling.

This 3R framework was developed at a time when solid waste was a pollution problem. But it is now both a pollution problem and a mounting climate change problem. The time has come to develop a more comprehensive solid waste framework, and one that reflects an urgent need for better results.

Here are three simple ideas:

1.      For Consumers – buy less stuff and insist on higher quality. In doing so, you will exert pressure on manufacturers to produce better quality materials which will actually cost you less in the long run. If you cannot afford to buy something that will last, consider saving for it until you can afford it.

2.      For Producers – design and manufacture products with the end in mind, as if you were going to be responsible for the final resting place of your products. If for no other reason, this may soon be the case.

3.      For Environmentalists – waste began as a pollution problem. Now it is a climate change problem as well.  This requires a new framework of collaborative thinking, as well as incentives and penalties in order to bring about more effective results.  Consider advocating for more producer responsibilities at the front end to combat the waste creation problem and encouraging development of advanced technologies at the back end to minimize the disposal problem.

As with everything else involving climate change, this isn’t going to be an easy problem to solve. Certainly not with more of the same thinking that got us here. The problem with waste, as Edward McBride of The Economist noted, is that by definition no one wants to think about it.

In my view this is exactly the moment we must think about it.

QUESTION: Consumption is key: Give an example of one thing people need to buy less of and why?. (Answer in the comments section below!). Best of Luck!

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19 comments on “Rethinking Recycling”

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Rob
6 Years Ago

Thanks for this thoughtful piece. I thoroughly agree that recycling should be our last option; reducing and reusing should come first. For many reasons I would recommend buying fewer processed foods. I studied what was going into our trash and recycle bin over a period of several months and found that the vast majority was processed food packaging. We now buy almost no processed food, and the results have been amazing: - our trash and recycle bins need go to the curb once every five weeks now rather than every week. That reduces the idling pollution left by the sanitation department truck. - our diet is now primarily organic fresh foods. They taste better and are FAR healthier for us, other creatures, and the planet. - by buying fresh locally grown organic foods we are able to reduce carbon footprint further. - by not buying processed foods we eliminate the environmental impact of the processing. - by not buying processed foods we no longer have to read ingredient labels. Additionally, by planting organic seeds and growing our own vegetables and fruit we are able to get the freshest, tastiest food in the world. It doesn't travel thousands of miles, not even thousands of inches. When growing your own food you develop a real sense of closeness with the soil, the water, the air, and the earth. The interconnectedness of all things becomes strikingly clear. And yes, you definitely rethink recycling.


Reply
5buble
6 Years Ago

RT @OneGreenPlanet: Rethinking Recycling - Think about this for a moment… over 2.6 billion tons of solid waste... http://www.onegreenplanet.org/animalsand... ...


Reply
AmandaLmagyar
6 Years Ago

RT @OneGreenPlanet: Rethinking Recycling - Think about this for a moment… over 2.6 billion tons of solid waste... http://www.onegreenplanet.org/animalsand... ...


Reply
VernStor
6 Years Ago

RT @OneGreenPlanet: Rethinking Recycling - Think about this for a moment… over 2.6 billion tons of solid waste... http://www.onegreenplanet.org/animalsand... ...


Reply
5buble
6 Years Ago

RT @OneGreenPlanet: Rethinking Recycling - Think about this for a moment… over 2.6 billion tons of solid... http://www.onegreenplanet.org/animalsand... ...


Reply
Jane
6 Years Ago

Cows' milk! Almost everybody goes to the store to get 'bread & milk.' #1: Cows' milk is meant for calves. #2: Less milk consumed = fewer cows raised for that purpose. #3: fewer cows being fed = a whole lot of fields opened up to produce food for humans instead of cows. #4: methane gas reduction. Etc., etc.


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Donna
6 Years Ago

Individual plastic one serving cups (pudding, fruit, etc) so wasteful on so many levels! I already follow you on twitter and fb.


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Elena Milan
6 Years Ago

Tools, books, DVDs... Well any items that we use very rarely sometimes less than once a year. For instance how many books that you bought have you read more than once? Did you know that the average usage of a power drill over its lifetime is 25 minutes! Instead of buying these items that we don't use every day, we should borrow them from our friends. This is made easier with tools such as ecosharing.net to share what yoy own with your Facebook friends.


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Rose Keen
6 Years Ago

Toys... Everywhere there are Brocken toys, unwanted toys, left in the rain toys, roadside throw out toys... Buying good made toys last & can be handed down & reused.. There should be a band on cheaply made toys that you find in cheap stores like the $2 shop.. I actually have a nick name for these.. I call them 'Land fill toys'


Reply
lira sultanova
6 Years Ago

Plastic bottles! not all of them are currently biodegradable, and recycable as per different chemical composition.


Reply


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