This article was originally published in Teton Valley News on August 2nd, 2012. It is republished with permission.
Climate change has been in the news a lot lately. It’s been cited in articles about record breaking temperatures, the wildfires ravaging Colorado and the Southwest, extreme weather events and more. Our hotter than average temperatures are still cool enough to be tolerable, but we have other things to worry about. How will climate change affect farmer’s crops? What will happen to the ski industry? Will homes in the valley become threatened by wildfires? It is difficult to predict exactly how we will be affected, but two things are clear: we need to take action to slow climate change, and we need to do it by reducing the emission of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide. Winterizing homes, using compact flourescent lightbulbs, carpooling, taking the bus, and biking for transportation are all ways that individuals can reduce their carbon footprint. So, what’s recycling got to do with it?
It is easy to think of recycling in terms of an endpoint – waste management. Because we pay to dispose of waste at the landfill, diverting waste through recycling saves money in disposal fees while bringing in revenue. To understand the connection between recycling and climate change, however, we need to look at recycling as a starting point – a way to provide raw materials to manufacturers. Replacing the need to harvest and refine virgin raw materials can greatly reduce the energy used to manufacture products, thus reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Aluminum can production is one example of how recycling reduces energy consumption. Aluminum is produced from raw materials by mining bauxite below the earth’s surface. The bauxite is loosened with explosives, crushed or treated with water, shipped, refined, smelted, and casted. 11.1 metric tons of carbon dioxide are emitted to create one ton of aluminum from virgin materials. Producing aluminum from recycled materials reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 95%.
Of course, the distance materials travel to be recycled must also be figured into the equation. In the case of aluminum, however, recycling can take place domestically, while 99% of virgin bauxite is imported from countries like Brazil, Guinea, Jamaica and China. An aluminum can would have to circle the globe four times before the energy demands of transportation outweighed the benefits of recycling.
For plastic, paper, steel and cardboard, transportation emissions from trucking outweigh energy savings from recycling somewhere between 10,000 and 24,000 miles. Shipping by rail or freighter quadruples these distances. Due to its weight, the environmental benefits of recycling glass peter out at around 2,000 miles, and the economic benefits diminish as well. For this reason, Teton County crushes glass and reuses it locally as road base.
In Teton Valley, temperatures continue to get warmer while snowmelt exits the valley sooner. We can’t ignore the inevitable impacts of climate change. We can, however, work to mitigate them, and recycling is the first step.
*Sources: The Container Recycling Institute, Resource Recycling, earth911.