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Ask the Experts

25 November 2008

ask-the-expertsDear reader, you may recall that recently the Minnesota Energy Challenge added recycling and composting to our list of easy, efficient actions that reduce energy use and carbon footprints.  Of course, this meant that we started getting questions about the efficacy of recycling.

In my community we have 3 to 4 different garbage/recycling companies. This means that many days a week we have big trucks driving down our road to pick up garbage and then recycling. My question is how can this be green? I would like to see some kind of cost carbon analysis of this. Would it be just better not to recycle and not have double the trucks coming down our roads?”

This is a great question, getting at two different and important issues. One around the environmental benefits of recycling collection, and the other around the environmental benefits of organized collection vs. subscription-based collection.

The simple answer to your most direct question, “would it better to not recycle”,  is no! It is always better to recycle, even with additional trucks.  How much better all depends, but it is typically much better for the environment to recycle than to waste.

Here’s an example, with some facts and figures, to give you a sense of the benefit of recycling. Although there are many models emerging to calculate the environmental benefits of recycling in hard numbers, we use the Environmental Protection Agency’s Waste Reduction Model (WARM) calculator. This calculator is the most standard and recognized, and makes calculations using conservative estimates.

According to the WARM calculator, diesel fuel emits 22.2 pounds of CO2 emissions per gallon. In Minnesota, on average, we reduce the equivalent of 7,180 pounds of CO2 for every ton of recycling we collect. That means that for every ton of recycling, we reduce the equivalent emissions from 323.4 gallons of diesel.

Let’s take these calculations and apply them to Eureka Recycling as a base-line example. Eureka Recycling has city-wide contracts which allows for the most collection efficiencies and the most environmental benefit. On average, our trucks use 15 gallons of diesel fuel, and can collect 5 tons of recycling per day. Using the WARM calculator, 15 gallons of fuel (x  22.2 lbs of CO2 per gallon) equal 333 lbs of CO2 emissions per day. Five tons of recycling (x  7,180 lbs of CO2 saved for every ton) = 35,900 lbs CO2E. This give us a net savings of 35,456 lbs of CO2 emissions per day, per truck.

These huge savings in CO2 emissions come from long before and long after those materials are put out for collection. First of all, by recycling materials, we greatly reduce the need to mine, log, extract, and transport virgin materials. Secondly, manufacturing products out of virgin materials takes much more energy than manufacturing them out of recycled materials. For example, it takes 3 times less energy to make a glass bottle from a glass bottle than from virgin materials. Finally, recycling and composting avoid the impacts of wasting, like emissions of greenhouse gases that are created when these materials are burned or buried.

Now to your question about subscription vs. organized collation. Yes, the nature of subscription service has inherent environmental inefficiencies due to more driving and lack of density of collection (not picking up at every house), but the environmental benefits of recycling (even with the inefficiencies of subscription based collection) for every truck on the road are still very significant.

Let’s assume the average subscription recycler in the Twin Cities uses 20 gallons of diesel fuel per day, and can collect about 3 tons of recycling per day. Using the same equations:

20 gallons of fuel x 22.2 lbs of CO2 emissions per gallon = 444 lbs of CO2 emissions

3 tons of recycling x  7,180 lbs of CO2 saved for every ton = 21,540 lbs CO2E

For a net savings of 21,096 lbs of CO2 emissions per day, per truck.

Even with hauling inefficiencies, recycling has big environmental benefits. However, it’s clear that organized collection is better, and there are some communities in Minnesota who are taking it upon themselves to organize by getting all their neighbors to subscribing to the same hauler. The Macalester Groveland neighborhood in St. Paul has some information on their website about how their residents have approached organizing garbage collection on the block by block level, and more that they can send if you are interested. In particular, we like the criteria they used to compare garbage services because it includes questions about their cost, the convenience of their service, and their environmental impact. http://www.macgrove.org/

Answer provided by Lynn Hoffman, Communications Manager: Community Relations at Eureka Recycling.

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