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The Benefits of Recycling (cont.)

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According to the EPA, recycling provides an annual benefit of 49.7 million metric tons of carbon equivalent emissions reduced, comparable to removing 39.4 million passenger cars from the road each year.

Interestingly, items diverted for recycling don’t always remain in the United States. The number one U.S. export by volume is scrap paper, which travels by container ships to Asia and Mexico. Scrap metal was also among our most valuable exports last year.

The scrap paper does help these nations conserve more of their forests, but as a result we lose some of ours. America’s southeastern forest – what Hershkowitz calls “the most biologically diverse forest in the world” – is still being used to make paper. “That’s the downside of our paper exports, that we are not replacing the destruction of southeast forests with recycled fiber,” he said.

Stacks of cars

How to Change the Waste Equation
Is our waste disposal system desirable or sustainable? In its solid waste report for 2006, the EPA says, “At the national level, landfill capacity appears to be sufficient.” It’s possible to continue burying most of our trash – but should we?

One way to keep things out of landfills is to increase our recycling rate. The EPA has a national target of a 35 percent recycling rate for 2008; Peffers recommends a minimum target of 75 percent. Kate Krebs, executive director of the National Recycling Coalition says we can double our current rate.

Krebs’ organization has a plan to boost recycling, by encouraging municipalities to adopt best practices being used in high-performing recycling programs like those in San Francisco (69 percent recycling rate) and Madison, Wisconsin (57 percent recycling rate).

But EPA and environmentalists agree that the best solution to the waste problem is to phase out waste. It all starts with product design.

“Waste is just really a design flaw and we have to be pushing on manufacturers and product designers to design things which are easily recyclable,” said Krebs.

Hershkowitz added, “Landfills by definition are wasteful … Waste is an indication of inefficiency; the more efficient you are, the less waste you produce. The less efficient you are, the more waste you produce. So we need to start becoming more efficient in our production processes.”

Right now, for every pound of garbage people generate, about seven pounds of waste are produced upstream (in the manufacturing process, before the product gets to the consumer). “Ninety-five percent … of a product’s environmental impact happens before the package is even opened,” said Hershkowitz.

Also, the garbage we throw away is just the tip of the trash iceberg in the United States. Most of the iceberg consists of industrial waste from factories, agriculture, construction, mining operations, oil and gas operations and other sources. This piles up to a mind-boggling 14 billion tons of waste per year.

Smoke billowing from smokestacks

Climate Change Could Spur Action
The push to regulate carbon emissions in order to fight climate change could be the key to getting manufacturers to design waste out of their products.

“By now looking to control carbon at production plants, we will also make production facilities more efficient as concerns reducing their waste … When you make aluminum from aluminum cans instead of virgin bauxite, you reduce by more than half the amount of global warming emissions … So the regulation of carbon is going to fundamentally alter the economics of recycling,” said Hershkowitz.

Other factors may have to come into play to phase out waste: Shifting tax breaks and government subsidies from landfills and incinerators to recycling plants; passing extended product responsibility laws, such as those in Europe, mandating that companies that produce products also be responsible for their disposal.

In the meantime, everyone can take steps to make a difference. Make sure to check out the sidebar tips throughout this article to learn how to create less trash and reduce your carbon footprint.

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Dan Kulpinski is a freelance writer who covers science and environmental topics. He writes a blog for the Earth & Sky web site here,

How to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint

  1. 1. Make your home energy efficient.
    Your home can be responsible for creating twice as many greenhouse gas emissions as your car. Since half of the energy used in your home helps to heat and cool it, making your home as energy efficient as possible will take big chunks out of your carbon footprint. Steps you can take include: Getting a home energy audit; installing energy efficient windows; insulating your attic and walls; installing a programmable thermostat; turning your thermostat down 2 degrees in winter and up 2 degrees in summer.
  2. 2. Drive less.
    Combine your trips in the car, so you don’t have to go out multiple times to the same location. When possible, use public transit, walk or bike to your destination.
  3. 3. Buy the highest gas mileage car for your needs.
    Cars contribute 20 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels; the better your gas mileage, the less gas you burn and the fewer emissions you create.
  4. 4. Buy energy efficient appliances.
    When replacing appliances, buy Energy Star qualified appliances (these use 10-50% less energy than standard appliances and can save you $80 or more per year).
  5. 5. Recycle.
    Creating products from recycled materials uses up to 98 percent less energy than producing things from new materials.
  6. 6. Replace your light bulbs.
    Switching to energy efficient compact fluorescent bulbs will save you $30 over the life of the bulb, because these they use about 75 percent less electricity than traditional incandescent bulbs.
  7. 7. Buy local food.
    Each ingredient in a U.S. meal has traveled an average of 1,500 miles. If we all ate one meal per week of local, organic food, we’d save 1.1 million barrels of oil per week.
  8. 8. Eat less red meat.
    Beef takes a lot of energy and resources to produce. Replace red meat with fish, chicken and eggs and cut your food carbon footprint by 29 percent. Go vegetarian to cut it by 50 percent.
  9. 9. Lower your water heater temperature from 140 degrees F to 120 degrees F.
  10. 10. Buy carbon offsets for the rest and make yourself “carbon neutral.”
Find out in “Human Footprint” what an average American consumes — and discards — in a lifetime, all in one place at one time via a series of dramatic, revealing and informative visual demonstrations.