Climate Change and Waste
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Smart choices make a difference
Making smart choices about what we buy, how we use it, and how we dispose of it can make a big difference in the amount of waste we produce and the greenhouse gas emissions associated with our consumption. The manufacture, distribution, and use of the goods and food we rely on in our daily lives—as well as management of the resulting waste—all require energy. This energy mostly comes from fossil fuels, which are the largest global source of heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions.
Rethink: Think Beyond Waste doesn’t just mean making good decisions about the end of a product’s life cycle (recycling, composting, energy recovery, and landfilling). It refers to sustainable materials management – the use and reuse of materials in the most productive and sustainable way across their entire life cycle. Sustainable materials management conserves resources, reduces waste, and slows climate change. Learn more.
Climate and waste statistics
Find tools and information on:
- creating a recycling program
- industrial materials and hazardous waste recycling
- sustainable materials management
- and much more
Approximately 42 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are associated with the energy used to produce, process, transport, and dispose of the food we eat and the goods we use. This includes the extraction or harvest of materials and food, production and transport of goods, provision of services, reuse of materials, recycling, composting, and disposal.
- Learn More
The 2009 report, Opportunities to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions through Materials and Land Management Practices (PDF) (98pp, 1.5MB) (114 pp, 611K, About PDF), shows:
- 29 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions result from the provision of goods produced within the United States.
- The provision of food contributes another 13 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
- Traditional “waste” management represents 1 to 5 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
Climate and life cycle of everyday stuff
Have you ever considered where the food we eat and the goods (stuff) we use come from, or where they go when you finish with them? Everything we use goes through a life cycle, and each stage of the life cycle contributes to climate change. These climate change impacts accumlate over an entire life cycle.
Click on each stage in the the diagram below to learn about greenhouse gas emissions over a product’s life cycle and to find out what you can do to reduce your carbon footprint.
Stage 1: Materials Extraction
All products are made from materials found in or on the earth. “Virgin” or “raw” materials, such as trees or ore, are harvested directly from the earth, then transported and processed. These activities use a large amount of energy, and the burning of fossil fuels to supply this energy results in greenhouse gas emissions. Making new products from materials that have already been used (recycled materials) can reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with the use of raw materials.
Green Tip: Buy products made with recycled content.
When buying a product, check the label to determine whether it is made from recycled materials and if it can be recycled. Buying products with recycled content encourages manufacturers to make more recycled-content products available.
Stage 2: Manufacturing
Products often require a great deal of energy to create, which results in greenhouse gas emissions. When a product is made with less material, or materials made with recycled content, less energy is needed to extract, transport, and process raw materials.
Green Tip: Reduce.
The most effective way to reduce waste is to not create it in the first place. Reduce the amount of new stuff you buy. To reduce waste, buy durable goods that have less packaging, and reuse, repair, and share your stuff.
Stage 3: Distribution
Finished products need to be transported to a distribution center or warehouse, then to stores and your home. In addition, each stage of the life cycle of a product requires some form of transportation. Transportation by plane, truck, or rail all require the use of fossil fuels for energy, which can contribute to global climate change.
Green Tip: Buy local.
The farther your food travels, the more greenhouse gas emissions are produced in transporting the food from farm to your plate. You can find locally grown food at a farmers’ market and at some grocery stores.
Stage 4: Usage
Simply using a product may require energy. Some appliances and electronics, called “energy vampires” continually use power when plugged into an outlet, even when they are turned off.
Green Tip: Power down.
Unplug “energy vampires,” such as cell phone rechargers and video game consoles, whenever you can. Or consider buying a “smart” power strip, which automatically cuts off power when you turn off an appliance.
Stage 5: End-of-Life Management
End-of-life management is what happens to our stuff after it has been used and is discarded. How we dispose of our goods and food can make a big difference in our environmental footprint. There are a number of ways to dispose of goods, outlined below in order from most preferred to least preferred.
Reuse, or using a product more than once, prevents the need to create the product from scratch, which saves resources and energy while also preventing pollution.
Green Tip: Donate your used electronics and media.
Old electronics (CD players, DVDs, VCRs) make great donations to charitable agencies that provide holiday gifts to low income families. Before you throw away old CDs or DVDs, try trading them with friends, donating them to charitable organizations, nursing homes, libraries, or hospitals.
Recycling saves energy. Manufacturing goods from recycled materials typically requires less energy than producing goods from virgin materials. Recycling paper products also preserves forests so they can continue to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Green Tip: Recycle.
Remember to recycle. Learn how and where to recycle your electronics and other common recyclables like paper, plastic, and glass. Calculate how much energy you save when you recycle.
Composting diverts organic wastes from landfills. This is important because when organic materials like food scraps decompose in the anaerobic conditions of a landfill, they produce methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide. During composting, the material decomposes in the presence of oxygen, avoiding methane production.
Green Tip: Start your own compost pile.
Learn how to create your own compost pile at home. Use food scraps, yard trimmings, and other organic waste to create a compost pile. Compost can help increase soil water retention, decrease erosion, and replace chemical fertilizers.
- Energy Recovery
Energy recovery from waste is the conversion of non-recyclable waste materials into useable heat, electricity, or fuel through a variety of processes. Converting non-recyclable waste materials into electricity and heat—through combustion or landfill gas recovery—generates a renewable energy source and reduces carbon emissions by avoiding the need for energy from fossil sources. In addition, these methods reduce generation of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from landfills.
Green Tip: Be waste conscious.
By incorporating what you can do tips into your daily life, you can reduce your carbon footprint.
When organic materials go to a landfill, they decompose and produce methane gas, a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Many new landfills collect potentially harmful landfill gas emissions, including methane, and convert the gas into energy.
Green Tip: Educate yourself – learn what you can recycle or compost in your community.
Visit your city’s website and look under Public Works/Solid Waste to learn what is recyclable or compostable in your community, and how to sort properly.