Climate Action Collaborative: Recycling isn’t just about trash; it’s about energy (column)
November 7, 2018
It's simple: The environment benefits when we recycle.
Recycling that aluminum, cardboard and plastic has a huge, positive impact on the environment. According to some experts, recycling is the easiest and fastest way we can help save our planet. Increasing recycling rates is also one of the goals for our Climate Action Collaborative for the Eagle County community, whose goal is to reduce local carbon pollution 25 percent by 2025 and 80 percent by 2050. Recycling is accessible to everyone, it's cost effective, it shrinks landfills and it conserves natural resources.
One of the reasons recycling is so beneficial for the climate is because it saves energy. Recycling eliminates the need to extract raw materials such as trees and precious metals from the earth to be mined, harvested, processed, manufactured and transported. Extraction, transportation and processing are energy-intensive processes; therefore, the energy expended is significantly less and more cost effective when you cut these pieces out and start the manufacturing process with recycled materials.
Take your curbside aluminum can, for example. Once it goes to our local materials recovery facility, it is sorted and cleaned and then compacted and baled. From there, it goes to a mill where it is melted and rolled out to make 20 more aluminum cans that are ready to be in stores in 60 days or less. The same amount of energy used to make 20 cans from recycled materials makes only one aluminum can from raw materials.
How much energy saved?
Let's break down how much energy is actually saved from the can that's been kicked to your curbside recycling. One recycled aluminum can saves 2.97 Btu of energy. This amount of energy could run your laptop computer for 5.8 hours, keep a ceiling fan on for 2.4 hours or allow you to watch 2.2 hours of Netflix on your home TV.
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A common myth is that the transportation of recycled materials uses more energy than energy savings from material extraction. While this depends on how far the recyclables are being transported, it is in almost all cases not true.
For example, aluminum would need to be trucked more than 121,000 miles in order for the transportation energy to exceed the energy saved in manufacturing. This would be the equivalent of driving around the Earth 4.8 times. The moral of the story: No matter how you shake it, recycling will always yield energy savings.
While it's great to recycle more, we also need to be sure to recycle right. In Eagle County, we see large amounts of contamination hit our local recycling facility, and approximately 16 percent of "recycling" ends up in our landfill due to contamination. Landfills are the largest source of human-caused methane, a climate pollutant 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Recycling correctly helps us meet our Climate Action Plan goals by limiting waste sent to the landfill.
If you have trouble recycling or want to learn more about how to recycle properly in Eagle County, there are good resources available. First, you can download the free Eagle County Waste Wizard mobile app. This app allows users to search for a specific item and learn how best to dispose of it locally. The app is available in both the Apple and Android app stores.
The next thing you can do is join Walking Mountains Science Center for a free guided tour of the Eagle County materials recovery facility or sign up for a personal group tour. Seeing recycling in action is a great way to learn how to recycle correctly.
Join the Climate Action Collaborative in taking action. Together we can divert 30 percent of waste going to our landfills by 2025 through recycling and composting. After all, it's the No. 1 thing we can do for our environment.
Sophia Gianfrancisco is a member of the Climate Action Collaborative for the Eagle County community.