Why recycling is not a good solution to end climate change

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of articles by Tribune American Association for the Advancement of Science Mass Media Fellow Joana Tavares, who answers readers’ questions about climate change. Tavares is completing a doctorate in earth sciences at UC Irvine.

Nancy from San Luis Obispo wrote,

“I would like to know how recycling and climate change interact. Additionally, paper and plastic products, which are quite widely used in SLO and elsewhere, also seem to play a role? I would like your thoughts and possible community actions to address these pressing local negative climate change impacts.

Dear Nancy,

Let me tell you a story that happened a few years ago. It all started when a recently divorced marine scientist (wink, wink) decided to try his hand at one of these popular dating apps.

In her profile, she made it clear that environmentalism was important to her.

Going through the matches, the scientist was content with a charming wave photographer, who, by SMS, reiterated his commitment to the cause of sustainable development.

They decided to meet on a beach. The scientist arrived and found his date already there, looking as good as in his pictures, but – prepare for the heartbreaking part of the story – drinking from a single-use plastic bottle! Shocked, she confronted her suitor, who replied, “Don’t worry, baby. I recycle.”

That’s how I realized that recycling isn’t so much a solution to pollution as one of its causes, because it creates a mental loophole that can get even well-meaning (and rather attractive) people to participate. to a complex operation is to destroy what we sincerely love.

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A plastic water bottle rests against a sand fence at the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

The use of plastic has exploded

The reality is that, inadvertently or not, we are consuming natural resources 1.75 times faster than our planet’s ecosystems can regenerate.

Although recycling can be a good way to convert some items into reusable materials (or organic matter, as in the case of composting), much of what we place in our recycling bins cannot be recycled in any way. profitable and ends up in landfills or in the ocean.

Plastic is, as you point out, one of the most abundant synthetic materials – and one of the most difficult for us to manage. Currently, 85% of all plastic consumed in the United States ends up in landfills and 10% is incinerated.

The problem has worsened over time as we have integrated the use of disposable products into our daily lives, and the plastics industry has increased production with minimal government control until recently.

In 1960, recycling was practically non-existent, but the average American only produces 4 pounds of plastic waste per year. In 2018, 5-8% of all plastic waste was recycled, but at that time each American produced 220 pounds of plastic waste per year.

Most people are aware that plastic pollution is a serious environmental and human health issue. What most people seem to ignore is the link between recycling and climate change.

Relationship status? It is complicated

In principle, recycling reduces emissions because it reduces the need for carbon-intensive harvesting of pristine natural resources.

For example, we know that recycling aluminum saves 95% of the energy associated with acquiring its raw equivalent. But in practice, when you consider all the different materials and the challenges of establishing effective recycling programs, the usefulness of recycling as a solution to climate change is questionable, especially when it comes to plastic.

Plastic and climate change are linked in several ways.

Most plastics are made from fossil fuels, such as petroleum, in a very energy-intensive process. A study estimated that in 2015, the carbon footprint of plastic production was 4.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

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A recycling basket sits atop a trash can in downtown San Luis Obispo. Joe Johnson jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Then what ends up in landfills and the ocean will slowly break down into smaller pieces, releasing methane and ethylene, both of which are potent greenhouse gases. Scientists are currently studying the long-term impacts of these microplastics on our oceans.

Other types of waste also contribute to the climate problem.

For example, it is believed that food waste is responsible for 8 to 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions. It may not seem like much, but it means that if it were a country, food waste would be the third largest emitter in the world, after China and the United States.

That’s why California recently passed a law require leftover food to be disposed of in green bins instead of the trash can.

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Californians use – and then throw away – an enormous amount of paper and plastic packaging materials every day. Konstantin Gorbachev TNS

We need to talk

If recycling isn’t enough, what is?

Obviously, reducing consumption will be necessary. We will need systemic changes to replace our outdated linear production models with a circular economy that redefines products and production so that they become less resource-intensive and that we can transform “waste” into new materials.

And finally, as a society, we should invest more in research and development to produce biodegradable fibers that can replace plastic in disposable items that we cannot live without.

In the meantime, here are some ways to immediately improve your relationship with the planet:

To learn more, visit websites like RethinkDisposables.org, BeyondPlastics.org, Algalita.org. Or get involved with like-minded people in local groups like EcoSLO, Surfrider SLO Foundation and the SLO Resilience Challenge.

Do you have a question about climate change for Joana Tavares? Email him at jtavares@thetribunenews.com.

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Joana Tavares is a Mass Media Fellow from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She writes on earth, ocean and climate sciences. Joana received her bachelor’s degree in oceanography from the Federal University of Rio Grande, Brazil. She also holds a master’s degree in marine science and policy from the University of Delaware and is currently completing a doctorate in earth science at UC Irvine, where she is funded by a Future Investigator in NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship. and Technology.

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