Climate Action Issues: Increase Recycling Rates, Save the Planet

With the potential to decrease global emissions by up to 3 percent, recycling is one of the best, most cost effective ways to decrease harmful emissions through landfill avoidance, energy efficiency and preservation of natural resources.

Sara Conte

Evidence is mounting that climate change is real and impacting our planet right now. Last summer was one of weather extremes: floods, fires, melting ice and feverish heat. These weather-related disasters fit patterns predicted by the World Meteorological Organization and the International Panel on Climate Change. These organizations predicted there will be “more frequent and more intense extreme weather events due to global warming.”

Although these types of extremes have happened throughout history, they are happening more often. Several examples from around the globe demonstrate this point: Russia had the hottest summer on record with wide spread droughts and wildfires; Pakistan had the heaviest rains on record and flooding was the worst natural disaster in history; China had the worst floods in decades with heavy landslides. In the U.S., Iowa had the wettest month on record with damaging floods. And, in the Arctic, there is increasing summer melt with rising sea levels.

Everyone talks about the importance of going green. But to save the planet, we need action. With the potential to decrease global emissions by up to 3 percent, recycling is one of the best, most cost effective ways to decrease harmful emissions through landfill avoidance, energy efficiency and preservation of natural resources. Recycling is as practical, effective and timely as changing to energy efficient light bulbs and insulating our homes.

Playing an Important Role

However, recycling has not received the focus that it should in many markets. Municipal recycling rates nationwide have generally been flat over the last several years. According to the EPA, Americans recycled at a rate of 34 percent (including composting) in 2009, the most recent year on record. Some of the best cities in the U.S. and Europe prove that we can at least double that number and achieve diversion rates of 70 to 80 percent.

Major cities play a strategically important role in the fight against climate change because they are host to half the world population, account for roughly two-thirds of world’s primary energy demand and more than 70 percent of global CO2 emissions. Green infrastructure investment in sectors such as building (energy efficiency), waste and wastewater, energy and mobility creates jobs, generates incomes, has a high social rate of return, and fosters wider technological and social innovation. Recycling should be at the forefront of all sustainability efforts and any discussion on green infrastructure should include recycling.

Last year, Congress was considering federal legislation to help combat global warming with recycling being considered as a carbon reducing activity. However, the climate bill was not passed and is not being considered heavily this year. There is potential for significant energy efficiency legislation this year where we hope to see recycling officially recognized as an energy efficiency.

Measurement Tools

Recycling needs to be measured to be impactful. The best measurement tool to help quantify the emissions reductions achieved through recycling is the EPA’s Waste Reduction Model (WaRM). It is downloadable for free on the EPA’s website.It provides an estimation of the emissions reductions in metric tons of carbon dioxide per ton of recycling and is somewhat customizable for different scenarios. The model puts these emissions reductions into context with carbon equivalencies of cars off the road, barrels of oil conserved and household energy consumption.

The standard tool to measure environmental impact is through a carbon footprint analysis. However, waste disposal and recycling are not currently standard components included in the calculation. Recycling needs to be included and the environmental benefits of proper behavior tracked. This change should be addressed with the next version of protocols. The World Resources Institute and World Business Council for Sustainable Development are reviewing the Accounting and Reporting Standard for Scope 3 emissions and have proposed changing the requirements to include recycling . This means that emissions from the third-party disposal or treatment of waste generated in the reporting company’s operating will be measured as an optional component. Disposal in landfill, recycling, incineration, composting and waste to energy will all result in different emissions results. This is an important step to draw attention to the carbon-reducing component of recycling.

Working Together

We need action to combat climate change and the increasing presence of harmful emissions impacting the earth’s atmosphere. There won’t be just one solution to the problem, but a myriad of changes we need to make. One of the easiest, most cost effective solutions currently available to us is to increase our recycling rates. Let’s work together to change behaviors, measure our impact and highlight the importance of reducing our waste, reusing our precious resources and renewing our world.

Sara Conte is Director of Corporate Development for Greenstar Recycling (Houston, TX), providing sustainable recycling solutions in the recycle processing, commodity upgrading, managed services and commodity marketing sectors of the solid waste market. The company handles more than 2 million tons of recyclables per year with a network of 14 processing facilities and over 10,000 managed service locations. Sara can be reached at (713) 550-5589, e-mail [email protected] or visit


Greenstar Recycling was recently honored to present its views on recycling at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. It presented a case study on San Antonio—how America’s seventh largest city has created a pathway to zero waste by increasing recycling volume by 300 percent in the past five years. Greenstar focused on how they have worked together with the City of San Antonio to create a program that decreases landfill space and energy consumption while removing 600,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent annually (equal to taking 130,000 cars off San Antonio roads each year) and creating over 125 green jobs dedicated to recycling programs.

For more information, read the City of San Antonio’s publication, “10 Year Recycling and Resource Recovery Plan for Residential and Commercial Services; Creating a Pathway to Zero Waste”, at