How Does Recycling Decrease Greenhouse Gas Emissions?

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Garbage is a major contributor to global warming. Solid waste landfills are the single largest man-made source of methane gas in the United States. Methane (CH4) is a powerful greenhouse gas that is 23 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than the most prevalent greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide (CO2). Every time you "throw away," you are contributing to global warming.

Ton for ton, recycling reduces more pollution, saves more energy and reduces greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions more than any other activity besides source reduction. Recycling reduces GHG emissions in two important ways. First, recycling keeps materials out of the landfill. Landfills are designed to be anaerobic, meaning that once waste has been dumped, very little air remains below the surface. Landfill gas is generated as a byproduct of the digestion of organic materials by organisms that thrive in these anaerobic conditions. Food waste, paper, grass, and other organic matter is readily digested and turned into landfill gas, which is 50 percent methane. While most modern landfills are required to capture some of their methane emissions, significant quantities continue to escape into the atmosphere. 

Second, recycling reduces GHG emissions by reducing the need to continually mine and refine virgin resources for product production. Every day, consumer products such as aluminum soda cans are made from resources mined from the earth, transported great distances, and eventually processed with industrial machinery requiring massive energy inputs. This all results in significant GHG emissions.  A recent California Department of Conservation report found that using recycled aluminum from soda cans requires only 5 to 8 percent of the energy required to produce primary aluminum, which results in a 95% reduction of GHG emissions as compared to primary production.  Utilizing recycled plastic saves 70% of the energy otherwise needed for production, and utilizing recycled glass saves 30% of the energy otherwise needed for production. 

 

Another way to reduce GHG emissions from landfills is to compost organic waste.  Read more about composting.