The door opens to what looks like disaster. On the left are boxes of unused books, VHS tapes, running sneakers and stray electronics. Dead ahead are thousands of plastic, glass and aluminum bottles and shredded paper. On the right are ceiling-high bales of cardboard: beer boxes and empty packaging.
This is not your living room after a Saturday night – it’s the inside of the University of Massachusetts’ Waste Recovery and Transfer Facility. About 5,954 tons of recyclable waste comes through this facility each year, according to UMass’ Physical Plant’s Office of Waste Management. Some 55 percent of the waste generated at UMass is recycled here. UMass is just one example of a growing recycling movement around the country because of the tremendous benefits recycling provides. Some experts say the benefits of recycling go beyond saving space in landfills and can also help save energy, gas and have the potential to create jobs.
To start, recycling saves energy. According to John Pepi, general manager of the Office of Waste Management, if you are not recycling materials, you are mining new ones. This uses a lot of energy from not only the mining process, but the refining process and then the actual process of product manufacturing, as well.
“If you cut those stages out [by using] the recycling process, you are making a fairly big impact in conserving energy,” Pepi said.
The National Recycling Coalition says manufacturing recycled products requires, on average, 17 times less energy than manufacturing the same products from virgin materials.
According to the Office of Waste Management website, recycling aluminum conserves 95 percent of the energy needed to produce that can. One beer can from the night before can save enough energy to run a TV for three hours. That fancier bottled beer? Recycling glass saves 50 percent of energy and one bottle saves enough energy to light a 100-watt bulb for four hours. Old Collegians? Recycled paper saves 60 percent of energy, and one ton saves 17 trees and 7,000 gallons of water.
OK, so conserving energy doesn’t concern you, but how about the exorbitant amount of money you will spend on gas going on your spring break road trip? Remember that collection of glass beer bottles we spoke of? According to the North East Recycling Council, 113 of those equals one gallon of gas. One hundred and fifty six-packs translates to 22 gallons of gas.
Lynn Rubinstein, executive director of the NERC, says gas is saved through recycling for the same reason Pepi said it saves energy. When gas is not used on mining, refining and manufacturing processes, there is more to go around. Just think, the more gas the lower the prices.
So, how does all this relate to climate change? According to Rubinstein, using recycled content requires less energy, and thus there are fewer greenhouse gases produced.
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency of Climate Change, greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gases (or synthetic gases) that are notorious for trapping heat in the atmosphere (hence the phrase ‘global warming’).
“Greenhouse gas emissions are calculated at the amount of energy used,” said Rubinstein. “So when you use energy, usually some forms of greenhouse gases are emitted in the production of this energy at places like coal or gas facilities. These facilities generate a significant amount of greenhouse gas, so when you use less energy to do something, you are avoiding greenhouse gas emissions.”
Recycling materials such as paper, aluminum, glass, plastic and steel also produces less greenhouse gas emissions because, if these materials are not recycled, they usually go to landfills or incinerators.
“Landfills release methane gas, which is a product of all our waste products being broken down under anaerobic conditions,” says Pepi.
Anaerobic conditions entail compounds breaking down with a lack of oxygen as a result of being buried in the ground. This can produce methane gas, which, according to Rubinstein, is somewhere around 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide being released.
To avoid methane problems, many landfills have been closed, which means a “cap” is put on them to reduce the amount of methane they release into the atmosphere, as well as reducing the amount of rainfall which leaks and runs off into our water systems. However, when methane pressure builds up under these caps, it can migrate underground through cracks and possibly into aquifers, or even homeowners’ basements, where it can combust if ignited, says Pepi.
Materials that go into incinerators also produce greenhouse gases from waste combustion.
By taking recyclable materials out of landfills and incinerators, more room is left in landfills, and thus fewer landfills are needed, less material is burned, and most importantly, less methane and pollution is released into the atmosphere.
Another benefit of recycling is job creation. According to the NERC, sorting and processing recyclables sustains 10 times more jobs than landfilling or incineration, and making new products with recycled content sustains an additional 12 times more jobs than disposal.
According to the Mass Recycles Paper Campaign, Massachusetts alone created 19,445 jobs in recycling and reusing establishments, shoveling out some $577 million in annual payroll.
Pepi underscored just how easy it is to be green.
“Recycling is one of the things people have the most control over…it’s something you can address on a day to day basis with a small amount of effort,” he emphasized.
Maggie Freleng can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.