Every day we face the choice of properly sorting our waste into our three carts. With proper sorting, there should be more items in your blue recycling and green compost carts than in your black garbage cart. But why does this matter? Recycling and composting have important environmental benefits and understanding why they matter goes a long way in keeping us motivated to sort correctly!
Recycling saves energy and conserves resources
One great thing about recycling is that it has been pivotal in reducing the amount of waste sent to the landfill. From 1999 to 2018, the annual amount of waste sent to the landfill in San Mateo County dropped by 32% despite an 8% increase in population size and significant economic growth.
Material that is sent to the landfill stays there forever, whereas material that is recycled can be turned into new products. By making new products from recycled materials we also reduce demand for virgin materials, which is important because we live on a planet with finite resources! By reducing demand for virgin materials, we also save the energy that would have been used to extract and process those resources from our environment.
Even with the energy needed to process our recyclable materials at our Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) and energy needed to turn our recyclables into new products, there is still a net energy saving from recycling! Saving energy means less CO2 emissions, which contribute to climate change by acting as a heat trapping blanket in our atmosphere. Here are some of the energy savings from different materials:
- Recycling one 20 oz plastic bottle = energy to power one CFL lightbulb for 10.3 hours
- Recycling one ream of printer paper (500 sheets) = energy to power a typical laptop for 49 hours
Recycling glass and aluminum is especially important because they can be recycled over and over again!
- Recycling one 12 oz glass bottle = energy to power one CFL lightbulb for 5.3 hours
- Recycling one aluminum can = energy to power a typical laptop for 5.8 hours
Composting prevents climate change and improves our soils
Composting also plays an important role in diverting waste from our landfill, and actually plays an even bigger role than recycling in our service area. In 2018, the Shoreway Environmental Center received 120,000 tons of organic material, which was about 50% more in weight than the amount of recyclable material received.
Furthermore, diverting organic material is arguably even more important than diverting recyclable material because when organic material enters the landfill, it breaks down and releases a gas known as methane. Methane is a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change in the same way that CO2 does, but has a warming effect 34 times stronger than CO2! Composting just one ton of organic waste has the same emission reductions as taking a car off the road for two months, which means that in 2018 the RethinkWaste service area composted enough organic waste to reduce emissions equivalent to taking over 22,000 cars off of the road. In addition to diverting waste from landfills and reducing harmful emissions, finished compost has many environmental benefits as a soil additive including reducing the need for chemical fertilizers, improving soil water retention, and assisting in erosion control.
While recycling and composting play only a small role in protecting our planet, everyone can contribute to taking better care of it by taking full advantage of these wonderful systems we have in place.
So next time when you go to sort your waste, remember that diverting compostable or recyclable items from the landfill helps us use our wonderful resources to their full advantage. You can also remember the energy you can save by turning your items into new ones when you recycle right or that composting your organic waste will help improve our soils to grow our next meals!
To learn more about energy savings and emissions reductions from recycling and composting, check out these resources: