Virtual Carbon Emissions

The greenhouse gas emissions from solid waste in landfills and incinerators are considerable.  Carbon dioxide and methane emissions from the breakdown of food, yard waste, other biodegradable materials, and (to a limited degree) plastics were believed to have resulted in 2.8% of U.S. greenhouse emissions in 2014.

This does not account for the energy and carbon emissions saved though recycling.  According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in 2014, about 35% of U.S. solid waste was recycled or composted, saving the equivalent of 3% of domestic greenhouse emissions.  Some of these emissions were prevented by the energy saved by reprocessing recycled materials into new products instead of using virgin materials.  More emissions were prevented by reducing the breakdown of organic materials such as food and yard waste into methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

This savings pales, however, if you consider the emissions associated with mining, extracting, harvesting, processing, and transporting the raw materials that comprise manufactured goods and packaging, as well as disposing of them at the end of their lives.  In 2009, this was estimated to equal 37% of U.S. carbon emissions.

Not all of this is directly emitted in the U.S., as a considerable percentage of U.S. goods are imported.  However, we are importing the embodied energy, and by extension, embodied carbon emissions, from the products’ manufacture.  Imported goods and packing can increase the carbon footprint of the average U.S. home by 28 to 54%.

Cartoon about gizmos and how they become unpopular

Six Things You Can Do to Get to Zero Waste

1. Compost – At least 1/3 of Austin’s residential garbage is kitchen waste and yard trimmings.  Why bury it for eternity when you can turn it into valuable fertilizer for gardens, plants, and lawns?  There are several different approaches or strategies for composting, depending on where you live and how much time you have.  Composting can reduce greenhouse emissions to a small fraction of what these organics would emit if buried in a landfill.

Compost also retains water–up to 20 times its own weight–thus making the most of what may become a scarcer resource. And it reduces runoff erosion created by deluges.

• Backyard Composting – There is usually enough lawn area at single-family homes and duplexes to compost kitchen and yard waste.  To encourage this, the Austin Resource Recovery Department offers free composting classes to interested residents.  These occur about once a week.  For scheduled classes, see  The City also offers a $75 rebate for purchase of home composting systems, or you can build your own through clever use of old pallets and wire mesh for little to no cost.

• Non-Backyard Composting – In apartments without any private lawn area, worms make interesting pets.  Worm bins house the critters that can break down kitchen garbage into potting soil amendments.  A good “how-to” guide to get started is “Worms Eat My Garbage,” by Mary Appelhof.

Another technique for composting in close quarters is fermentation.  A technique called Bokashi inserts compostable material in an enclosed vessel with a fermentation formula and little oxygen.  Done correctly, there is no odor, and it can compost animal food waste, which some other composting techniques are challenged to process.  Like worm composting, it can be done in a confined setting like a garden-apartment patio.

One good Web site to learn more is:

• Drop-off Composting – There are several places in Austin that will welcome your food scraps and turn them into fertilizer.  While driving a compost bucket miles for just the drop-off will create a lot of pollution, if the drop-off site is local and part of an errand route, it might work out.

For more information on compost drop-off locations, see:  Alternatively, this site can tell you where to pick up free compostables and mulch if you want a new hobby.

• Curbside Composting – Over the next few years, Austin Resource Recovery, the City’s manager of solid waste, is establishing a home compost pick-up program for all of its customers.  Food waste, as well as yard waste, will be placed in a special bin, which will be trucked off to a professional composting site.  Follow program roll-out announcements in your neighborhoods at:

2. Recycle – About 90% of the materials in the U.S. solid waste stream in 2014 were recyclable or compostable.  Commodities such as cardboard, paper, plastic, metal, and glass made up 52% of this.

The City of Austin, as well as many surrounding cities and private haulers, have made recycling of the largest material types easy.  “Single stream” recycling allows you to include all recycled materials in one container, which will be separated later at Material Recovery Facilities.

There is also a list following this article (pages 95 and 96) of recycling drop-off centers for people who have no recycling service in their area, and for providers of recycling for specialty materials and items that are not part of any recycling service (e.g., eyeglasses, batteries).

3. Don’t Buy New Whenever Possible – As stated previously, huge amounts of energy and its collateral greenhouse emissions are embodied in consumer culture.  Buying used, borrowing rarely needed materials, and finding creative uses for used materials will prevent some of this.

Buy Used!  Trade!  Beg! Borrow! Donate! Scavenge!  Below are a few Web sites that can assist with this.

Shop Zero

Austin Reuse

Austin Freecycle

Austin Materials Marketplace

Buy Nothing Project

Austin Craigslist

Austin Resource Recovery also has a “Reuse Store,” which is kind of a misnomer, in that its items are free.  The store takes items dropped off at its Recycle & Reuse Drop-Off Center at 2514 Business Center Drive (78744) and recycles them if they are in usable condition.  Materials available at the store include: art supplies, cleaning products, household chemicals, automotive fluids, “ReBlend Paint” recycled from usable paint dropped off at the center (good for purposes like primers) and mulch.

4. Buy High-Quality – If you do buy new products, buy high quality goods if you can possibly afford them.  They typically last longer, and save money that would ordinarily be wasted on extra maintenance and replacement.

If landfilled rather than diverted for recycling, carpet emits methane, a greenhouse gas.  Low-grade carpet may be inexpensive, but quickly wears down.  Durable flooring such as wood, cork, and tile, as well as commercial-grade carpet, lasts longer and typically saves money when replacement costs are considered.

Fiber cement or brick siding lasts longer and requires less maintenance than wood or fiberboard.  High quality shingles will stretch the time between re-roofing work and will not cost more in labor to install them; metal and tile roofing may last the lifetime of the home.

Higher cost LED light bulbs often last longer, have better color quality, and often work with dimmers and inside enclosed fixtures, in contrast to cheaper LEDs.

5. Precycle – Why recycle when you can prevent the use of packaging in the first place.  Replace bottled water with tap water or filtered tap water.  Bring your own beverage cups to take-out restaurants.  Bring your own reusable bags when you go grocery shopping.

6. Join With Recycling Activists – Since 1984, when the City of Austin began the first curbside recycling program in Texas, it has led the way in resource recovery and reducing solid waste.  Persuading the public and elected officials of the necessity of this “zero waste” goal and best policies to achieve it often came from volunteers.  Join with groups such as Austin Zero Waste Alliance.  (See page 133 for more details.)


Continue to Recycling – Austin Resource Recovery->

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