Understanding the impacts of the waste stream can be tricky and understanding the role of waste in sustainability can at times be a twisting road to follow. Our waste stream impacts us in many ways. Globally a significant amount of energy is required to process pulp and paper. Using recycled paper uses 65% less energy than pieces sourced from raw materials. Less energy used equals fewer greenhouse gas emissions.
Staying on paper’s theme, recycling one ton of paper saves 17 mature trees from being harvested, leaving each tree in place to capture and process carbon dioxide. Another heavily used resource in paper production is water; recycled paper production uses 80% less water than paper produced from raw materials. Once used, water requires treatment, which releases both methane and nitrous oxide, both greenhouse gasses.
In one waste stream alone, through the impact of paper, we can see the importance of recycling and the greenhouse gasses reduced through more responsible life cycle management.
The same exercise can be applied to plastics, especially when you consider most plastics’ fossil fuel origin. The emissions from producing and incinerating plastics are believed to amount to over 56 gigatons of carbon – nearly 50 times the annual emissions of all the coal power plants in the US between now and 2050.
Glass? Yep, you guessed it, the primary emission from the production of glass is carbon dioxide. The emissions from the amount of fuel used in smelting glass that originates from raw materials are nearly double the impact of smelting recycled glass. The same is true of metals.
In each case, recycling versus making new products from raw materials significantly reduces the greenhouse gasses associated with the materials in question. Add in the significance of methane gasses associated with decaying waste at landfills, the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the US. You start to see why diverting waste from the landfill to a recycling process is essential n reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
As discussed in previous posts, this only works if the recycled product is free from contamination to reuse another product. This patchwork stream of recycling has taken significant hits amid the Covid Pandemic. Commercial streams, which tend to have less contamination, have significantly decreased while residential streams, which tend to have higher contamination levels, have increased. Strategies to reduce contamination in the residential stream, therefore, remain very important for the industry.
One trend of the past year has been the increased reliance on e-commerce by residential users. While a challenge for multi-family community managers, the increase in deliveries through corrugated boxes have improved the container paperboard market. It seems reasonable to assume that as more consumers become comfortable with e-commerce, the resulting delivery box is likely an increasing factor that needs to be considered when building a waste management strategy.
The why of recycling seems to be pretty straightforward; it is an essential strategy in a global approach to combat climate change and remains a prospective source to help meet future resource needs. Recycling is one of the easiest and most visible actions that we can take in this fight. Despite consistently identifying it as necessary, residents in multi-family dwellings are far less likely to recycle than those who live in single-family homes.
With a growing percentage of US households shifting to apartments and condominiums, the question of why apartment dwellers are less apt to divert materials cleanly is a question of growing significance. We know they understand its importance. Poll after poll, survey after survey, identifies recycling as desirable for homeowners and apartment dwellers alike. Consistently recycling is graded as necessary for coast to coast, community to community.
We hear education; they just need to be taught how to recycle. We print posters and develop engagement programs to recognize cardboard boxes, newspapers, metal beverage containers, plastic bottles, glass containers, junk mail, etc. Those living in apartments work in the same organizations as those living in single-family homes, they frequent the same recreational areas, they are not living in a vacuum. While engagement is essential, as is education, the way we are currently approaching it does not seem to be moving the needle significantly.
Access to recycling may begin to answer the question. Without the opportunity to recycle, often residents who would like to recycle simply are not provided the chance to recycle. When they are, logistically, it may be difficult to access the containers. This is especially true in garden-style apartments, where often waste and recycling containers are centralized and are not easily accessible for most residents.
Service providers and local government leaders in Washington and California established the four “C’s” of importance for recycling infrastructure: Convenience, Clarity, Capacity, and Color. I advocate amending that list to a fifth C: consistency: consistent service, signage, and service. Recycling needs to match what is commonly encountered outside of the multi-family community.
The engagement of the community management and maintenance teams is also essential. From resources to educate, tools to increase access, engagement strategies, including the property management team in an easy-to-use manner is critical for a property to increase its diversion rate. Communication is key.