Waste and Climate Change

Climate change is often identified as one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century. Changes in the climate caused by the build-up of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere are predicted to result in major environmental changes such as (1) rising sea levels that may flood coastal and river delta communities; (2) shrinking glaciers and reduced snow cover that may diminish freshwater resources; (3) the spread of infectious diseases and increased heat-related mortality; (4) possible loss in biological diversity and other impacts on ecosystems; and (5) agricultural shifts such as changes in crop yields and productivity1. Such important environmental changes pose potentially significant risks to humans, social systems, and the natural world2.

Whether or not you are a believer in the science of climate change, implementing solutions to reverse its predicted impacts still makes sense. For example, in addition to addressing climate crises, reducing energy and reliance on fossil fuels encourages national energy independence, reduces other types of pollution (thus improving overall public health), encourages innovation, and saves money. Reducing water use reduces energy use and ensures that water ecology systems are protected and freshwater remains available to all. Water conservation also saves money. Reducing materials consumption and waste generation saves purchasing and disposal costs and, again, improves a number of other environmental conditions. These programs save money and are sustainable, protecting resources for future generations.

Changes in material consumption patterns and proper waste management not only save money; they also have significant implications for improving environmental performance and reducing climate change. Climate change efforts focus on reduction of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from energy use and reduction in emissions of other greenhouse gases, such as methane or nitrous oxide. A waste reduction strategy goes hand-in-hand with a comprehensive strategy for GHG reductions.

Climate Change Action Plans: A Waste Reduction Strategy

Twenty-five states have adopted climate action plans that incorporate waste reduction as a strategy to reduce GHGs3. Hospitals can take advantage of information from these plans and apply it in developing and striving to reach their own goals. Some suggestions are listed here:

  • Set waste diversion targets. Reducing materials use and waste generation reduces emissions associated with energy-intensive extraction of materials, transportation, and methane emissions from landfills.
  • Set purchasing targets that favor products made of materials that minimize life cycle energy and environmental impacts.
  • Measure and track emissions. Tools are available to track, for example, recycling benefits versus landfilling.
  • Support best practices at your local landfill. For example, a cover can be used for methane capture, or at least methane collection and burning, to reduce GHG emissions.
  • Set targets for the recycling of construction and demolition debris and reuse of salvaged building materials.
  • Compost food and landscaping waste.
  • Set targets for electronics recycling. Choose manufacturers that are making significant strides in climate change reduction performance and that support the collection of electronics when they are no longer being used.

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  1. EPA, Waste and Climate Change, ES-1. (Back)
  2. EPA, Waste and Climate Change, ES-1. (Back)
  3. EPA, Overview of State and Local Climate and WasteReduction Initiatives. (Back)

 

Excerpt from Fact sheet directly from the EPA Waste and Climate Change Document

EPA focused on those aspects of the life cycle that have the potential to emit GHGs as materials change from their raw states to products and then to waste. Exhibit ES-3 shows the steps in the life cycle at which GHGs are emitted, carbon sequestration is affected, and utility energy is displaced. As shown, EPA examined the potential for these effects at the following points in a product’s life cycle:

  • Raw material acquisition (fossil fuel energy and other emissions, and changes in forest carbon sequestration);
  • Manufacturing (fossil fuel energy emissions); and
  • Waste management (CO2 emissions associated with composting, nonbiogenic CO2 and N2O emissions from combustion, and CH4 emissions from landfills); these emissions are offset to some degree by carbon storage in soil and landfills, as well as avoided utility emissions from energy recovery at combustors and landfills.

At each point in the material life cycle, EPA also considered transportation-related energy emissions. Estimates of GHG emissions associated with electricity used in the raw materials acquisition and manufacturing steps are based on the nation’s current mix of energy sources, 24 including fossil fuels, hydropower, and nuclear power.

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Exhibit ES-2 shows how GHG sources and sinks are affected by each waste management strategy. For example, the top row of the exhibit shows that source reduction26 (1) reduces GHG or

MSW Management Strategy
Raw Materials Acquisition and Manufacturing Changes in Forest or Soil Carbon Storage  
Source Reduction Decrease in GHG emissions, relative to the baseline of manufacturing Increase in forest carbon sequestration (for organic materials)
Recycling Decrease in GHG emissions due to lower energy requirements (compared to manufacture from virgin inputs) and avoided process nonenergy GHGs Increase in forest carbon sequestration (for organic materials)
Composting (food discards, yard trimmings) NA Increase in soil carbon storage
Combustion NA NA
Landfilling NA NA


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