Recycling, Manufacturing Life Cycle and Climate Change

Recycling is nothing more than a manufacturing process

In a “traditional” virgin-materials-based paper making process trees are cut down, transported to a processing facility to be ground into pulp and bleached, transported to a manufacturer to be made into paper products, then transported to a merchant, and finally transported to a consumer. Once the consumer is done with the paper, it is discarded typically into a landfill or incinerator.

Recycling is merely a process in which that discarded paper is re-cycled back into the manufacturing process to make new paper and/or paper products. This process displaces some or all of the trees used in virgin paper. Recycling has two primary types of benefits:

  • Landfill diversion
  • Displacement of virgin natural resources in manufacturing

Issues of limited waste disposal options in the Northeast and other areas of the country have often focused discussions about the benefits of recycling only to the benefits of diverting those materials from landfills. However, for many materials, that is only a small fraction of the benefits of recycling. Increasing public awareness about greenhouse gasses and global climate change is re-focusing attention to recycling’s role in product life cycles and sustainable manufacturing. This is reawakening people to the often-larger benefits of recycling that come from displacing virgin natural resources in the manufacturing process.

Definition of terms

The information below is general information about the manufacturing life-cycle. It focuses on paper and paper products which are the single largest group of products consumed and discarded by the college. However, the steps in this life-cycle process are very similar for any manufactured product.

The term “carbon sink” is used to describe any biological, chemical or geological process in which carbon is removed from the atmosphere and fixed or sequestered in plants, soils and/or waters.

The term “CO2 equivalent” is used to compare the various gases that contribute to global climate change using CO2 as a baseline. There are many different greenhouse gases with varying degrees of potency. To compare and contrast these gases, their global warming potential is assessed and explained by comparing how much CO2 would be required to have the same global warming potential.

Impacts from avoided landfilling

Diverting paper from landfills does have significant implications for greenhouse gas emissions.

  • Paper, like other organic matter, does break down in a landfill, albeit slowly. The problem is that in a landfill it does so under anaerobic conditions (in the absence of oxygen).
  • A significant byproduct of this anaerobic breakdown is the generation of methane a major contributor to climate change and about 25 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
  • While modern landfill technology seeks to extract this methane and burn it for fuel, that technology does not capture 100% of the methane generated and the burning of methane for fuel still ultimately emits some carbon into the atmosphere, though in a less potent form.
  • In addition, the construction of landfills leads to a significant amount of net carbon in the atmosphere. Most landfills are not located in urban centers. Rather, they are typically located in fairly rural areas in which (at least on the east coast) requires the removal of trees or other vegetative carbon sinks to site the landfill.
  • There is also the carbon required to excavate all the dirt out of a landfill. A landfill is essentially a 5-acre to 100-acre hole in the ground that is lined and filled with trash. 5 to 100 acres of hole doesn’t just remove itself. It requires a lot of heavy equipment, a lot of diesel, and a lot of carbon emissions to remove that much dirt in order to re-fill that hole with trash.

Life cycle impacts of recycling-based manufacturing

The much bigger benefits of paper recycling, and from using recycled-content paper come from displacing the use of trees to make new paper.

  • Extracting trees: Live trees are a significant carbon “sink” meaning that they help to extract CO2 from the atmosphere and trap it. When we cut those trees down to make paper, we eliminate their ability to do that. In addition, these are not the days of Paul Bunyan. Large energy-intensive carbon-emitting gas and diesel powered equipment has long since replaced the days of a sharp ax and strong swing. This makes the cutting of trees a double carbon burden both for the carbon emitted while extracting the trees and the loss of the carbon sink when the tree is cut. Each ton of recycled paper used to make new paper replaces about 17 trees worth of virgin timber.
  • Processing: Recycled paper is made from paper, something that has already been converted to pulp and bleached. While some re-pulping and de-inking of recycled paper is required, this is typically a less energy-intensive process than converting trees to paper pulp.
  • Transportation: The transportation of virgin natural resources is also a hugely carbon-intensive process.
  • Timber forests are typically located in remote locations. Compounding that is the issue that trees are very heavy and require a lot of energy to move, and the trucks used to move them are not small fuel efficient vehicles. When all of that heavy wood has to be moved first from a remote forest to a processing plant to be turned into fiber, then that fiber has to be transported to a manufacturing facility to be made into paper, then that paper has to be moved to a merchant and from there to a consumer, and after it has been used has to be taken to a remote landfill that all adds up to a lot of transportation energy, a lot of diesel fuel, and a lot of carbon emissions.
  • Conversely, when you buy recycled paper, you are buying from a facility that is typically located closer to a population center (where they are getting their material from), a process that takes less energy and emits less carbon.