The most common response we hear when talking to businesses about their environmental actions is that they recycle. Rarely is reduction or reuse mentioned, sadly, but recycling is widely hailed as the start and the end point of the journey.
This is obviously a great thing to be doing, however when we continue the discussion it often uncovers a feeling that they are powerless to do other things.
Recycling is the last thing that people should be doing to a certain extent because it’s reduce, reuse, recycle. The first thing should be to reduce the amount of recycling you’re generating in the first place, but we’ll come on to that later.
Before then, let’s take a look at how much impact recycling has on your carbon footprint, and then compare it to if you were to drive to the recycling point to drop it off.
The question here is – does the drive to drop off recycling create more emissions than you save from recycling in the first place? Let’s work through some extremely rounded numbers as an example. These aren’t designed to be scientifically accurate, but to give an idea of the order of magnitude for recycling.
Is it worth driving to the recycling centre?
Let’s cut to the chase, and before we dive into the details give some headline figures.
Quite often well intentioned trips to the recycling center may end up producing more emissions than they save front he recycling itself.
For example, if you are driving 10 miles to the recycling center and back, you should be taking with you, at least 45 cans OR 26 wine bottles. Much less than this, and the emissions from driving will be greater than those saved from recycling.
Why? Let’s look at some figures.
How many aluminium cans do I need to recycle to offset driving 100 miles?
Driving 100 miles generates around 50kg of CO2e (based on 35mpg in a petrol car).
For ease, let’s compare this to one of the most widely recycled materials: Aluminium. It’s a standard shape, size and weight which makes it far easier to recycle than things like glass and paper, which can easily be spoiled.
At this point it’s worth also noting that recycling consumes a lot of energy, especially glass. This is why reduction is so important – because transporting all of those empty, heavy wine bottles around and then melting them all down still generates emissions.
For 1 Tonne of Aluminium cans, you save around 8 tonnes of CO2e.
Compare this to glass, which for every 1 tonne recycled, only around 300kg is saved.
An aluminium can weighs ~14g, meaning for every can recycled, we save 112g of CO2e.
Or, 1kg of cans saves 8kg of CO2e.
To offset 50KG of CO2e (from 100 miles of driving), we therefore need to save 50kg in recycling.
50kg divided by the 8kg of CO2e saved, gives us around 6.25kg of cans.
At 14g per can, that’s 450 cans.
Bare in mind aluminium is the easiest material to recycle.
How many wine bottles do I need to recycle to offset driving 100 miles?
Let’s revisit the study.
For every 1 tonne of green glass recycled, we save 314kg of CO2e. (1:0.314)
Empty wine bottles weight between 400 and 700g, depending on shape, size and style (champagne bottles being heavier). Let’s take an average of 600g.
So for every wine bottle recycled, we save 188g of CO2e.
To save the 50kg of CO2 produced, we would need to recycle 266 wine bottles!
How much does the average household recycle over a year?
From this back of the envelope maths, we quickly start to see that over a year if we drive 100 miles to the recycling point, it would quickly undo any gains from recycling unless we were recycling a lot.
In an article from the Financial Times, it highlights the common lifestyle changes and the potential CO2 emissions saved.
In it, recycling was widely responded as the #1 impact individuals would have. However, it was also one of the smallest.
Recycling was calculated to save a household 0.2 Tonnes a year.
Compare that with avoiding a long distance flight (1.6 tonnes) or ditching the car completely (2.4 tonnes) and quickly it highlights that lifestyle changes are much more impactful than recycling.
This isn’t an either or situation, so naturally the answer is to do both – recycling while also cutting down on flights and vehicle mileage. 0.2 Tonnes is equivalent to around 750 Miles. In theory, one holiday in a petrol car (especially if an SUV) could generate more emissions than your annual savings from recycling.
Alternatively, if you currently drive 1 mile a day to work and back, changing to walking would save the same amount of emissions.
What should I do beyond Recycling?
The point isn’t to say you need to stop going on holiday, get rid of the car and never move or do anything! What I hope this article has done is put recycling into a context for you to be able to make decisions and understand where it sits on the scale of climate action.
We may think nothing of hopping into the car to nip to the shops for some more milk for the office, yet when it comes to disposing of that milk carton it’s likely we would focus on recycling it.
Start thinking about your businesses’ policies and where else you can make changes that shift behaviour.
To use the milk example, if you’re noticing staff are driving to the shops during lunch to get office supplies, consider a subscription or delivery instead. (Emissions from deliveries are lower than individuals going shopping due to being bundled).
Equally, consider office policies. If a household saves 0.2 tonnes a year from recycling, that’s the equivalent in petrol terms to about 2 miles a day of driving. If you can encourage and incentivise walk to work, cycle to work, or work from home schemes, this will quickly reduce emissions.
For example, if you currently have 5 members of staff driving 5 miles to work and back 5 days a week, that’s 2 tonnes of CO2 per Year.
Implementing WFH and active travel policies meaning people are only in the office 3 days a week changes reduces this to 1.2 tonnes, a saving of 800kg of CO2 per year.
|Days a week
|Kg CO2 Per Mile
If you don’t already, working with a waste management company is a great way to start gaining visibility on how much recycling you generate, and reduce it accordingly. Often they will produce monthly and quarterly reports of the tonnage of waste you’ve generated, letting you track the impact of policy changes over time.
This can break down into materials, and track the CO2 impacts accordingly.
Hopefully this has recalibrated where recycling sits in terms of its environmental impact. Other behaviour changes in your business and life may have significantly more impact than recycling does, and priority should be given to reduction instead.
If you’re an avid recycler, great! Keep going and make sure you make other changes too. And before you jump in the car to drive to the recycling center, it’s worth considering if that may do more harm than waiting for the local collection lorry to come around.
Recycling is by no means the end, but the start of your environmental journey. Challenge your assumed behaviours, make changes and keep up that progress!