Published: Dec. 15, 2023 By
CU recycling truck

When considering climate change mitigation and reducing your carbon footprint, you probably think of driving less and turning out the lights. But did you know that organic and inorganic waste is also a massive contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions? A zero-waste lifestyle keeps material out of landfills and reduces your carbon footprint. 

The benefits of recycling 

As climate change and waste are ever-growing problems worldwide, it is essential to understand how these two significant issues affect each other. Recycling helps combat the climate crisis by limiting the use of raw materials and reducing waste going into landfills.  

Project Drawdown estimates that recycling between 2020 and 2050 will reduce emissions by 5.5 to 6.02 gigatons of carbon dioxide, equivalent to taking over one billion cars off the streets for one year. Recycling is a practical yet easy change to help curb greenhouse gas emissions and limit the climate crisis. 

  • When an item is recycled, it is processed and turned into something new rather than created out of virgin material or disposed of and treated as waste in a landfill.  
  • Recycling to create something new generally uses less energy than creating a product from raw materials. 
  • Recycling aluminum is incredibly energy efficient. Using aluminum scraps to make aluminum cans saves 95% of the energy used to create an aluminum can from raw materials. Producing 40 aluminum cans requires the amount of energy in one gallon of gasoline and can be significantly decreased by using recycled aluminum scraps.  
  • The less energy used to produce a good, the fewer greenhouse gases are emitted in the process. This benefits climate change, as greenhouse gas emissions drive the current climate crisis. 

How to positively impact climate change through recycling 

You can make a difference in reducing climate change by making recycling an integral part of your lifestyle and routine. 

Upcycled vs. downcycled materials 

There are many pathways for recycled products. Turning an item into a new version of the same product is ideal when possible. Other options include turning the recycled material into new products. 

Upcycling turns a recycled material into something of equal or greater value or quality than the original product. Sometimes, the term upcycling refers to the reuse of an item instead of throwing it away. Upcycling lengthens the life of a given material. Industrial upcycling depends on the materials. Here are some easy-to-upcycle materials. 

  • Paper: Recycled office paper is upcycled as new office paper. Paper is also downcycled and turned into toilet paper, paper towels and notebook paper, generally because of contamination and lack of adequate sorting. 
  • Cardboard: Recycled cardboard may become new cardboard. When downcycled, it becomes paper bags, packaging or paperboard. 
  • Metals: Recycled aluminum cans can become new aluminum cans, and recycled steel cans will turn into steel cans. When downcycled, metal can become bike or car parts, appliances, rebar and other metal products. 

Downcycling turns a product into a different product, but the cycle is not infinitely repeatable. An example of downcycling is when a plastic bottle gets turned into a fleece jacket. PET plastics, like soda bottles, are hard to recycle infinitely because when they become a new product, the plastic gets weaker each time. Virgin materials also often have to be added to the new product to account for the weakening that the recycling process causes.  

Some materials are challenging to upcycle or downcycle and often end up in landfills. However, you can repurpose some items to keep them out of landfills. Here are examples of materials that are hard to recycle. 

  • Plastic bags: Plastic bags cannot be put in a regular recycling bin, making collection more complex. Also, the material used for plastic bags is generally hard to recycle. 
  • Electronics: Electronics contain toxins such as lead and mercury, which can make them more dangerous to recycle. Collection is often an issue as curbside recycling companies don’t accept electronics. You must take electronics to a special facility for recycling.  
  • Styrofoam (or polystyrene): Products made from Styrofoam are typically contaminated with food and have an incredibly low density. Because of this incredibly low density, it is not cost-effective to transport polystyrene because it takes up a lot of space and offers very little recyclable material. 

The climate impact of waste disposal 

Different types of waste impact the environment differently. However, all items placed in a landfill negatively impact the environment. 

  • Organic waste decomposes and creates carbon dioxide and methane gas. Methane is produced when no air is present, while carbon dioxide is the natural product when anything rots in the air. 
  • Inorganic waste includes products made from natural resources such as water, fuel, metal and timber, which causes greenhouse gas emissions, particularly carbon dioxide and other pollutants.  
  • Plastic waste produces greenhouse gas emissions during every stage of its lifecycle. Plastic extraction and transportation depend on oil, gas and coal. The production and disposal of plastics release tons of carbon emissions.  

The waste management process, including transportation and incineration, contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. 

Start recycling  

Recycling is easy in Boulder, both on campus and in the community. With plentiful recycling bins and curbside pickup, you can choose to live sustainably by recycling. You can learn more about ways to incorporate sustainable habits through the Environmental Center.