I’ve been asked to present the Take Back The Filter campaign (urging Clorox to take back and reuse/recycle used Brita water filter cartridges) as part of a panel at the California Resource Recovery Association’s (CRRA) annual conference next week. I am excited to have the opportunity to share the campaign with this audience, and when initially asked, wasn’t at all nervous about speaking: I’ve been talking about not much else for the past 3 months!
Not nervous, that is, until I found out that the theme of the conference is CARBONOPOLY: Climate Change Is Not A Game We Can Lose.
Oh dear. I know about zero waste. I know about the problems of plastic. I know why I don’t want Brita filter cartridges to continue to be landfilled or incinerated. But I hadn’t related the issue to climate change. In fact, I actually knew very little about global warming except that we’re all supposed to use less energy, buy fewer things that need to be shipped, and purchase locally to avoid fuel costs. I’ve been on the Low Carbon Diet with some friends for several weeks now. But still, I hadn’t ever thought about the connection between recycling and global warming. What the heck was I going to say to this group of industry professional?
Thanks to Ann Schneider of Sierra Club’s Zero Waste Group for referring me to a fantastic report called, “Stop Trashing The Climate,” a joint effort among the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Eco-Cycle, and Global Anti-Incinerator Alliance, which was published in June of this year. This report describes the multiple ways that waste affects our climate, some obvious, and some that may not immediately come to mind.
First, of course, there are the gases produced by landfills and incinerators. These gases are the direct effect of dumping or burning our waste. According to the report, “Landfills are the largest source of anthropogenic methane emissions in the U.S., and the impact of landfill emissions in the short term is grossly underestimated — methane is 72 times more potent than CO2 over a 20-year time frame.” But what about methane captured for energy? At the Hay Road landfill that I visited last January, we were told that the methane from the landfill is captured. But according to the findings of the Stop Trashing The Climate report, “The portion of methane captured over a landfill’s lifetime may be as low as 20% of total methane emitted.”
And incinerators emit not only CO2 but also nitrous oxide (N2O), a greenhouse gas that is 300 times more potent than CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere. In fact, the authors of the report recommend that “Existing incinerators should be retired, and no new incinerators or landfills should be constructed.” But what about filters on incinerators that trap the gases and other pollutants?
Here’s where we come to the main point of the report, the indirect results of landfilling and incineration that trapping the gases and other discharges from landfills and incinerators doesn’t address: “Wasting directly impacts climate change because it is directly linked to resource extraction, transportation, processing, and manufacturing.”
The more materials we send to the landfill or incinerator, the more materials must be extracted in order to replace them. And transported. And processed. And every step along the way uses more energy and produces more greenhouse gases than reusing or recycling the materials we already have.
In the case of Brita filters, that means more drilling for oil to make plastic and all the problems associated with that process. It also means transporting the oil, usually from places that are very far from where the oil will be used. And then processing the oil into new plastic pellets. And then shipping the new plastic. Then creating the new plastic filters. And then shipping the filters.
If Brita filters were designed to be reused instead of trashed, many, many greenhouse gas-generating steps in the process could be avoided. And even if, due to regulatory impediments related to the purity of plastic that comes into contact with drinking water, the filters themselves can’t be reused, Clorox’s development of a way to recycle the materials would still slow the need for more oil and creation of new plastics for other products.
It becomes clear to me that folks who criticize this campaign, or any other extended producer responsibility campaign, on the grounds that it takes energy to ship the used products back the manufacturer are not taking into consideration the environmental costs of creating brand new products to replace those that are trashed.
Of course, there are other major environmental costs to creating new plastic which I haven’t addressed in this post, since the focus here is on global warming. I discussed some of them (including harm to the marine environment) in my post, “What’s Wrong with Plastic Anyway?.” But the new (to me) information from the Stop Trashing The Climate report both heartens and saddens me. The link between waste and global warming re-energizes my commitment to source reduction and recycling and gives me an additional argument in support of the Take Back The Filter campaign. But the information also grieves me to think of one more way that we are trashing our world.
This post was included in the first Green Moms Blog Carnival at Organic Mania on August 4, 2008.