The hidden waste behind your waste

At this very moment, more than 7,000 power plants across the United States are extracting energy from coal, oil, natural gas, biomass, and nuclear fuel. A continuous strand of wire leads from virtually every plug and fixture in your home and workplace to some sort of power generation facility. Every time you turn out the lights, shut down your computer or unplug your phone charger to extinguish that little glowing light, you are decreasing the load on that power plant. Turning off electronics reduces the amount of carbon dioxide and other pollutants emitted by that plant.  For example, turning your work computer and monitor off over the weekend keeps two to six pounds of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. While this reduction seems minuscule relative to the cutbacks necessary to prevent a climate catastrophe, it is undeniably a step in the right direction. Little steps add up, and by making energy conservation a habit, it is possible to significantly reduce your impact without sacrificing your standard of living.

Energy conservation can extend far beyond turning out the lights. The production and shipment of items you use on a daily basis requires what is called embodied energy. One aluminum can’s embodied energy includes the mining of bauxite ore, the smelting of bauxite, the transportation of the can and the manufacturing of the can itself.  Tossing a can in the garbage not only wastes energy and valuable aluminum, it also takes up premium landfill space. Americans throw away enough aluminum every three months to rebuild our entire commercial airline fleet! A recycled can is back on the shelf within 60 days and takes 95 percent less energy to make compared to using virgin ore.

Plastic, glass, cardboard and paper are also valuable resources with their own embodied energy. Recycled plastic is made into polyester jackets, building materials, containers, drain pipes, carpet and much more. Paper products can be turned into new paper, napkins, or animal bedding, and glass is used in roadways or new glass containers.

Take a close look at what you’re throwing away. You’d be surprised at how much can be recycled. Minimizing your waste stream is one of the easiest ways to slow the rate of industrial mining, petroleum extraction, deforestation and landfill use. Any fourth-grader will tell you that reducing and reusing come before recycling. Making a disposable bottle requires five times as much water as the bottle will hold. Simply forgoing disposable bottles in the first place is far more impactful than recycling your empties.

The single greatest step you can take to leading a sustainable lifestyle is being aware of your habits. If everyone in America ate meat for one less meal each week, it would save an amount of water equal to the annual flow of the Colorado River. Carpooling, taking public transportation or riding a bike are all less energy-intensive ways to get to work or school. Using fewer disposable products, bringing reusable bags to the grocery store and making an effort to recycle are simple ways to reduce landfill waste. Turning off lights and appliances will minimize your energy consumption, and buying products certified by groups such as the Forest Stewardship Council or Rainforest Alliance will help environmentally responsible businesses grow.

It may not be convenient, but it’s not that hard, especially considering what is at stake. I challenge you to think about your own habits and what steps you can take toward a more sustainable lifestyle.

-Nikhil Schneider

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