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Recycling Life Cycle Approach

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The idea of what successful recycling means has evolved significantly in recent years as waste streams have shifted. Where attention was once focused on weight and volume, WM — along with many other companies, cities, states and academic institutions — has turned more attention to the environmental benefits of recycling waste streams, most notably reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, through a life cycle approach to assessing recycling.

In recent years, WM has aligned with the concept of sustainable materials management (SMM), a framework that encourages everyone in the recycling value chain to explore the impact of materials across their life cycles.

By considering the entire life of products from mineral extraction through end of life, we can understand the impact at each point along the way. This helps to quantify materials, energy consumption and emissions associated with those processes. Evaluating GHG emissions with a goal of reducing them can also help ensure resources are optimized across a product’s life cycle. This illustrates how impacts can occur at all stages — from design and manufacturing, to inputs and outputs of the product, to how people use and dispose of the product.

Understanding the Recycling Waste Stream

WM closely studies the waste stream to improve our environmental impact. Today, traditional recyclables make up about one third of the total municipal solid waste (MSW) stream. Of that total, the majority is paper, cardboard, and glass, with recyclable plastics making up less than 5% of the stream. These plastics consist mainly of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), high-density polyethylene (HDPE), and a growing amount of polypropylene (PP). The remaining plastic types have limited end-market applications and are therefore less likely to be recycled.

We use data and marry the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Waste and Recycling Model (WARM) with WM’s cost model to determine cost per ton of GHG emissions reduction in our industry. In doing so, we can prioritize waste management strategies to optimize environmental benefits. For example, while the GHG reduction benefits of recycling plastic are relatively low compared to paper and metal, plastics have been in the spotlight in recent years due to their other potentially detrimental environmental impacts.

Infographic showing GHG Emissions Reductions Per Ton of Material Recycled

While we constantly seek to make a positive impact on the environment through a variety of measures, our greatest contribution undoubtedly comes from waste reduction services and recycling. WM continues to focus on responsible management of plastics and other materials, including a focus on creating domestic demand for recycled plastic, designing products for recyclability and developing new technologies that meet the needs of our customers while maximizing environmental benefits. Reducing GHG emissions associated with recycling is essential to ensuring our operations have a positive and lasting impact on the environment and our communities.

Infographic showing the stages of the Life Cycle of Stuff

Recycling and GHG Reduction Tools

Providing tools for our customers to understand the GHG reductions achieved through recycling also helps communicate the sustainability benefits of recycling, thus motivating customers to procure services needed to improve recycling quality. Efforts to improve the quality and quantity of recycling are aligned with our science-based goal to increase avoided emissions by 38 percent by 2028, against a 2010 baseline. Recycling will play a critical role in helping to achieve that goal.

The method by which customers choose to manage waste materials has a direct impact on the amount of GHG emissions generated. According to the EPA’s Waste Reduction Model (WARM), for example, three times the life cycle emissions are generated when mixed recyclable material is disposed rather than recycled. In 2020, WM avoided the generation of 52.72 million metric tons carbon dioxide equivalent (MMTCO2e) life cycle emissions by recycling materials, repurposing them to generate renewable energy and creating compost, rather than disposing them.

GHG Emissions Reductions Per Ton of Material Recycled in (MtCO2e)

Life Cycle of Stuff

  1. Materials Extraction
  2. Manufacturing
  3. Distribution
  4. Usage
  5. End-Of-Life Management (from most to least preferred):
    • Reuse
    • Recycle
    • Compost
    • Energy Recovery
    • Landfill