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The Environmental and Climate Costs of Using Virgin Materials

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The Environmental and Climate Costs of Using Virgin Materials

It’s important to realize that the problems of waste start well before something is thrown in a trash bin. Everything that eventually lands in an incinerator or landfill was born of some type of raw material, and this connection between waste and resources must be recognized. It doesn’t take any great mental leap of faith to understand that the more waste that is eventually generated, the more raw materials, or resources, are consumed. And since disposable, non-durable, and non-recycled goods still make up the majority of the waste stream, this creates a big demand for the raw materials that’ll make up their replacements.

Now it just so happens that the production of goods using virgin materials is much more energy intensive than manufacturing goods from recycled materials. In general, more energy is required to extract, process, and transport the virgin materials. Higher energy consumption equals greater emissions of greenhouse gasses, the root cause of global warming. Consider this: when producing materials from virgin steel, copper, glass or paper, net carbon emissions are four to five times higher than if produced from recycled materials; for aluminum, the are 40 times higher. Similarly, the process of extracting and processing petroleum to make plastic uses four to eight times as much energy as making the same products from recycled plastics.

On top of this, there are scores of other environmental concerns that come with the extraction and processing of the raw materials that become the biggest chunk of our waste stream. Processes like mining, drilling, refining, and pulping regularly emit chemical pollutants into local ecosystems, dislocate or destroy habitats, and often have ill health effects on workers and local citizens.

What’s more, the very material that makes up the greatest percentage of the American waste stream comes from a resource that’s one of the planet’s best defenses against climate change. That material, of course, is paper, the vast majority of which still comes straight from trees, and which constitutes a higher percentage of our waste stream than any other material. Trees—particularly the old growth forests from which most paper products are born—absorb carbon dioxide and store it, something known as “carbon sequestration.” The more forests are clear-cut to make paper products, the less carbon gets sequestered.

Besides the global warming implications, the loss of biodiversity from the world’s shrinking forests is one of the most troubling—and underreported—environmental crises of our time. Natural ecosystems that are fundamental to both local economies and cultures are being destroyed, and the wasteful use of paper products is hugely accountable.

To read more on the effects of the world’s shrinking forest, visit our Global Warming Guide.

1. Choate, Anne, Lauren Pederson, Jeremy Scharfenberg, (ICF Consulting, Washington DC); Henry Ferland, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington DC. “Waste Management and Energy Savings: Benefits By The Numbers.” [4 September 2005]

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