Products and packaging account for 44% of U.S. greenhouse gas impacts – more than heating and cooling of buildings, local passenger transportation, or food production.
Climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time. Based on the evidence, more than 97% of climate scientists are convinced that human-caused climate change is occurring. If our changing climate goes unchecked, it will have devastating impacts on the United States, our economy, and the planet.
Connecting Products and Packaging to the Climate Crisis
In 2009, UPSTREAM showed that products and packaging account for 44% of U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) impacts – more than heating and cooling of buildings, local passenger transportation, or food production. This research built upon a report from U.S. EPA that examined the GHG impacts within the United States. UPSTREAM extended EPA’s analysis to include the GHG impacts of products produced abroad and consumed in the U.S. – a phenomenon called “carbon outsourcing.”
Both UPSTREAM and EPA used a systems-based perspective that depicts emissions associated with the goods we create and consume embedded in portions of industry sectors such as mining, manufacturing, electric power, agriculture, waste disposal, and transportation.
Waste Incineration and Landfilling Increase Climate Pollution
When we landfill biodegradable materials that can be recycled or composted, they create methane – a potent greenhouse gas – as they decompose. Methane is 20 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in its climate-destabilizing effects. According to the EPA, landfills account for 17% of US methane emissions.
Business interests pushing waste incineration claim that “waste-to-energy” can help solve the climate crisis. Despite the fact that incinerators release more carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour than coal, oil or natural gas-fired power plants, industry representatives are focused on winning climate subsidies by persuading policy makers to list waste incineration as a “renewable” source of energy. This position is based on the argument that burning waste is better than landfilling it because incineration releases less greenhouse gas emissions due to the methane releases from landfills. This comparison leaves out the third option, which is that reusing, recycling, or composting these materials yields greater climate pollution reductions.
The truth is that incinerators waste energy. They burn materials that could be reused, recycled, or composted, and destroy the energy-saving potential of putting those materials back to use in our economy. For example, recycling saves 3 to 5 times the energy that waste incinerator power plants generate. Research shows that adopting proven waste reduction strategies in the United States can have climate protection benefits comparable to closing one-fifth of the country’s coal-fired power plants. This puts waste reduction and recycling on par with other GHG-reduction strategies like improving the fuel-efficiency of automobiles.
Sustainable Materials Management and Greenhouse Gas Emissions
We can reduce or avoid greenhouse gas emissions by improving both product and packaging design, our production processes, and developing systems to reuse and recycle all the materials in our products and packaging. For example, influencing product design so less materials are needed, enhancing recycling, building capabilities for reusing materials to minimize raw material input, and extending the life span of products will all reduce or avoid climate pollution.
Since the majority of a product’s energy footprint is in the extraction and production phases, policies like extended producer responsibility, reuse quotas and product bans can significantly lower the GHG emissions associated with products and packaging by continually reusing or recycling them into the products of tomorrow. Substituting recycled materials for energy-intensive virgin resources reduces the need for extraction, processing, and the transport of raw materials, as well as avoiding emissions from disposal.