How Cutting Trash Cuts Greenhouse Gases

In the US, we generate a lot of trash.  During 2014, the latest year reported by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the US generated 258 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW).  Of that amount, 169 million tons were landfilled or incinerated.  About 89 million tons, or 34.6%, were recycled or composted.1

Recycling or composting those 89 million tons was a very good thing for the environment.  For one thing, those items were kept out of our landfills and incinerators.

Just as importantly, they served as valuable raw materials for manufacturers to make new stuff.  Used aluminum cans, plastic bottles, milk jugs, cardboard boxes, papers, glass bottles, and other materials can be made into all sorts of new things.  Even food scraps have value, as they can be composted into rich soil.

Making new stuff from recycled materials is far less energy intensive than making new stuff from virgin materials.  Think about this:  Using recycled paper means that fewer trees have to be cut down, less fuel has to be used to transport logs for processing, and so on.

In another example, it takes less energy to make new aluminum from recycled materials than it does to mine aluminum ore out of the earth’s crust and process it into new aluminum sheets.  You may be surprised to learn that, according to The Aluminum Association, “Every three months, Americans throw away enough scrap aluminum to rebuild the entire U.S. commercial airplane fleet. Recycling that metal would save the energy equivalent of 16 million barrels of oil.”2

Remember that in 2014, the US recycled or composted about 89 million tons of various materials.  That saved a lot of energy.  According to the US EPA, all that recycling and composting reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 181 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent (MMTCO2E), versus just throwing it away.  That’s about the same as removing 38 million passenger cars from the road!3

What if we could do even better?  As mentioned above, the US landfilled or incinerated 169 million tons of material in 2014.  The average bag-based Pay-As-You-Throw (PAYT) program reduces trash by 44%.4 If we could reduce that 169 million tons by 44%, what would it mean for energy savings and greenhouse gases?

Well, for starters, trash would drop by more than 74 million tons.  That would reduce greenhouse gases by about 140 million MMTCO2E.  It would be like removing another 27 million cars from the roads!  It would also be the same as saving more than 15 billion gallons of gas!5

The PAYT solution is simple, it works, and it can be done at the local level.  It doesn’t matter what the politicians in Washington, D.C. or state capitols do.  PAYT is one of the most powerful environmental tools known, and it can be used by people in their local communities.


  1. Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: 2014 Fact Sheet, Released November 2016, US Environmental Protection agency, p. 2
  2. The Aluminum Association website, Student Educational Resources, http://www.aluminum.org/aluminum-advantage/student-educational-resources, accessed February 16, 2018
  3. Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: 2014 Fact Sheet, US EPA, p. 2
  4. WasteZero analysis of 225 bag-based PAYT programs in the United States
  5. EPA Waste Reduction Model (WARM)


Photo Credit:  Shane Rounce on Unsplash

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