Reduce, recycle, remove: what waste management can teach us about controlling carbon emissions

Each year, the world produces around ten billion tons of trash. A significant portion of this trash ends up as litter, polluting our cities, water, and ecosystems, and resulting in significant costs to the environment and society. In response, society deploys a three-pronged strategy to fight litter: 1) reduce waste production, 2) recycle as much of the remaining waste as possible, and 3) remove the rest in sealed landfills that protect the environment from the consequences of this pollution.

Each year, the world produces over 10 billion tons of waste. Photo credit: "Landfill face" by Ashley Felton - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

Each year, the world produces over 10 billion tons of waste. Photo credit: "Landfill face" by Ashley Felton - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

In recent decades, the same forces fighting pollution from litter have become increasingly aware of a new type of “litter:” carbon dioxide. When emitted into the air at the quantities humans produce—over 35 billion tons annually (over 3x our trash production)—carbon dioxide traps heat that would otherwise escape from the planet’s surface, in turn causing climate change. And much like the solid litter we are familiar with today, carbon dioxide litter can remain in the atmosphere for centuries (or longer) if left to natural cleanup processes.  

The good news in regards to the “carbon litter” problem facing society today is that the same reduce-recycle-remove framework that we apply to waste litter can also guide our action in regards to carbon dioxide. For one, the best way to reduce carbon litter is to not make it at all, through conservation/efficiency measures and the adoption of zero-carbon-emitting fuels. For the carbon litter that we don’t avoid, we can recycle into fuels, chemicals, and plastics (among other products). And for all of the rest, we can “landfill”—underground in geologic formations; above ground in soils, biomass, and ecosystems; and/or even potentially the ocean.

But while the reduce-recycle-cleanup framework is not controversial among supporters of the quest to end litter, this framework has surprisingly had its opponents in the climate change conversation. In particular, the idea of “landfilling” carbon dioxide (especially in underground geologic formations), has faced resistance from some in the environmental community.

What makes this opposition most strange is that the arguments from these environmental opponents to cleaning up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere contradict their arguments in support of cleaning up litter. For example, environmental groups have argued that developing carbon landfills will encourage industry to skip the “reduce” and “recycle” steps. The same is not said for litter. Take, for example, the really exciting projects to clean up litter that has accumulated in our oceans. This project is lauded by environmental groups, not opposed on the grounds that it will encourage further pollution.

Projects like this one to clean up litter from the ocean aren't opposed on the grounds that they will encourage more litter to be dumped into the ocean--instead they are lauded on the grounds that they remedy an environmental problem. The same argument can be made for efforts to clean up carbon that has accumulated in the air. Photo credit: http://www.theoceancleanup.com/

Projects like this one to clean up litter from the ocean aren't opposed on the grounds that they will encourage more litter to be dumped into the ocean--instead they are lauded on the grounds that they remedy an environmental problem. The same argument can be made for efforts to clean up carbon that has accumulated in the air. Photo credit: http://www.theoceancleanup.com/

In addition, some environmental groups cite fears that carbon landfills will cost too much to deploy, so it isn’t worth spending scarce resources on doing so. But imagine if we were faced with the same situation that we are with carbon dioxide in regards to litter (i.e. that we had let 800 billion tons of trash accumulate in our ecosystems since the Industrial Revolution, much like we have with carbon dioxide in the atmosphere). If it was “too expensive” to cleanup this trash, environmental groups would likely be clamoring for investments in science, technology, policy, and markets for landfills—not saying that the problem is un-fixable so we should focus only on proven technology to reduce the amount of new litter. 

In fact, carbon dioxide cleanup is likely to be a big business in the future—the global market for waste is estimated at around $400B* annually, after all—as well as a clear environmental priority. And that's exactly why it is critical that we invest in efforts to unlock that potential today by support innovative efforts to build the carbon landfills of the future, so we can reduce, recycle, and remove in regards to carbon dioxide as well.

 

*At a $400B in annual revenue and 10B tons of total waste per year, the average cost of waste cleanup is around $40/ton of waste -- incidentally the same figure as the social cost of carbon dioxide as estimated by the US Federal Government (Social Cost of Carbon = $40/ton CO2 in 2015 at average (3%) discount rate).