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Climate: Time for a garbage update, Part II

Katya Gordon

Last week, we discussed the importance of improving and expanding our recycling use in Lake County. How is this relevant to climate change?

The most direct way to link climate change with garbage is to look at the greenhouse gas emissions that come from landfills. Landfills around the world released nearly 800 million metric tons (882 million tons) of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2010, much of it in the form of methane. The United States had the highest total quantity of methane emissions from landfills in 2010.

China claimed a distant second place. This, despite the fact that we have historically shipped many of our recyclables to China. Clearly, we need to get our act together here; nowhere else in the world do people produce, buy and then throw away like we do.

The bad part about methane is just how potent it is — 24 times more potent than carbon. However, methane has a much shorter life in the atmosphere, too — only a decade or more, compared to hundreds of years for carbon dioxide, longer after the oceans get saturated. Reductions in methane emissions will have a quicker result — one possibly visible in a single lifetime.

Most landfills have systems that attempt to capture and often reuse their methane emissions. But these are flawed, as most emissions leak out before the landfill is sealed. Leaks account for a majority of all emissions coming from the landfill.

Sometimes I sound like a broken record, even to myself. By far the best answer, once more, is to refuse and reduce. We haven't even addressed the fossil fuels used to create all the stuff that needs to be thrown out in the first place.

At the recent Waste Advisory Board meeting, Lake County employees mentioned that the county buys recycled materials (at comparable cost) like printer paper and plastic bags for their own facilities. The market for recycled materials will improve when we become consumers of recycled products.

I bought my husband, Mark, a wool sweater this year that was 70 percent recycled wool and 26 percent recycled polyester fiber. He has hardly taken it off and tells me it is warmer than other thicker sweaters.

So one way to "step it up," other than to refuse and reduce your plastic use (don't forget to tell store employees why you are not buying an overpackaged item) is to check labels for recycled packaging or products. Call the manufacturers to inform them of your choices.

If all else fails, look for Nos. 1 and 2 plastics, which are recycled for a good price here in Lake County.

Despite the hardship or inconvenience, rising prices often jump-start market-based, American-style solutions that quickly and simply changes our habits. Once there is a price on carbon (see the latest bipartisan bill in both House and Senate, HR 1773 and S 3791, at energyinnovation.org), garbage prices, which are linked to the price of gas as all garbage must be transported, will slowly rise.

Once again, solutions and problems are inextricably linked.

Katya Gordon is a volunteer for the Citizens' Climate Lobby and a Two Harbors resident.