Idea-A-Day

or sometimes just a passing thought.

Landfills are our best CO2 sequestering option

Date of Original Idea: A couple years ago, but I just cannot figure out how to communicate this. So let us celebrate Earth Day with this one.

Carbon, in the form of plastic or paper, interned in a landfill is the best way to reduce the carbon in the atmosphere.

The problem with explaining this is that it does not fit into any current paradigm. When I tell people that throwing their milk jugs in the landfill instead of recycling them helps, one of three things happen:

  1. They get it. Right from those few words it just clicks.
  2. They assume I’m a climate-change-denier and blank out on what I say
  3. They assume I’m a climate-change-denier and that my comments back up their climate-change-denier stance

and so I’ve been working on explaining this carefully, but I cannot find a way. So here is attempt #1. (if someone could make a nice animation, that probably would be the best way)

THE PROBLEM: There are things that we are doing today in the name of environmentalism, with good intentions, that are unfortunately accelerating climate change.

Climate change is brought on by an imbalance of carbon in the form of CO2 or CH4 in the atmosphere. Climate change is not brought on by power plants or big cars or your neighbor not composting, although some of these activities are part of the chain of events that brings the carbon from the ground to the air. It is brought on by carbon that was, millions of years ago, in the atmosphere, that became part of a living thing, then it got interned in the ground and turned into gas, coal, or oil. This happened slowly and the world adjusted itself slowly to that slowly adjusting level of carbon, slow enough to be considered “in-balance”. By quickly bringing that carbon out of the ground and quickly releasing it, we are, rather quickly, changing that balance. The goal is to get back in balance, or barring that, slow the rate of change to try and let things, including man-made things like economic and political systems, keep up with the change. The confusing part is that we must prioritize our environmentalism in order to do this. Three areas playing the major role in this particular confusion are:

PLAYER NUMBER 1: PAPER- Carbon makes up about 30% to 40% of the weight of paper. It comes from the cellulose that comes from trees that comes from the being sucked up out of the environment when the tree grows. If you mulch that tree, that cellulose, or that paper, the carbon atoms will be released back into the world as it breaks down. This is carbon neutral, which is good in that it doesn’t affect the balance. However, if you intern that paper, and in-turn also that carbon, in the ground, then it is carbon negative, which is even better because it offsets some of the carbon that we are pulling from oil, coal, and gas– that is, it is slowing the change. We currently intern lots and lots of paper in landfills. Every 1 kg (2.2 lbs) offsets the equivalent of 1.1 to 1.4kg (2.4 to 3.1 lbs) of CO2

PLAYER NUMBER 2: PLASTIC- Carbon makes up 60% of PET (Plastic #1) and 75% of Polyethylene (Plastic #2 and #3) by weight. It comes mostly from petrochemicals, though some use plant based oils. It is carbon that was not recently in the atmosphere. If we take that carbon from the ground, turn it into oil, then return it to the ground, that is carbon neutral. If we take that carbon from plant based oils, turn it into plastic, then put it in the ground, that is carbon negative. We currently intern lots and lots of plastic in landfills. Every 1kg of PET offsets 2.2kg (4.8 lbs) of CO2.

PLAYER NUMBER 3: RECYCLING- Recycling reduces the speed at which landfills fill, and it reduces the amount of raw materials consumed for that use. This is a nuanced player, so I’ll take it in three parts:
1) Landfill volume is not an issue in many parts of the world. If you are in one of those locations where it is a difficult issue, then by all means recycle and reduce the amount of fill you have, because the other alternatives such as dumping in the ocean or burning (even for power plant use) are terrible. But generally landfills are temporary nuisances that are forgotten about after being filled over and turned into a ski hill.

2) Recycling paper reduces the amount of plant material required to produce the paper. But that’s the opposite of what we need. We need to suck up as much carbon out of the air and sequester it as possible. Using growing plants to suck it up, then burying it in the ground after getting some use out of it is win, win, win.
3) Recycling plastic reduces the amount of oil used to make plastic. But it does NOT reduce the amount of oil that will come out of the ground. This is the part that has been difficult to get people to realize. The oil in the ground has tremendous $$$ value, but only if it comes out the ground. And much of that value exists in the stock price of companies and as collateral for large loans to countries, therefore that value will need to be cashed in on. It will come from the ground. The question is, what are we going to use it for? If we use less of it for oil, then more of it will be burned for energy releasing the carbon to the atmosphere. The best option would be to not take it from the ground, but that’s unrealistic. The second best would be to take it from the ground, use it in a way that keeps the carbon under control, then put it back in the ground when we are done. The worst thing is to take it all and burn it. If all our plastic came from recycled materials, then that last option would be the one we would most resemble.

What can you do? If your garbage goes into a landfill, stop recycling or composting. Send all the carbon you can to the landfill. And in parallel reduce your CO2 footprint through lower energy usage. And don’t be a jackass (that’s not anything to do with climate change, just don’t be a jackass).

There.

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