The Carbon Benefits of Recycled Materials
The benefits of avoiding extraction and primary processing are usually significant, even when collection, transport and reprocessing of recycled material is taken into account.
An increasing range of recycled products are coming onto the market, such as glass, steel, aluminium, plastics and paper. Usually calculating the carbon benefit is reasonably straightforward. As the final products must perform to similar standards (whether from virgin or recycled materials) in order to compete in the market place, the carbon footprint during their ‘use phase’ will also be very similar.
This leaves a comparison between the different production processes; generally a calculation of the difference between substituting primary raw materials with secondary raw materials plus the energy gains/losses through reprocessing. Therefore recycled products are often in a position to provide a specific carbon reduction number for secondary (recycled) raw material use compared to primary raw materials.
The benefits of avoiding extraction and primary processing are usually significant, even when collection, transport and reprocessing of recycled material is taken into account. There are also additional wider environmental benefits from avoided extraction processes, and landfill or incineration emissions.
However, recycling is not always the lowest carbon option; so some vigilance is required. Take the paper industry as an example. Paper manufacturing is extremely varied in terms of production processes, raw material inputs, energy sources, output products, waste disposal options and locations. It is therefore very challenging to put a specific carbon number associated with recycled paper.
A UK government sponsored organisation (WRAP) examined scores of life cycle studies of paper products,. Not surprisingly, the majority found recycling to be the favourable option in terms of carbon emissions. However, where comparisons were made between highly efficient virgin production and very inefficient recycled production the virgin route was found to be favourable.
This highlights three important points for purchasers to consider:
1. Recycled products are usually a good idea – they have a variety of environmental benefits, often including significantly lower carbon footprints.
2. Ask suppliers about the availability of recycled materials – more and more are coming onto the market.
3. Make sure suppliers carbon claims are supportable: asking for the amount of energy consumed and the type of fuel used are two good questions to start with. If they can’t answer these basic questions, then their claims may not
About the author
Tom Bowers is an environmental and life cycle analyst and a supply-management advocate. He believes that Purchasers are in a great position to deliver sustainability goals and objectives for all types of organization. He has worked for over 10 years in Policy and Research in government, the 3rd sector and private sector. More importantly, he has a wealth of ideas to share with the supply chain profession.
Tom founded Virescent Consultants to work with companies wanting to address the challenges of supply chain sustainability and a make the most of the business opportunities it offers them. Projects have been wide and varied and include development of the carbon emission calculator supplychainco2.com, life cycle and process analysis of an experimental indoor food production site and carbon footprint evaluation of an innovative remanufacturing scheme for a power utility company.
Tom can be reached at email@example.com