Air quality: What’s zero waste got to do with it?

By Mary McIntyre

All our actions, including our buying habits, have an impact on the environment.

Our lifestyle choices about whether to use less (reduce), reuse more, repair instead of replace, or to recycle can also impact the air we breathe. Topography, industrial operations, car emissions and winter weather impact air quality. The  choice to embrace a zero waste lifestyle can create a meaningful ripple effect. What’s the connection between zero waste and our air quality? Plenty, as it turns out.

First, let’s be sure we understand what zero waste means. The Zero Waste International Alliance defines it, in part, as “designing and managing products and processes to systematically avoid and eliminate the volume and toxicity of waste and materials, conserve and recover all resources, and not to burn or bury them.” Generally speaking, a product made from virgin materials has a bigger impact on the environment than a product made from recycled materials.

For example, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), recycling aluminum cans save 95% of the energy needed to make new cans from raw materials. Recycling steel and tin cans saves 60-74%; paper about 60%, and plastic and glass about 33% compared to making those materials from raw materials.

In the course of production, factories use energy, typically fossil fuels, for powering equipment and the factory. Air pollutants are emitted in the process. The less energy it takes to manufacture a product, the fewer air pollutants are emitted.

However, pollution doesn’t come just from product manufacturing; it also comes from landfills. Landfills emit hazardous air pollutants such as methane (think food waste), mercury and benzene, and long-term exposure can impact the health of nearby residents. Reducing what goes into our landfills will lengthen the lifespan of a landfill, and delay the construction of new ones.

While fewer materials and energy are used when working with recycled materials, recycling does have its own carbon footprint. This is because every machine in a plant creates some level of pollution, and every gas-powered truck coming into and out of a plant creates toxic emissions. Those emissions impact the local airshed and contribute to the toxic particles in the air we breathe.

Even better than recycling is reducing what we buy in the first place. Reducing our consumption can have an even bigger impact on  air quality than recycling, because we’re focused on waste prevention instead of waste mitigation. By not creating the waste in the first place—using less stuff—we’re not adding to the pile, so to speak. The EPA estimates one person creates about 692 pounds of waste-related CO2 emissions equivalent per year.

What can you do to minimize your waste footprint and your personal impact on our airshed? Here are some ideas:

Start by calculating your family’s carbon footprint. Knowledge is power. Use the carbon calculator from the EPA to give yourself a baseline reading of your consumption — energy, water, waste — so you can make educated decisions about where to focus your reduction efforts. As far as purchases, ask yourself: How can I reduce my consumption? If I can’t reduce, can I recycle it? If what I’m using is not recyclable, can I use an alternative product?

Drive less: Combine errands, carpool, or use public transportation.

Try a low carbon diet by eating less industrial meat and dairy (you’ll find meat from grassfed, pastured animals at the downtown Winter Market and elsewhere); or reduce or eliminate meat from your diet; choose food grown locally and seasonally; eat less processed/packaged foods.

Reduce your food waste. Eat smaller portions and serve yourself a second helping if you’re still hungry. According to a recent study by the USDA, 225-290 pounds of food per person are wasted each year.

Use less and buy in bulk. Buying in bulk can reduce packaging and save money.

Get to know the experts in our community and connect with them. A number of local organizations are making an impact related to zero waste and improving our air quality including: SLC Green, HEAL Utah, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, Sierra Club, Alliance for a Better Utah, Utah Recycling Alliance, Salt Lake Air Protectors, Breathe Utah, Utah Moms for Clean Air, Recycle Utah, Park City Municipal and, of course, CATALYST.

January brings us Sundance, a new legislative session, the Clean Air Solutions Fair… and the inversion. Efforts to improve our local environment can sometimes feel futile, But individual and local efforts do make a difference. With the weakening of environmental laws and regulations on a national level, state and local efforts are magnified. Making the choice to consume less makes sense. It’s an easy place to start and can have far-reaching impacts.


Mary McIntyre is the former executive director of the Utah Recycling Alliance, a local nonprofit focused on programs that encourage reuse, recycling and resource conservation.

This article was originally published on December 31, 2018.