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Scotland Launches a Much Smarter Recycling Program

Scotland is completely reorganizing how it measures and incentivizes recycling to focus on what matters most: reducing carbon. It's a global first.


Generally, recycling rates are calculated by the total tonnage or the percentage of material recycled. But if the goal of recycling is to reduce the environmental impact of that stuff, those ways of measuring recycling don't make a lot of sense because not all recycling is equally valuable. Certain materials are way more carbon-intensive to produce, making the benefits of recycling them greater. And similarly, recycling processes themselves can be more or less energy-intensive.

In what it's describing as a first-of-its-kind initiative, Scotland is completely reorganizing how it measures and incentivizes recycling to encourage cities to focus on what matters most: reducing carbon. The new "carbon metric" will


prioritise materials with a high carbon impact such as plastics and textiles, which currently have relatively low levels of recycling in Scotland. It will also highlight the relative merits of different waste management options, and will support the aspiration for greater ‘closed loop’ recycling markets, for example, by giving higher weighting to glass which is recycled back into glass rather than that which is used for aggregates or insulation materials.

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At the same time, local governments will be focusing less on materials that aren't as important to recycle in terms of carbon saved, like paper.

The debate about whether or not recycling is "worth it" has simmered since John Tierney's 1996 New York Times Magazine story "Recycling Is Garbage," with critics denouncing recycling as exorbitantly expensive and environmentalists defending it as necessary for preserving the planet. But both sides in this pitched battle rarely note that there are lots of pretty obvious ways to improve recycling that we haven't even tried yet. Optimizing the practice for carbon savings, like Scotland is doing, is one great example.

Photo (cc) from Flickr user aeu04117