Yukonomist: Your yogurt container’s dirty secret

You should still recycle, but recycling one might be giving you a false sense of environmental virtue

Eyebrows were raised at breakfast tables across the Yukon when the news hit that glass jars would no longer be allowed in the recycling.

Were you one of those parents who had been forcing the children to wash out the spaghetti jars for recycling, only to have it revealed that the jars were just being crushed here in the Yukon and mostly used for landfill cover?

After having been betrayed by my spaghetti jars, I cast a doubtful eye on my yogurt container. Was it hiding a shocking secret too?

It turns out the answer is yes.

First of all, before you panic, it does make sense to recycle plastic yogurt containers. The decision by the local recyclers to stop accepting glass seems to be a sound business decision, even if is sad to see all the product going straight to the dump. Glass is heavy, shipping is expensive, and the environmental benefits of melting it down for reuse are questionable.

Things are different for plastic. A factsheet from the City of Winnipeg says that the common plastic called HDPE, for example, has a carbon footprint that is 40 percent smaller when recycled.

So you should keep rinsing out those containers and recycling them.

Your yogurt container’s secret is different, and more troubling.

It’s that recycling it might be giving you a false sense of environmental virtue.

Consider these facts: Suppose your plastic yogurt container weighs 30 grams including its lid. It is very difficult to estimate exactly what its carbon footprint is, starting from the oil or gas well where its raw materials originated through production and ultimately to recycling or disposal.

It depends on exactly what kind of plastic it is. It might be from virgin or recycled feedstock. The well it originally came from might have high or low upstream emissions. The factory might be powered by coal or renewable power. It might get recycled or it might just get burned to keep the recycling warehouse warm in winter.

My yogurt container has a “5” in the recycling symbol on the bottom, so it’s polypropylene. As a rough estimate, let’s use the figure for polypropylene from that Winnipeg factsheet. This says yogurt container’s carbon footprint is 1.95 kilograms of carbon dioxide or its equivalent (CO2e) per kilogram of plastic. If your container weighs 30 grams, that’s 59 grams of CO2e.

Now let’s compare that to some other things in your life that you aren’t recycling.

First of all, how about that steak dinner? Beef produces more emissions than most other kinds of meat since cows are big producers of methane. According to the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, Canadian beef has less than half the global average for beef in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. That’s 11.4 kilos of CO2e per kilo of live weight. If you use a typical industry estimate to convert live weight to usable meat product, it works out to 18.1 kilos of CO2e per kilo.

So, if you do the math, eating a kilo of beef is the same as using 309 yogurt containers.

How about driving? According to the carbon calculator at Carbonzero.ca, jumping in your 2017 Honda Fit for a 100 kilometre trip involving some city and highway driving will produce 16.9 kilos of CO2e. That’s the equivalent of 289 yogurt containers.

If you are driving the kids to hockey in a 2008 GMC Yukon XL 4×4, which easily could require 100 kilometres of driving for a week of practices and games, that’s the equivalent of 646 yogurt containers.

Carbonzero.ca’s calculator says a return flight to Vancouver puts out around 500 kilos of CO2e, which works out to 8,547 yogurt containers.

Home heating fuel generates about 2.7 kilos of CO2e per litre. So each time the refill truck shows up to put, say, 400 litres into your 1,000-litre oil tank, that’s the equivalent of 18,188 yogurt containers.

Picture yourself virtuously rinsing out that yogurt container to put in the blue bin, while in the background your truck, furnace and vacation are sneaking out into the greenbelt to pile up tens of thousands of yogurt containers and set them on fire.

Your yogurt container’s dirty secret is that recycling it is nowhere near enough to make a meaningful difference in your carbon footprint. You should still recycle it, but if you want to make a bigger difference you’ll need to think bigger. For most of us, that means things like switching to renewable heat, electric cars and vacations closer to home.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist and received the bronze for Outstanding Columnist in the 2019 Canadian Community Newspaper Awards.