When evaluating your waste, you cannot just look at the tangible items in your trash can. You must also look at all the resources that went into creating that trash and the product it contained.
Those behind-the-scenes resources are what we call “embodied energy.”*
Reducing the amount of trash you make is one thing; reducing the amount of embodied energy you consume is another. The two are not mutually exclusive.
Today, the embodied energy discussion is usually focused on carbon. When we talk about “energy,” we usually mean to evaluate the industrial processes used to make the product. Unless the fuel source is a pure renewable (wind, sun), environmental pollutants will result from the production process, including carbon.
There are many “production processes” we could be talking about. When thinking about the chain of production of a packaged cheese, for instance, there is (1) production of the cheese, (2) production of the packaging of the cheese, (3) packaging the cheese, and (4) transportation of the cheese. And that is only the most fundamental way of looking at the background energy consumed. So, there are many stages at which energy must be generated and used. At each of these stages, we can assume energy was generated with a fossil fuel (fuel oil, coal, natural gas) (either on-site or via a power plant) and fossil fuel-fired support vehicles were driven.
Now you know about “embodied energy,” what next?
Part 2 in this series will address what you can do with this information to improve your ability to evaluate the amount of energy that went into your product, and ultimately reduce your waste.
*This is a discussion of energy only, and does not include other resources (such as water). Another post will be dedicated to other resources.