Flying vs. Recycling and the Hierarchy of Consciousness

Yesterday in class I suggested that being „green“ is very subjective. What one person might consider to be green behaviour could be seen as self-evident by others. I mentioned the example of my friend who considers it to be „too much“ to recycle. The short discussion with Frank that followed on the impact of recycling versus not flying spurred my curiosity. In my interpretation, Frank implied that my friend might instead have reduced his yearly flights, thus far more than offsetting the lack of recycling. I did not immediately know how to continue my point and when it later came to my mind, the blog seemed a good way to continue my argument.

Since most people are reluctant to change their behaviour, it seems more likely for them to start with environmentally friendly behaviour that has less negative impact on their lives (e.g. in terms of convenience) than to start with behaviours that have high impacts on the environment, but also their lives (e.g. skipping on a tropical holiday). Of course, one could stop flying altogether, not care about everyday behaviour and still have the same or even higher impact than the other way round. But who would ever do that?? So according to this „Hierarchy of Sustainability Consciousness“, if you don’t fly in order to save CO2, then you most likely also recycle.

What do you think? Do you agree with my point?

By the way, I was also curious about the statement, that I could recycle aluminium my whole life and still just barely achieve the emission savings of skipping one flight. I just couldn’t believe that there is such a huge imbalance between the two, so I did my own calculations.

Since aluminium is very energy intensive to produce from virgin material (i.e. bauxite), its recycling saves up to 95% of energy. According to one source I found, this results in emission reductions of approx. 10kg of CO2 per kg of Alu recycled. Assuming one can to weigh 13.6 grams and consumption & recycling of one can per day, I would save roughly 50kg of CO2 per year. This seems not bad, considering that it also saves valuable resources and reduces waste.

However, using the calculator on, it turns out that a long-distance return flight from Helsinki to Singapore (economy class) would produce 3,929 tons of CO2! This means that I would indeed have to recycle aluminium my whole life (79 years) in order to compensate for this flight! Of course, the figure improves if you include other materials (glass, paper and especially PET bottles), but it remains impressive.

  1. tpanthi said:

    Interesting calculations Linus. I did similar calculation at for a flight from Helsinki to Singapore and it says that the the total Carbon emission for such a flight is equivalent to 2,640 KGs. The calculation includes an assumption of a 79.7% load factor with 346 seats on the B747-400 and 261 seats on the B767-300ER. If you consider that you traveled with B767 then CO2 emission per head comes down to 2640/261= 10.11 KGs and if we use your number then it is 3929/261=15 KGs. This mean you reduce way more CO2 by recycling one can a day compared to your share of the CO2 emission due to your travel from Helsinki to Singapore!

  2. The thing is though, that these tools already calculate the per-head-emissions in order to allow an individual to know his or her personal footprint. The load factor you mentioned was probably already used to break it down to an average passenger.
    Still interesting though, that your number shows such a big difference to mine! I wonder why that is…?

  3. Interesting discussion. Concerning Linus’ question about convenience – yes, your reasoning works, I would say. We’ll come back to that issue during the course, but the mainly, the easier it is to change your behavior (the less you have to compromise), the more likely you are to make the change. That’s one of the reasons why clean energy is so appealing; essentially the same cost and no additional trouble since it’s the still electricity you’ll be getting.

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