What Are Waste Management Carbon Offsets and How Do They Work: The Big Picture

What Are Waste Management Carbon Offsets and How Do They Work: The Big Picture

By
Grace Smoot

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Every year we dump billions of tons of waste into our environment. Experts estimate the waste management industry could be worth upwards of $1.9 trillion by 2030. Pairing waste management with carbon offsets could help reduce pollution and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. So, we had to ask: What are waste management carbon offsets really, and could they help us mitigate climate change?

Waste management carbon offsets are a specific type of carbon offset that focuses on minimizing waste’s impact on human, animal, and environmental health. Waste management projects reduce CO2 and CH4 emissions immediately either via direct elimination or avoidance. 

Keep reading to find out all about what waste management carbon offsets are, how they work, what their project life-cycle is, how effective they are, their pros and cons, and how they can help mitigate climate change.

The Big Picture of Waste Management Carbon Offsets

Carbon offsets play an important role in mitigating the effects of global climate change by reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions beyond what we each can achieve through individual actions. Waste management carbon offsets are a specific type of carbon offset that focuses on handling waste in ways to minimize its impact on human, animal, and environmental health. 

How are carbon offsets definedReductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that are used to compensate for emissions occurring elsewhere.
What are waste management carbon offsetsWaste management offsets are a specific type of carbon offset that focuses on handling waste in ways to minimize its impact on human, animal, and environmental health. Projects can include landfill gas, recycling, composting, and food rescue.
How do waste management projects offset CO2 emissionsWaste management projects reduce greenhouse gas (CO2 and CH4) emissions associated with various types of waste by reducing the amount or capturing emissions from waste.
When do waste management projects offset CO2 emissionsWaste management carbon offsets either eliminate or avoid emissions immediately by either capturing emissions from waste or reducing the amount of waste entering our environment.
What is the project life-cycle of waste management carbon offsetsBuilding: The building of waste management offsets includes building the technology and implementing the various waste management mechanisms (e.g., landfill gas, biogas, food rescue, recycling, and composting).
Operating: There are very few emissions or waste products associated with operating and maintaining waste management projects, making the carbon footprint of this phase low.
End-of-life: The end-of-life of waste management offsets would include the end-of-life of the technology or anything that negates the project’s effectiveness.
How effective and efficient are waste management carbon offsetsEffectiveness: Waste management carbon offsets reduce methane emissions and land, water, and air pollution; however, they can also lack additionality and do not reduce your own carbon emissions. 
Efficiency: Waste management carbon offsets are relatively cost-effective; however, they are not yet scaled to compensate for our global waste emissions.
What are the best waste management carbon offsetsThe best waste management carbon offsets are offered by CoreZero, GreenTech, and Carbonfund which involve food rescue, plastic recycling, and landfill gas capture/conversion to energy, respectively. In addition, Terrapass and South Pole offer landfill gas combustion and biogas to energy projects. 

What Are Waste Management Carbon Offsets

Carbon offsets are reductions in GHG emissions that are used to compensate for emissions occurring elsewhere. They are measured in tons of CO2 equivalents and are bought and sold through international brokers, online retailers, and trading platforms.

Waste management offsets are a specific type of carbon offset that focuses on handling waste in ways to minimize its impact on human, animal, and environmental health. 

How Are Carbon Offsets Defined

Carbon offsets play a crucial role in reducing our carbon footprint, the amount of CO2 emissions associated with an individual or an entity. 

Carbon footprint: the amount of greenhouse gasses and specifically carbon dioxide emitted by something (such as a person’s activities or a product’s manufacture and transport) during a given period

Merriam Webster

Basically, a carbon footprint is the amount of carbon emitted by an activity or an organization. This includes GHG emissions from fuel that we burn directly (e.g., heating a home, driving a car) and GHG emissions from manufacturing the products that we use (e.g., power plants, factories, and landfills). 

One way to reduce our carbon footprint is via the use of carbon offsets. These are reductions in GHG emissions that are measured in tons of CO2 equivalents and are bought and sold through international brokers, online retailers, and trading platforms. 

Carbon offset: a way for a company or person to reduce the level of carbon dioxide for which they are responsible by paying money to a company that works to reduce the total amount produced in the world, for example by planting trees”

Oxford Dictionary

When you hear the words “carbon offset”, think about the term “compensation”. Essentially, carbon offsets are reductions in GHG emissions that are used to compensate for emissions occurring elsewhere. Carbon offsets can range anywhere from a couple of hundred tons of CO2 per program per year to thousands of tons of CO2 per program per year. 

How Are Waste Management Carbon Offsets Defined

Everyone and everything on Earth creates waste, which is defined as an unwanted or unfavorable byproduct of certain processes. 

Waste: unwanted matter or material of any type, especially what is left after useful substances or parts have been removed”

Cambridge Dictionary

Waste management carbon offsets support those projects that handle various wastes in ways that minimize their impact on human, animal, and environmental health.

Waste Management: The management of waste materials, usually based on the management of wastes at all stages (production, handling, storage transport, processing, and ultimate disposal) in such a way as to minimize the risks to human health, wildlife, and environmental systems.”

Oxford University Reference

Some of the most common types of waste management carbon offsets involve:

  • Landfill gas capture/combustion
  • Landfill gas to renewable energy
  • Biodigesters 
  • Biogas
  • Recycling
  • Food Rescue
  • Composting

How Do Waste Management Carbon Offsets Work

Waste management carbon offsets eliminate and avoid CO2 emissions because the projects either capture emissions from waste or reduce the total amount of waste. And because waste generates large amounts of CO2 and CH4, the less waste we create, the fewer GHGs are emitted.

Some of the most common energy-efficiency projects target landfills, food rescue, and recycling. Overall, these projects reduce CH4 emissions, reduce pollution, create healthier ecosystems, and mitigate climate change. 

Related: Are you interested in learning more about the big picture of waste management carbon offsets? Check it out in this article here: “What Are Waste Management Carbon Offsets and How Do They Work? The Big Picture

How and When Do Waste Management Carbon Offsets Reduce Your Carbon Footprint

One of the main goals of waste management carbon offsets is to reduce the total amount of methane (CH4), the second most abundant greenhouse gas (GHG) behind CO2 with a global warming potential 25 times more potent than CO2. Even a little CH4 can greatly exacerbate global warming and its effects.

How Do Waste Management Carbon Offsets Reduce Your Carbon Footprint

Waste management carbon offsets either eliminate CO2 and CH4 emissions via landfill gas capture, biodigesters, or biogas, or they avoid emissions via composting, recycling, or food rescue. By reducing the total amount of waste we create and eliminating the GHG emissions it generates, we can reduce the amount of CO2 and CH4 entering our atmosphere

When Do Waste Management Carbon Offsets Reduce Your Carbon Footprint

Waste management carbon offsets either eliminate or avoid emissions immediately by either capturing emissions from waste or reducing the amount of waste. This leads to immediate reductions in atmospheric GHGs and climate change mitigation.

When comparing them to other methods of carbon removal like planting trees, we find that waste management practices reduce emissions faster and more permanently. 

  • For example, a newly planted tree could take upwards of 20 years to capture the amount of CO2 that most carbon offset programs promise. 
  • Also, there is always the risk of, e.g., droughts, wildfires, tree diseases, and deforestation wiping out newly planted trees, negating any carbon reduction benefits. 

What Could Prevent Waste Management Carbon Offsets From Being Realized

Waste management offsets can lack additionality, are not yet scaled to compensate for our global emissions from waste, and do not reduce your own emissions, which can lead to greenwashing.

To be beneficial, waste management offsets must be additional. This means the carbon emissions reductions would not have occurred without intervention. But waste management projects are often not additional because many projects receiving revenue now would have been built regardless. The large demand for waste management in general means that the infrastructure could have been built independently of waste management carbon offsets.

Carbon offsets in general are currently not sufficient to compensate for all of our carbon emissions. And because waste management offsets are only a small subsection of the larger carbon offset market, they are also inadequate in terms of offsetting emissions from our global waste generation. Experts predict the world’s population will increase by 2 billion people in the next 30 years, which means the rate of waste generation and subsequent GHG emissions from waste will continue to increase. Finding a way to handle and safely dispose of the billions of tons of waste we create will be crucial.

Lastly, purchasing a carbon offset does not directly reduce your carbon footprint. It only makes others reduce their carbon footprint to compensate for your carbon footprint. 

If emissions are only offset and not reduced from the source, this could lead to greenwashing, when the consumer is deceived into thinking they are offsetting their emissions but in reality, they are not.

What Is the Project Life-Cycle of Waste Management Carbon Offsets

To fully understand waste management offsets, we must assess each stage of its life cycle. This life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a method to evaluate the environmental impacts of products and materials. Over the years, companies have strategically used LCA to research and create more sustainable products. So, we had a look at the LCA for waste management offsets! 

Building of Waste Management Carbon Offsets

The building of waste management offsets includes building the technology and implementing the various waste management mechanisms. 

The first step in building landfill gas waste management projects is to build a landfill gas power plant. Building the components in a landfill gas plant requires machinery that emits CO2. The knockout pots, filters, blowers, coolers, compressors, boilers, oxidizers, and piping systems are all components that have a carbon footprint.

The first step in building biogas waste management projects is to build a biogas power plant. Building the components in a biogas plant requires machinery that emits CO2. The reception area, biodigesters, and gas holders are all components that have a carbon footprint.

Recycling, food rescue, and composting projects also require facilities, but they require less sophisticated machinery. This makes the carbon footprint of this phase very low.

Operating and Maintaining Waste Management Carbon Offsets

There are very few emissions or waste products associated with operating and maintaining waste management projects, making the carbon footprint of this phase low.

The process of landfill gas capture itself does not emit CO2. But landfill gas capture plants require wells with plastic piping to be drilled into the landfill and, if not drilled properly, the wells could leak CH4 emissions into the surrounding earth. Landfill gas combustion involves burning CH4 to create CO2 and water, because CO2 has less of a global warming potential than CH4. And using landfill gas to generate energy can create waste emissions that are typically burned to eliminate them.

Biogas plants go through pre-treatment, fermentation, biogas production, residue formation, and impurity elimination phases. Biogas formation is a zero-waste system of eliminating waste from landfills because the byproducts (residues) are collected and used as fertilizers. The combustion of biogas does release CO2, however, the amount is much less when compared to fossil fuels

Operating and maintaining recycling, food rescue, and composting projects creates very little carbon emissions because they require little technology and therefore maintenance for the projects to run effectively.

End-of-Life of Waste Management Carbon Offsets

The end-of-life of waste management offsets would include the end-of-life of the technology or anything that negates the project’s effectiveness.

Landfills themselves have an average life expectancy of anywhere from 30-50 years, depending on the type of landfill, temperature, compaction, and moisture content. Most landfill gas is produced within the first 20 years after waste is dumped, with smaller quantities of gas being emitted for up to 50 years. So long as the landfill is in operation, the gas can be captured and repurposed. 

Biogas power plants have a historical life expectancy of 20-30 years. CO2 emissions at this stage occur when utilizing construction equipment to demolish the buildings and construct new buildings in the old power plant’s place. 

Recycling, food rescue, and composting projects also have long life expectancies because they are processes that can keep occurring so long as we generate waste. They require little technology and maintenance for the projects to run effectively.

The Seneca Meadows Landfill Gas Project: An Example Project of Waste Management Carbon Offsets

Seneca Meadows, Inc. was established in 1983 as a waste management and recycling facility. Today, they provide gas to energy, solid waste management, tire/e-waste/residential/Christmas tree/battery recycling, and renewable natural gas services.

The Seneca Meadows Landfill is the largest non-hazardous waste facility in the state of New York (US). In 1995, Archaea Energy established a landfill gas-to-energy system on the site, which captures CH4 from waste. The captured CH4 is then piped to a landfill gas recovery facility, where it is either used to generate renewable energy or is converted into CO2.

To date, the project has helped power nearly 20 thousand homes with renewable energy and has created 420 acres of wetlands, which now harbor endangered species.

The Seneca Meadows Landfill Gas project is certified by the American Carbon Registry and Verified Carbon Standard. You can support the project by going to Native Energy or Carbonfund’s websites and purchasing your carbon offsets.

How Effective and Efficient Are Waste Management Carbon Offsets

In terms of effectiveness, waste management carbon offsets reduce methane emissions and land, water, and air pollution. However, they can also lack additionality and do not reduce your own carbon emissions. 

In terms of efficiency, waste management carbon offsets are relatively cost-effective. However, they are not yet scaled to compensate for our global waste emissions.

Waste management carbon offsets are effective at mitigating climate change because they:

Waste management carbon offsets can also lack effectiveness because they often lack additionality, as many projects receiving revenue now would have been built regardless.

Waste management carbon offsets are efficient at reducing CO2 emissions because they are relatively cost-effective when compared to other methods of carbon emission reduction.

However, waste management carbon offsets can also lack efficiency because they are not yet scaled to offset emissions from our global waste generation.

Also, waste management carbon offsets do not reduce your own carbon emissions, which can lead to greenwashing. This occurs when emissions are only offset and not reduced from the source, and the consumer is deceived into thinking they are offsetting their emissions but in reality, they are not. This is why we should first reduce our emissions before relying on offsets.

Related: Are you interested in learning more about how effective and efficient waste management offsets are? Check out the full article here: “How Effective and Efficient Are Waste Management Carbon Offsets? Here Are the Facts

How Could You Offset Your Own Carbon Footprint With Waste Management Carbon Offsets

The voluntary carbon offset market (VCM) is where everyday consumers can purchase carbon offsets to offset their carbon emissions. The market for carbon offsets was small in the year 2000, but by 2010 it had already grown to represent nearly $10 billion worldwide

The Ecosystem Marketplace predicts the VCM could grow to $50B by the year 2050. And because we dump over 2 billion tons of CH4 and CO2-producing waste each year, waste management carbon offsets could prove crucial in the fight against climate change.

Waste Management Carbon OffsetsQuick Facts
CoreZeroAbout: Purchases support waste management projects including food rescue, upcycling, waste-to-energy, and composting.
Costs: Costs are determined after initial contact
GreenTechAbout: They take plastic (e.g., plastic bottles) and sort, grind, wash, and process it into sustainable recycled flakes to make products (e.g., PET flakes, PET straps, and r-PET granules).
Costs: $40 per 1,000kg of CO2
CarbonfundAbout: Purchases support waste management projects including landfill gas to renewable energy and landfill gas capture. 
Costs: $16.25-$17.16 per 1,000kg of CO2 for individuals, $390-$1,560 per year for small businesses, determined after initial contact for large businesses
TerrapassAbout: Purchases support waste management projects including landfill gas combustion in Virginia and hydrofluorocarbon recovery/repurposing in Ohio (US).
Costs: $16.51-$17.63 per 1,000kg of CO2 for individuals and $16.99 per 1,000kg of CO2 for businesses.
South PoleAbout: Purchases support waste management carbon offset projects including biodigesters in Vietnam and wastewater biogas in Thailand.
Costs: Costs are determined after initial contact
3DegreesAbout: Purchases support waste management projects including landfill gas capture in Colorado and landfill gas-to-energy in Montana (US).
Costs: Costs are determined after initial contact
Native EnergyAbout: Purchases support waste management projects including landfill gas to energy in New York, US, and methane digesters in Pennsylvania, US.
Costs: $15.50 per 1,000 kg of CO2
Cool EffectAbout: Purchases support waste management projects including biodigesters in India and China.
Costs: $8.79 – $21.97 per 1,000 kg of CO2
Co2nsensusAbout: Purchases support waste management projects including landfill gas to energy in Turkey.
Costs: Costs are determined after initial contact
myclimateAbout: Purchases support waste management projects including composting to avoid CH4 emissions in India, converting waste to fertilizer in Nepal, and plastic recycling in Romania. 
Costs: $23-$30 per 1,000kg of CO2
ClearAbout: Purchases support waste management projects including landfill gas recovery in Tanzania and methane capture in Thailand.
Costs: $18.99-$25 per 1,000kg of CO2

How Can Waste Management Carbon Offsets Help Mitigate Climate Change

Climate change is a severe and long-term consequence of fossil fuel combustion. Waste management offsets can help mitigate climate change because they eliminate fossil-fuel-derived CO2 and CH4 from our atmosphere which has a higher warming potential than CO2 and, if left untreated, can remain there for tens of thousands of years and exacerbate the negative effects of climate change.

How is Climate Change Defined

Climate change is arguably the most severe, long-term global impact of fossil fuel combustion. Every year, approximately 33 billion tons (bt) of CO2 are emitted from burning fossil fuels. The carbon found in fossil fuels reacts with oxygen in the air to produce CO2

Climate change: changes in the earth’s weather, including changes in temperature, wind patterns and rainfall, especially the increase in the temperature of the earth’s atmosphere that is caused by the increase of particular gasses, especially carbon dioxide.

Oxford Dictionary

Atmospheric CO2 fuels climate change, which results in global warming. When CO2 and other air pollutants absorb sunlight and solar radiation in the atmosphere, it traps the heat and acts as an insulator for the planet. Since the Industrial Revolution, Earth’s temperature has risen a little more than 1 degree Celsius (C), or 2 degrees Fahrenheit (F). Between 1880-1980 the global temperature rose by 0.07C every 10 years. This rate has more than doubled since 1981, with a current global annual temperature rise of 0.18C, or 0.32F, for every 10 years. 

As outlined in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, we must cut current GHG emissions by 50% by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050

How Do Carbon Offsets Generally Help Mitigate Climate Change

Levels of carbon in our atmosphere that cause climate change have increased as a result of human emissions since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in 1750. The global average concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere today registers at over 400 parts per million. Carbon offsets can help prevent these levels from increasing even more.

When you hear the words “carbon offset”, think about the term “compensation”. Essentially, carbon offsets are reductions in GHG emissions that are used to compensate for emissions occurring elsewhere

Carbon offsets that meet key criteria and verified project standards, are additional and permanent, and are part of projects carried out until the end of their lifespan have the best chance of reducing carbon emissions and climate change. 

When we offset CO2 we also slow the rate of global temperature rise, which in turn minimizes the effects of climate change. 

How Do Waste Management Carbon Offsets Specifically Help Mitigate Climate Change

Waste management carbon offsets can specifically help mitigate climate change because they primarily target CH4 emissions, which are the second-most abundant GHG after CO2 and are 25 times more potent than CO2 at trapping heat in our atmosphere. Higher levels of CH4 speed up and exacerbate the effects of global warming (e.g., sea level rise, melting of glaciers, temperature rise). 

As outlined in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, we must cut current greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, including CH4, by 50% by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050. Waste management offsets are important to meet these targets because they curb CH4 and carbon emissions that, when emitted, can remain in our atmosphere for tens of thousands of years.

What Are The 5 Pros and 3 Cons of Waste Management Carbon Offsets

Waste management carbon offsets reduce methane emissions, reduce pollution, protect the biosphere, are relatively cost-effective, and allow us to reduce emissions in ways we wouldn’t be able to accomplish individually.

Waste management carbon offsets are not yet scaled to compensate for our global waste emissions, can lack additionality, and do not reduce your own carbon emissions.

Related: Are you interested in learning more about the pros and cons of waste management carbon offsets? Check out the full article here: “Waste Management Carbon Offsets: All 5 Pros and 3 Cons Explained

What Are the 5 Pros of Waste Management Carbon Offsets

Waste management carbon offsets have various pros that make them effective at avoiding carbon and methane emissions.

5 Pros of Waste Management Carbon OffsetsQuick Facts
#1: Waste management carbon offsets reduce methane emissionsWaste management offsets involving CH4 gas capture, combustion, or conversion-to-energy prevent CH4 from entering our atmosphere. Because CH4 is more potent than CO2, removing it is a quick way to slow the rate of global warming, at least in the short term.
#2: Waste management carbon offsets reduce pollutionWaste management carbon offset projects can help reduce land, air, and water pollution because they aim to reduce the amount of waste entering our landfills and ecosystems.
#3: Waste management carbon offsets protect the biosphereWaste management carbon offsets remove GHG emissions from the atmosphere and cut down on pollution, thereby improving air quality and protecting the biosphere.
#4: Waste management carbon offsets are relatively cost-effectiveWaste management carbon offsets from leading providers (e.g., Carbonfund, Terrapass, and Native) cost less than $20 per ton of CO2 offset. Compare this to direct carbon capture offsets which can cost anywhere from $100-$1,200 per ton of CO2 offset. 
#5: Waste management carbon offsets allow us to reduce carbon emissions in ways we wouldn’t be able to accomplish individuallyWaste management carbon offsets allow us to reduce emissions from activities where sustainable alternatives are not yet widely available. 

What Are the 3 Cons of Waste Management Carbon Offsets

Understanding the drawbacks of waste management carbon offsets is important in order to effectively mitigate climate change.

3 Cons of Waste Management Carbon OffsetsQuick Facts
#1: Waste management carbon offsets are not yet scaled to compensate for our global waste emissions Because waste management offsets are only a small subsection of the larger carbon offset market, they are also inadequate in terms of offsetting emissions from our global waste generation.
#2: Waste management carbon offsets can lack additionalityThe global waste management market is expected to grow to $2.5 billion by 2030 due to the increasing rate at which and the amount of waste we generate annually. The large demand for waste management in general means that the infrastructure could have been built independently of waste management carbon offsets.
#3: Waste management carbon offsets do not reduce your own carbon emissions, which can lead to greenwashingIf emissions are only offset and not reduced from the source, this could lead to greenwashing, when the consumer is deceived into thinking they are offsetting their emissions but in reality, they are not. 

What Are Better Alternatives to Waste Management Carbon Offsets

If used correctly, waste management carbon offsets can provide environmental, economic, and social benefits beyond reducing carbon emissions. They have the potential to instigate meaningful environmental change and begin to reverse some of the effects of climate change. 

However, we can’t let this method be a guilt-free way to reduce carbon emissions. Waste management carbon offsets must be used in conjunction with direct carbon reduction measures to reduce GHG emissions long-term. 

These reduction measures don’t have to involve drastic changes either. Actions that may seem small can have a big impact because those small changes add up! You can reduce your carbon footprint in three main areas of your life: household, travel, and lifestyle. 

Reduce your household carbon footprint:

Reduce your travel carbon footprint:

  • Walk or bike when possible: The most efficient ways of traveling are walking, bicycling, or taking the train. Using a bike instead of a car can reduce carbon emissions by 75%. These forms of transportation also provide lower levels of air pollution.

Reduce your lifestyle carbon footprint:

  • Switch to renewable energy sources: The six most common types of renewable energy are solar, wind, hydro, tidal, geothermal, and biomass energy. They are a substitute for fossil fuels that can reduce the effects of global warming by limiting global carbon emissions and other pollutants.
  • Recycle: Recycling uses less energy and deposits less waste in landfills. Less manufacturing and transportation energy costs means fewer carbon emissions generated. Less waste in landfills means less CH4 is generated.
  • Eat less meat and dairy: Meat and dairy account for 14.5% of global GHG emissions, with beef and lamb being the most carbon-intensive. Globally, we consume much more meat than is considered sustainable, and switching to a vegan or vegetarian diet could reduce emissions. 
  • Take shorter showers: Approximately 1.2 trillion gallons of water are used each year in the United States just for showering purposes, and showering takes up about 17% of residential water usage. The amount of water consumed and the energy cost of that consumption are directly related. The less water we use the less energy we use. And the less energy we use, the less of a negative impact we have on the environment.

Because waste management carbon offsets are an indirect way and not a direct way of reducing emissions, they alone will not be enough to reduce global carbon emissions significantly. Direct measures of emission reductions, such as reducing individual energy use and consumption, are better alternatives to these offsets. 

Related: Are you interested in learning why reducing your carbon footprint is so important? Check it out in this article here: “4 Main Reasons Why Reducing Your Carbon Footprint Is Important

Final Thoughts

Waste management carbon offsets are a specific type of carbon offset that either eliminate the GHG emissions from waste or reduce the amount of waste entering our environment. They are relatively cost-effective and protect the biosphere by reducing overall pollution and CH4 emissions. 

Although waste management carbon offsets can instigate meaningful change, they should not be seen as the only solution to climate change. They are effective at reducing CO2 in the short-term, but in the long term they fail to reduce CO2 enough. Offsets, in general, also do not reduce your own carbon emissions, which can lead to greenwashing.

When used in conjunction with direct CO2 reduction measures, carbon offsetting can be much more effective. We should reduce our own carbon footprint as much as possible first, and only then choose the most effective waste management carbon offsets.

Stay impactful,

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