How does recycling save energy?How Does Recycling Conserve Energy?

Recycling is normally associated with environmental protection, but it also brings economic benefits. Extracting raw materials and processing them into finished products consumes much more energy than reprocessing recycled materials. For this reason, recycling can be considered an energy conservation measure.

The US Environmental Protection Agency has created a tool called iWARM, which can be used to estimate energy savings when recycling common types of household waste. iWARM stands for Individual Waste Reduction Model.

Since each material has a unique manufacturing process, the potential savings from recycling vary. This article provides an overview of some commonly recycled materials, and the benefits achieved.

Recycling Aluminum

Recycling aluminum is an excellent way to conserve energy. Producing a can from recycled aluminum requires 20 times less energy than producing an identical can from bauxite ore, the raw form in which aluminum is found in nature. In other words, recycled aluminum achieves energy savings of 95 percent!

Aluminum can be reprocessed multiple times without degradation, which adds to the economic and environmental benefit of recycling. Discarding aluminum makes no sense financially and environmentally – each aluminum can in a landfill is a can that must be produce again from bauxite ore.

Recycling Glass

Since glass is a very durable material, it can often be recycled without reprocessing. For example, glass bottles and jars can be cleaned and reused without an energy-intensive manufacturing process. Like aluminum, glass suffers no degradation when recycled.

When glass it reprocessed completely, a large amount of energy is required to melt it. However, even more energy is needed to produce new glass from naturally-occuring sands and minerals. The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates energy savings of 30% when existing glass is reprocessed.

Recycling Plastic

Most commercial plastics can be recycled, saving energy and reducing plastic waste. Unlike aluminum and glass, plastics tend to degrade each time they are reprocessed. However, low-grade plastics can simply be used in less demanding applications like insulation and carpeting.

Single-use plastics are notorious for their environmental impact, especially when they reach the ocean. Many plastic products are only used for a few minutes, but require hundreds of years to break down in nature – recycling is a viable option to mitigate their environmental impact.

Recycling Paper

According to the US EPA, recycled paper requires 40% less energy to produce, compared with new paper. The main disadvantage of recycled paper is lacking the white and smooth appearance of new paper, which limits its applications. However, when having the appearance of new paper is not critical, recycled paper is an economic and environmentally friendly option.

Consider that recycled paper also saves trees, which absorb carbon dioxide and prevent soil erosion. Trees also cool the air when water evaporates from their leaves, acting as natural air conditioners.

Conclusion

Recycling brings three different types of environmental benefits: less waste from human population centers, a reduced impact from raw materials extraction, and energy savings that translate into avoided emissions. Recycling also brings economic benefits: raw materials have already been processed into finished products before, and reprocessing is less expensive.

Even when a power grid uses a high percentage of renewable energy sources, there are environmental benefits associated with energy savings. Clean power sources have no emissions during operation, but their initial construction process has an environmental footprint. Any measure that saves energy also reduces the demand for new power plants, lowering the environmental footprint of electricity grids.

For more on energy conservation, check out our electricity blog.