Is Recycling Energy-Efficient? (+ 5 Energy Statistics)

Savanna Stanfield

Recycling is a process that has many benefits for the environment when compared to other methods of waste disposal.

However, the process of recycling isn’t as simple as having your recyclable materials collected or dropping them off at a recycling center.

Once the recyclables have been collected, they have to be processed in order to be reused.

Processing materials requires the use of machinery, equipment, and labor.

For many people, this raises concerns about how eco-friendly recycling is in terms of energy efficiency when comparing it to other waste disposal methods and the cost of making new products.

In most cases, recycling is energy efficient because processing recycled materials uses less energy than processing new materials.

But how and why is recycling energy efficient?

In this article, we’ll look at the reasons, as well as statistics that prove that recycling does indeed save energy.

What Does “Energy Efficient Recycling” Really Mean?

The term energy efficient simply means that less energy is used to perform a task.

With regard to recycling being energy efficient, it’s important to look at how much energy is being used by creating new products out of recycled material.

To do this, the amount of energy being used to process recycled products should be compared to the amount of energy that is used to make those same products out of raw materials.

In order for recycling to be energy efficient, the amount of energy used for recycling needs to be less than the amount of energy used to process new materials.

But when comparing energy use for recycling versus making new products, the amount of energy that is used to gather materials and make the product should both be taken into account.

Usually, the amount of energy used for recycling is indeed less than that of making new products out of raw materials.

How Much Energy Does Recycling Consume?

There is no set amount of energy that recycling consumes.

This is because there are so many different types of materials that can be recycled.

Different materials may require different methods, and therefore different machinery and equipment, in order to process and repurpose them.

In addition, there are some materials that can only be recycled a certain amount of times (like cardboard, for instance), meaning that some products will have to be made from new materials eventually.

In a larger sense, products that have limits on how much they can be recycled are not always as energy efficient as other products because sometimes they have to be modified to make them more recyclable.

Does The Energy Consumption Depend On The Type Of Material Recycled?

The amount of energy that is consumed does depend on the types of materials that are being recycled.

Some materials are much easier to recycle than others, and some require less processing than others.

For example, things like aluminum cans are much easier to process than paper.

Most recycled paper has ink on it, meaning that it requires more processing to break down the ink in order to be used again.

The energy consumption for recycling plastic varies as well.

There are different types of plastic, but most plastic weakens each time you recycle it, so there’s only so much of it that can be recycled.

This means that the first few times you recycle plastic may conserve more energy than the last few times, because modifications have to be made to make it stronger the more you recycle it.

Having to make modifications uses more energy, so once plastic has been recycled a certain amount of times, it ends up being thrown away and replaced with new plastic.

Due to the limitations of recycling paper and plastic that make them less energy efficient than other types of recyclable materials, many manufacturers of these products are looking for ways to produce them so that they use less energy when recycled.

However, in most cases even recycling paper and plastic is more energy efficient than making new products.

How Does Recycling Save Energy?

Recycling various types of products reduces the need to make new products from scratch

When new products are made, it creates a lot of energy use due to the amount of labor and machinery that is involved.

Products can be made of either natural or synthetic materials.

Natural materials include things like wood and aluminum, whereas synthetic materials include things such as plastic.

But even plastic is made from natural resources; mainly coal or crude oil, along with others.

The natural resources that are used to create the products have to first be collected, then moved.

Lastly, they have to be refined to make them usable. All of these processes use a lot of energy.

By recycling products such as aluminum, paper, and plastic, energy is being saved since these products were already refined when they were originally produced. 

Not having to refine the materials cuts down on the amount of energy that manufacturers would spend refining them by as much as 30%.

Let’s look at some of the ways that recycling three common items reduces energy use:

  • Aluminum–  about 20 cans can be made out of recycled aluminum using the same amount of energy it would take to make 1 can from scratch.
  • Paperrecycling paper uses 60% of the energy needed to make paper from scratch.
  • Plastic– unlike aluminum and paper, there are usually limits to how many times plastic can be recycled.
    But even plastic that can only be recycled a couple of times reduces the amount of new plastic that has to be made.

Although cardboard hasn’t been previously mentioned, energy is saved when recycling it as well. 

Not only do manufacturers not have to use as much energy creating new cardboard, but by creating compact cardboard bales, energy is also saved when transporting it from one location to another.

How Does Recycling’s Energy Efficiency Compare With Other Waste Disposal Methods?

In addition to recycling, there are two other ways to dispose of waste: landfills and incineration.

With landfills, waste is collected and essentially dumped into large piles.

Some waste will biodegrade over time, but what’s not biodegradable will stay there for an indefinite amount of time.

While energy is being used to collect and transport waste to the landfill, not a lot of energy is being used once the waste gets to the landfill since it just sits there while being stored.

It can reasonably be argued that recycling is not more energy efficient than landfills, although recycling is better than landfills in other ways, including releasing less pollutants into the environment and taking up less space.

However, with incineration, waste is essentially being burned to generate electricity. This process is called waste-to-energy.

While incineration creates new energy through reducing waste and is considered a source of renewable energy, it releases a significant amount of carbon into the environment when waste is burned.

Like landfills, incineration is just as energy efficient as recycling, if not more. But it does pose other environmental hazards.

5 Recycling Energy Statistics

Energy use is measured using kilowatt/hour (kWh) in terms of electrical energy, and British Thermal Units (BTU) in terms of burning fuel.

The following chart shows the amount of energy that is saved by recycling one ton of various materials instead of producing new materials.

Recyclable MaterialAmount of Energy Saved (kWh)Amount of Energy Saved (BTU)
Aluminum14,000 kWh152 million BTU
Glass42 kWh714,000 BTU
Newspaper601 kWh10.2 million BTU
Office Paper4,100 kWh54 million BTU
Plastic5,774 kWh98 million BTU

Out of these five commonly recycled materials, you can see that recycling aluminum is the most energy efficient, while recycling glass is the least energy efficient.

However, because glass does not deteriorate in quality when it is recycled, it can be recycled an unlimited number of times.

This is a strong argument for recycling glass, even if the amount of energy saved during each time is not the highest, compared to other materials.

Conclusion 

Overall, recycling is energy efficient when compared to the amount of energy used to create the same product out of raw materials.

Even recycling plastic and paper, which aren’t as simple to process as aluminum, saves a significant amount of energy.

Although other methods of waste disposal save energy as well, the use of them creates more environmental concerns that don’t exist with recycling.

Along with being eco-friendly, the energy efficiency of recycling should raise no concerns for anyone who wants to begin recycling their waste.

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