Does Recycling Use Fossil Fuels? Facts You Should Know (Explained)

Savanna Stanfield

It’s not a secret that recycling is better for the environment than sending your waste materials to a landfill.

Recycling cuts down on energy use, ocean pollution, and the need to make new materials from scratch.

But out of the 3 Rs, recycling is the least eco-friendly. Despite all of the benefits of recycling, it still has its problems.

One of the reasons why this is the case is due to the source of energy that powers a lot of recycling plants.

Many recycling plants run off of fossil fuels as their main energy source.

Yes, it’s true that fewer fossil fuels are used for recycling than would be used for making new materials, but the use is still there.

In this article, we’ll explore the use of fossil fuels as an energy source for recycling plants.

We’ll also explore whether or not there is the possibility of a greener energy source that could be used.

Where Do Recycling Plants Get Their Energy From?

Because recycling involves melting or breaking down materials and creating new products out of them, it is considered to be a manufacturing process.

Although recycling is considered to be a more beneficial and eco-friendly process because it cuts down on energy use and pollution, there are the same concerns surrounding recycling plants that surround other manufacturing facilities.

Some of those concerns include energy use and the source of that energy in the first place.

With that being said, most recycling plants are going to run off of the same energy that the other manufacturing facilities in a particular area run off of.

Usually, the energy is going to come from the city’s power grid. In a lot of areas, especially in the United States, the main source of energy is fossil fuels.

Fossil fuels include coal, oil, and natural gas. They are unfavorable as an energy source because of several reasons.

The first reason is that fossil fuels come from the fossilized remains of plants and animals that lived millions of years ago.

Because of this, they have a high carbon content. When burned, they release that carbon into the air, a major contributor to climate change.

The second reason is that because they are the result of organisms that lived a long time ago, they are considered non-renewable resources.

We can’t rely on them as an energy source forever; they will eventually run out.

Finally, fossil fuels are obtained by either drilling – in the case of oil or natural gas – or by mining – in the case of coal.

Both of these cause harm to the environment in the form of pollution and habitat destruction.

As you can see, running recycling plants off of fossil fuels is not as eco-friendly or sustainable as running them off of other energy sources.

What Percentage Do Fossil Fuels Have In the U.S. Energy Mix?

Fossil fuels play a very prominent role in the United States energy mix, making up over three-fourths of the total energy obtained.

Note that energy mix not only refers to electricity, but to all energy sources used to generate power – including fuel for transportation, heating and cooling of buildings, etc.

The exact amount of energy that comes from fossil fuels is hovering around 81% in the United States.

Of the total amount of energy in the U.S. energy mix, 37% comes from petroleum.

Most of the petroleum is consumed by the transportation sector, in which the trucks needed to transport recyclable materials would be included.

Around 33% of the energy used in the U.S. comes from coal. It seems like that is still quite a large percentage – and it is.

However, the good news about the percentage of coal used in the U.S. is that it is down to one-third. In 2008, about one-half of the energy used came from coal. 

Cleaner and more favorable renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power have started to become more prominent.

This had caused a lot of the power plants that run on coal to be closed.

And last but not least, energy from natural gas makes up around 30% of the mix.

Natural gas is the primary source of the energy used for electricity. In fact, the U.S. has remained the top producer of natural gas since 2009.

That means that if natural gas makes up the main source of electrical energy in a city’s power grid, it is likely the main source of energy for any manufacturing plants connected to the grid – recycling included.

Does a Greener Power Grid Make Recycling Greener?

Most recycling plants are funded by the cities in which they are located. That means that they tend to operate off of the particular city’s power grid.

If that city uses fossil fuels as their main energy source, then the recycling facility will likely run off of fossil fuels as well.

Likewise, if a city uses greener and more eco-friendly energy – such as wind, water, or solar energy – then the recycling facility will run off of that type of energy as well.

So yes, a greener power grid could make recycling greener. However, making the switch to green energy isn’t that simple.

While it is undoubtedly necessary for us to transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources like wind, water, solar or geothermal, there are still a number of challenges to overcome, including:

  • upgrading the power grid (which was not designed to handle big fluctuations typical with wind and solar energy)
  • energy storage solutions to deal with fluctuations in energy production (especially wind and solar)
  • making solar energy production more efficient
  • finding suitable locations for each technology (think geothermal or solar)

Can Recycling Plants Generate Their Own Renewable Energy?

It is possible for recycling plants to generate their own renewable energy, especially if those plants are run by independent waste and recycling companies and not by cities.

For example, one of the United States’ largest waste and recycling companies – Waste Management – is taking steps toward more renewable energy sources to power their plants.

They are using gas-to-energy landfills to harness methane at landfill sites. Then they turn the methane into renewable natural gas and use it to power their trucks.

In turn, some of this landfill gas also goes toward the power grid to provide cleaner energy to homes.

But the reason that Waste Management is able to do this is that they have the necessary funds and resources to do so.

Unfortunately, not all recycling facilities have the ability to generate or even switch to sustainable renewable energy.

Are There Recycling Plants Which Don’t Use Any Fossil Fuels? 

Companies such as Waste Management are certainly making efforts toward using fewer fossil fuels in their manufacturing processes, but they aren’t the only ones.

One New York based company – ReEnergy Holdings – is using biomass energy produced to both power the plants and other facilities in the communities they serve.

Their recycling company ReSource Waste Services is the largest recycler of construction and demolition material in New England.

Most of their biomass energy comes from wood recovered from construction as well as rubber from tires and byproducts of making paper.

But again, it takes a large company with plenty of money and resources to move away from fossil fuels in favor of more renewable energy sources.

Are Certain Types of Recycling More Energy Intensive Than Others?

Some types of recycling do use more energy than others, but it’s because certain materials have to be recycled in a certain way. 

Most recyclable materials have to be melted down in order to be used again.

However, glass requires a much higher temperature to melt it than plastic or aluminum does.

Higher temperatures mean that more energy has to be used to melt a particular product.

Even if Fossil Fuels Are Used, Does Recycling Still Conserve Fossil Fuels Overall?

Regardless of the type of material being recycled, in most cases the amount of energy used is still less than what would be used to make new materials in lieu of recycling.

That means that even if a recycling facility does use fossil fuels, they are still being conserved because it takes more fossil fuels to make a new product.

But the amount of energy conserved depends on the particular product being recycled.

For example, recycling glass only saves about 10-15% of energy because of the higher temperature being used to melt it.

On the other hand, recycling aluminum – particularly cans – conserves the most energy at around 94%.

Other types of metals also conserve a high percentage of energy when recycled as well.

Conclusion

Recycling is very eco-friendly compared to making new materials from scratch and sending those same materials to a landfill.

However, due to dependence on fossil fuels – particularly natural gas – it is not as eco-friendly as it could be.

But switching to renewable energy is not that easy. It requires a lot of money and resources, especially when funded by the city.

Therefore, for the majority of the recycling plants to “go green”, the energy mix of the whole country will have to shift away from fossil fuels (fortunately, most countries have committed to this).

Larger recycling companies that have a lot of influence are already actively trying to make changes to how their plants are powered.

Hopefully, they can lead the way to further change.

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