Dear Recyclebank: How much energy does recycling actually save? –Glen
Dear Glen: Because recycling is a multi-step process, involving transportation, sorting, processing, and making materials into new goods, it can be difficult to assess its overall energy usage. Also, different materials require very different processes in order to reclaim them and make them reworkable, which means that the energy used varies widely among recyclable items.
That said, there is substantial evidence to support the claim that recycling is more energy efficient than using virgin materials to create new goods. A study conducted in 1996 by Jeffrey Morris, a waste management consultant with Sound Resource Management Group, Inc., determined that making new products from a short ton of mixed recyclables took 10.4 million BTU (just over 3000 kWh), with 0.9 million BTU required for collection and processing. This may sound like a lot of energy consumption, but it pales in comparison to the energy needed to produce brand-new products. The same study found that making the same products from virgin materials would require 23.3 million BTU — over twice the amount of energy.
The energy savings from recycling is especially noticeable with aluminum. In 2015, the EPA stated that manufacturing with recycled aluminum requires less than 20 percent of the energy required to manufacture new goods with virgin aluminum, a savings of 153.3 million BTU per short ton. Other common materials also show significant energy savings when recycled and remanufactured — recycling glass saves about 34 percent (or 2.7 million BTU per short ton) over making it new. Recycling HDPE and PET plastics has proven to be more energy-efficient than producing those plastics new as well, with respective savings of 50.9 and 32.6 million BTU per short ton.
The energy savings from recycling don’t just come through the creation of new products, but also through avoiding other forms of waste disposal. Incineration is much less energy-efficient than recycling. While burning municipal solid waste can provide a source of fuel, another study by Jeffrey Morris and Diana Canzoneri showed that the energy generated from incineration is, at most, 33 percent of the energy conserved by recycling (far less than that for materials like glass and metal).
Long story short? All forms of waste management take energy, but most of the time, recycling is more energy efficient than any other available option.