In Texas alone, 10.2 million tons of Municipal Solid Waste, which excludes the materials that come from industrial waste, was sent to a landfill. According to the The Study on the Economic Impacts of Recycling, 33% of that waste could have been recycled. How can we close that gap together in the name of conserving energy? And through what process does recycling residential waste save energy in the first place?
How Can Recycling Save Energy?
When thinking about the never ending demand of new consumer products, keep in mind the intensive labor, energy and ultimately waste that manufacturing entails. Having to extract raw virgin materials such as aluminum, plastic, paper and glass requires a vast amount of energy. When we use recyclable materials instead, the need to extract, transport, and refine these natural resources is cut out. With the demand for virgin materials reduced, recycling helps “close the loop” and save energy. See what impact you can have on saving energy by adopting the recycling methods for the materials below.
Putting your aluminum soda cans in a recycling bin instead of a trash can contributes to the most efficient closed loop recycling process around. Not only are ⅔ of the aluminum ever produced in use today, but a recycled aluminum can is back on the shelf and ready for purchase in as little as two months. The recycling of an aluminum can saves 95% of the energy required to make the same amount of aluminum from its raw source by significantly reducing the virgin bauxite ore that would have had to be mined, shipped, and refined. Since aluminum never degrades, it can be infinitely reused in the recycling process, constantly saving energy along the way.
With 34.5 million tons of plastic products generated in 2015, the EPA revealed that only 9.1% was recycled. Seems like we have a long way to go here, right? But progress is still progress. Even one ton of recycled plastics (and in 2015 the country was at just over 3 tons) saves over 5,700 kWh of energy, 16 barrels of oil, almost 100 million BTU’s of energy, and 30 cubic yards of landfill space. Just think, if you recycle ten plastic bottles, you can save enough energy to power your laptop for an entire day. Everyone wins when we recycle plastic.
Even as we aim to move our everyday interactions with information from a paper to digital experience for both convenience and environmental sustainability, paper is still the largest percentage of all materials in MSW at 25.9 percent of total generation. Seattle economist Jeffrey Morris estimated that if you manufacture one ton of office paper with recycled paper stock, it is possible to save up to 3,000 kWh as opposed to making the same amount of paper with virgin wood materials. It is incredible to see that as the manufacturing of our largest source of MSW declines, so much energy is able to be saved from recycling it.
Making the decision to toss your glass bottles and containers into a recycling bin rather than your trash can is another efficient closed loop recycling process with over 30% of the material used in glass production today coming from recycled glass. Even recycling just one glass bottle can save enough energy to power a 100 watt light bulb for four hours. Taking it to the next level, one ton of recycled glass has the potential to save 42 kWh of energy, 5 gallons of oil, 714,000 BTU’s of energy, 7.5 pounds of air pollutants from being released, and 2 cubic yards of landfill space. Now that’s a strong impact!
What happens after we reduce, reuse and recycle?
What happens to the millions of tons of waste that are leftover after we reduce, reuse, and recycle? Over 20 states have Waste-to-Energy facilities, where non-recyclable waste materials are turned into usable heat, electricity, or fuel through a variety of processes, including combustion, gasification, pyrolization, anaerobic digestion, and landfill gas recovery. While adoption of these methods are slow, 2017 still saw a MSW throughput of 29 million tons with an electric generation of 13.8 MWh. In the wake of controversy around WTE facilities, it should be known that they contribute to reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the following ways:
- Generates energy that otherwise would likely have used fossil-fueled facilities
- Diverts solid waste from landfills where it would have emitted methane for generations
- Recovers metals for recycling, thus saving the GHGs and energy associated with the production of products and materials from virgin outputs
No matter which way you slice it, there are several bus stops and methods for recycling and saving energy between how you manage your waste and what happens to these materials before they get to a landfill. Start contributing to recycling now by checking out your neighborhood’s recycling policies and finding a way to implement them in your home.