More than three-quarters of all Americans recycle, and on the East and West Coasts, nearly 90% do. But although virtually everyone agrees that recycling is good for the environment, most people do not think of recycling as a solution for one of today’s biggest problems – energy dependence on climate-disrupting fossil fuels. A closer look reveals that recycling can play a serious role in reducing energy use and increasing efficiency.
Recycling delivers a host of environmental benefits, including conserving scarce natural resources, keeping dangerous and toxic chemicals out of landfills where they can leach into the groundwater, and reducing methane emissions from landfills. In spite of these benefits, recycling has always had its detractors. In a notorious 1996 New York Times Magazine article, staff writer John Tierney argued that recycling programs wasted more resources than they saved. That turns out to be a spurious argument, but it is closer to true if the only averted costs considered are those associated with collecting garbage and hauling it to landfills (although, it seems fair to mention that no one has ever criticized garbage collection for not paying for itself). But averted disposal costs are only a tiny slice of the savings generated from recycling. The big savings come in the form of energy.
Energy is used throughout the entire lifecycle of consumer products, from extracting and processing the raw materials used, manufacturing the products themselves, distributing those products to retailers, and of course, collecting and processing or disposing of products once consumers no longer find them useful. Those first two phases—extracting/processing raw materials and manufacturing—are by far the most energy intensive, and that is where recycling can deliver big reductions.