Reduce, reuse, recycle to save energy and the environment
by Dan Kaneko | March 18, 2023
Growing up in Hawaii, recycling was ingrained in us seemingly since birth. Being born and raised in a beautiful island paradise has been a blessing, so we try to do everything we can to malama aina. Making sure we properly dispose of our opala is a nice start, but recycling is an even better way to lessen our environmental footprint.
We all know recycling reduces waste and protects the environment, but did you know that recycling also has the added benefit of reducing global energy usage and harmful emissions? To commemorate Global Recycling Day, I did some research to learn more about the energy conservation benefits associated with recycling.
How Does Recycling Save Energy?
Recycling brings three different types of environmental benefits: less waste from human population centers, reduced extraction of raw materials, and reduced energy demand that also translates into avoided emissions.
Reprocessing recycled materials consumes much less energy than the initial process of extracting raw materials and processing them into finished products. Since each material has a unique manufacturing process, the potential savings from recycling will vary.
The extraction of aluminum from aluminum ore requires a huge amount of heat and electricity. This process uses more electricity than the manufacturing of any other product in the United States! By recycling aluminum, we skip the need to generate all that electricity in the first place. Recycled aluminum can be simply cleaned and re-melted, saving nearly 95% of the energy that would be required to produce the aluminum from raw minerals. Aluminum can also be reprocessed multiple times without degradation, which adds to the economic and environmental benefit of recycling aluminum products.
Glass is made by melting sand and other minerals at extremely high temperatures. The molten mixture is then cooled and formed into glass as we know it. Generating the heat needed to melt the mineral mixture takes an enormous amount of energy, so reusing glass products is both an environmentally friendly and economical practice.
Without requiring any processing, you can reuse glass containers as drinking glasses or storage containers. If you’re feeling creative, you can even browse the internet for more great ideas on how to repurpose glass products.
While reusing glass containers is the most eco-friendly option, recycling is still a far more energy-efficient alternative than simply trashing those empty glass jars. Recycled glass still needs to be reprocessed, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates energy savings of around 30% versus the manufacturing of new glass products.
Most commercial plastics can be recycled, saving energy and reducing plastic waste. Unlike aluminum and glass, plastics degrade each time they are reprocessed. However, low-grade plastics can still be used in less demanding applications like insulation and carpeting.
Single-use plastics are notorious for their negative environmental impact, especially when they reach our oceans. Many plastic products are only used for a few minutes but require hundreds of years to break down in nature. Recycling can help to mitigate this environmental impact.
But while recycling plastic saves energy and reduces waste, the best thing you can do is rethink if you really need to use disposable plastics in the first place. Packing reusable utensils, drinking from a refillable drink flask, and using reusable shopping bags at stores and restaurants are great ways to reduce the production of unnecessary plastics.
If you’d like to calculate how much you can reduce global energy demand by recycling common waste materials, the EPA has a tool called iWARM available for use on its website. Let’s all do our part for a cleaner future together. Happy Global Recycling Day!
Dan Kaneko is a digital communications and social media specialist at Hawaiian Electric Company.