How do using clean energy and recycling compare?

When asked about the best ways to help minimize their carbon footprint and combat climate change, most people think of recycling first. And while the majority of people get the gist of recycling, many are still unsure about what exactly happens after they dispose of their recyclables in those blue bins — and they’re even less sure about the difference it makes for the environment. So, let’s start by clearly defining what recycling really is and then see how the impact of recycling for one year measures up to one year of another popular climate change solution: using clean energy.

What is recycling, really?

Recycling is the process of collecting and processing specific types of materials that would otherwise be thrown away into the trash and instead, turning them into new products, creating a continuous loop of repurposed materials. The most common of those materials includes paper, cardboard, glass, plastic, and metal. While the amount of energy saved depends on the material being recycled, almost all recycling operations result in energy savings. For example, 72% of energy used to produce iron and steel is saved when recycling these materials!

This process is represented by the familiar recycling symbol. This logo makes it seem simple, but that continuous loop involves a rather complicated process, including the collection and processing of materials, and then the remanufacturing of them into recycled goods. This helps to explain why 94% of Americans support recycling, and yet the national average recycling rate is only 34.7%. Almost two-thirds of our waste ends up in landfills, incinerators, or as litter blighting the environment simply because recycling is so difficult — even for people with the best of intentions.

Why is recycling important?

Despite its complexity, recycling is still crucial to reducing the burden of trash on our environment. In fact, a single pound of trash is the same as 1.25 pounds of coal being burned. This is because every item we throw away originally required transforming raw materials into a finished product. This transformation process uses energy, which is most likely sourced from burning coal. Recycling every day helps to offset this, but it’s not the only way to do so!

What is clean energy?

Clean energy is defined as energy that comes from renewable, natural sources that cannot be depleted. For example, the sun keeps shining and the wind keeps blowing, so there’s no risk of depleting these resources. On the other hand, nonrenewable energy that comes from finite sources like oil, gas, and coal takes a long time to replenish. Not to mention fossil fuels emit harmful greenhouse gases into the Earth’s atmosphere. Currently, renewable energy only makes up 11% of the US's total energy consumption despite the fact that clean energy options are accessible nationwide. But the US is seeing a major clean energy shift, with more and more individuals choosing to switch to a clean energy provider instead of stay with their local utility company.

Impact of recycling and using clean energy

The importance of both supporting clean energy and recycling is huge. Both clean energy and recycling reduce our reliance on limited natural resources and introduce more sustainable production of goods, which has a positive impact on our planet; however, the two actions differ in effort levels. Recycling is a daily commitment and an important one, but it takes less than five minutes to sign up for a clean energy plan.

When it comes to making the greatest amount of impact for the least amount of effort, using clean energy is the obvious choice. Learn more about signing up for clean energy with Inspire and how other green behaviors compare to using clean energy on our green behaviors blog.