I have heard arguments that the energy spent recycling some materials eclipses the energy spent gathering and working raw materials into new products. I can see how this is possible but without hard numbers, I am wary of taking it at face value. Are there any reports or papers that lays this information out?


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Yes, there are lots. These are typically summarised in Life Cycle Assessment databases, and there are plenty of specific case studies in the literature too. For materials that have a huge energy input for virgin product, such as glass, paper and aluminium, the energy savings can be huge.

There are a wide variety of circumstances, of course, so the specifics will vary, depending on the material in question, and where in the world you are. But in general, the most common types of recycling are either energy-saving, or reduce consumption of non-renewable resources, or both.

It's also worth noting that energy consumption per se is sustainable: the problem is not with energy consumption, but with how that energy is generated in most of the world - depleting finite resources such as high-grade uranium ore and fossil fuels, and generating toxic waste, local pollution and global pollution.

  • Mmm, good point about things like toxic byproducts. Feb 8, 2013 at 19:22

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