"Recycling" is an umbrella term that covers a wide range of processes, so a one-size-fits-all answer simply isn't applicable. Instead, it's worth examining different forms of recycling to see what they do -- or do not -- accomplish.
Glass, for example, is an endlessly renewable resource. Glass jars and bottles can be melted down over and over again and re-formed; in fact, 90 percent of recycled glass is used to make new containers [source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency]. Because crushed pieces of recycled glass melt at a lower temperature than the raw materials used to make new glass, the process uses less energy and is clearly more efficient.
Aluminum is another material that can be recycled over and over with no drop in quality. Recycling used aluminum requires only about 5 percent as much energy as extracting it from natural sources [source: Recycle Now].
Paper recycling is also energy-efficient, as it reduces the number of steps needed to produce sheets of paper. Recycled paper is combined with water and filtered to form a liquid slurry, which is then flattened and dried. By contrast, making new paper requires cutting down trees, grinding logs down into wood chips, then breaking those chips down into fiber in order to end up with the same liquid slurry.
The situation is trickier when it comes to plastic recycling. Plastic consumer waste is sorted by type, cleaned of any contaminants, and cut into tiny flakes. These flakes are then dried, melted, and formed into pellets that can be used in manufacturing. While this process is efficient, plastic is not an endlessly renewable material, such as aluminum or glass. Most plastic is recycled only once. While some water bottles are partially composed of recycled plastic, the vast majority of soap dispensers, takeout containers and other consumer products are not.
Even if recycling a certain material is not energy-efficient in terms of power use (recycling plants do use electricity, after all), it can still have larger environmental benefits. Recently, there has been a growing push toward recycling electronics, which can leak harmful chemicals if left in landfills. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2.5 million tons of electronics are thrown out in America each year. Many of those pieces are shipped overseas, where they will be stripped down in unsafe conditions. Instituting a comprehensive "e-recycling" program for items such as computers and cell phones in the United States not only would prevent that environmental damage but could also generate jobs for people processing the electronics [source: Gross].
There is some debate about whether recycling as a whole reduces the amount of energy used in our society. The recycling process for many products, however, uses less energy than is required to make the products from scratch. Recycling plastics, for example, can sometimes be complicated and expensive, but recycling steel takes much less energy than does the process of mining and refining ore to be forged into new steel. Also, some critics of recycling say the fleets of trucks that collect recycling use enough energy to make recycling energy inefficient. In general, the energy impact of recycling should be judged on a case-by-case basis.
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