Carbon Footprint: Recycling Compared to Not Recycling (With Graphics)

Georgette Kilgore headshot, wearing 8 Billion Trees shirt with forest in the background.Written by Georgette Kilgore

Carbon Offsets Credits | March 18, 2024

Woman with her finger on her chin wonders about the carbon footprint of recycling while looking at a recycling symbol emitting carbon footprint emissions and shadows of plastic containers behind it.

You may have heard about the three Rs (Reduce, Reuse and Recycle), but sometimes battling the climate crisis can lead to more emissions, leading to serious concerns about carbon footprint recycling.

Almost every activity releases emissions, whether it’s the fuel you burn to go to work, the process ad transportation involved in getting food, or the energy you use in your home.

And the same is true about recycling carbon footprint.

When materials are recycled, there’s energy, transportation, and other processes that create emissions.

But, if you are wondering whether to recycle, especially after reports of carbon footprint recycling causing emissions, you need all the facts about what the process means for the environment and how much recycling reduces emissions.

This guide includes them all, with graphics.

How Does Recycling Help the Environment?

Carbon footprint recycling conserves natural resources because it reduces deforestation and excessive mining of raw materials. For instance, there is less need to cut down more trees if industries recycle paper.

Line graph of carbon footprint of metals and other materials due to recycling.

It also saves energy that would otherwise go to processing raw materials. Additionally, recycling effectively reduces the spread of landfills, which otherwise negatively impacts the environment.4

How Much Does Recycling Reduce Carbon Footprint: Impact of Recycling

Everybody has a carbon footprint from using items like paper, plastic containers, and other disposable products. Thanks to recycling as often as possible, you can save around 61 kg of emissions monthly.2

An average American has 38 kilograms of trash monthly, but carbon footprint recycling helps significantly reduce these numbers. Aside from recycling, looking into a plastic convenience carbon offset will further help.

How Does Recycling Reduce Greenhouse Gases Emissions?

Carbon footprint recycling involves a reduction in emissions from manufacturing processes. Instead of mining raw materials from scratch, you use recovered products, translating to less energy consumption for the entire process.7

It won’t be necessary to start production afresh, which consumes a lot of energy, and consequently, you burn fewer fossil fuels during manufacturing, reducing the carbon footprint.

How Can the Recycling of Metals Reduce Carbon Footprint?

Mining ores for metals produces a lot of GHGs, due to the resources and machinery used. If manufacturers adopt more metal recycling methods, it won’t be necessary to mine materials for new products. Air pollution will reduce by 86%, while water pollution will drop by 40%.5

Statistically, each ton of scrap used in production reduces 1.5 tons of CO2 and lowers the consumption of raw materials by hundreds of kilograms.

Why Is Recycling Important?

Recycling has several environmental and economic effects, and as a consumer, you can help the planet and others earn a living by recycling plastics, metals and other recyclable materials.

Instead of manufacturing from scratch, recycled items use less energy, are cheaper to produce, and generally kinder to the environment. The industry also employs thousands of people annually, which boosts the country’s economy.

Carbon Footprint Recycling: What Is the Carbon Footprint of Metals and Other Materials Due to Recycling?

Material GHG From New Production (CO2e/kg) GHG From Producing Recycled Materials (CO2e/kg) Difference (%)
Steel 2.4 0.3 87
Aluminum 11.0 0.4 96
Glass 0.9 0.5 41
Plastic 2.1 1.3 37
Paper 1.1 0.7 37
Organic waste 0.07 0.05 27

Decarbonization Metals: Why Recycling Metals Is Important

Carbon footprint recycling of metals maintains sustainability in several ways. For one, since manufacturers can use them several times after production, there is a reduced need to obtain virgin ore, saving mining and related emissions.

It can significantly reduce all the GHG from the design stages to the end-of-life and is the ideal route for businesses that want to cut costs and direct the money to other projects. It also saves energy, which is cheap for the company and kinder to the environment.

Carbon Footprint of Paper vs Plastic: Which Bag Is Better for the Environment?

According to a 2011 research, producing paper bags needs at least four times the energy it takes to manufacture a plastic bag.8 Similarly, paper is not as durable as plastic since it is vulnerable to tearing, especially after getting wet.

On the other hand, since plastic is heavier, transporting it has a higher carbon footprint, and the other downside is that it takes longer to decompose than paper bags. Given that both have merits and demerits, reusing them will be best for the planet.1

Is Recycling Bad for the Environment: Should You Recycle?

Recycling can positively or negatively affect the environment based on the practices surrounding it. While it helps in carbon footprint recycling for manufacturers, there is also the concern that the process also requires energy.

Unless done correctly, recycling can emit more greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. Another angle is that some people assume that all materials are recyclable, tossing them into labeled bins without carefully checking them.3

Ways That Recycling Reduces Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Extracting raw materials produces a lot of emissions, and since there is no need for mining when recycling, fewer toxins are released into the environment. Secondly, by reducing the manufacturing process, companies consume less energy for production and shipping goods.

Another upside of recycling is that it reduces the trash in landfills which emits GHG when it decomposes. It also saves a lot of costs for the manufacturer because it reduces the production process.

Recycling Studies: Recycling Report PDF

The REI report in pdf helps you understand what recycling means for the country’s economy. The sector is a critical aspect of government revenue and workers’ income.9 It helps conserve natural resources, fortifies the economy, and is crucial for the region’s climate goals.

Is Recycling Carbon Footprints the Best Way To Go?

Creating a product from the extraction stage and ensuring it reaches the final consumer leads to heavy emissions. Most of these products are critical for users, and their demand will always be high unless there are measures to reduce their emissions.

Recycling is the best option for most materials because it takes used items for reuse to keep up with the demand. However, sometimes the material is not recyclable, for which the other Rs are more effective; reusing and reducing.

How Does Not Recycling Affect Global Warming?

Disposing of recyclable materials has a massive impact on the environment in terms of increasing landfills and mining activities. Companies have to source more raw materials to keep producing more processes which are heavy carbon emitters.

Manufacturers need more energy for mining and processing and use more money.

Bar graph of carbon footprint of virgin plastic vs recycled plastic.

Similarly, landfills filled with these materials decompose and release harmful gasses into the air; unless there is an emphasis on recycling, the environment will suffer immensely from their disposal.

How Does Paper Contribute to Global Warming?

Unless you recycle paper, most of it ends up dumped in landfills and water streams, then decomposes to release methane, a GHG more potent than CO2. On the other hand, paper production requires virgin fiber from trees, which is detrimental to the environment.

If the demand for this raw material increases, it leads to deforestation, meaning trees cannot perform carbon sequestration, which is vital in battling climate change. Paper manufacturing also consumes a lot of energy, making recycling better for the environment than not recycling.

Emissions From Recycling: Is Recycling Paper Worth It or Bad for the Environment?

Recycling old paper is better for the environment than producing new ones from pulp. Repurposing one ton saves about 17 trees, and 7,000 and 400 gallons of water and oil, respectively. The process is also significantly cheaper since it doesn’t require raw material processing.

Consequently, the economy and ecology are safe from the energy-intensive manufacturing process. The only concern in paper recycling is that the process uses fossil fuels, while from-scratch manufacturing primarily utilizes the waste wood as an energy source.

How Much CO2 Is Produced per Ton of Plastic?

The plastic carbon footprint is high because companies use it on single-use items for packing.10 They have a short service but end up causing the planet years of strain as they emit toxic gasses into the environment.

One ton of waste can account for around 3 tons of carbon into the atmosphere, which contributes massively to global warming.

What Are the Levels of CO2 Emissions From Plastic Production?

Plastics negatively impact the environment throughout their life cycles, emitting about 3.4% of the total GHGs. They are also a hazard to marine life and the entire environment, evidenced by the massive numbers reported over the years.

They were responsible for about 1.8 B tons of toxic gasses, of which 90% were from processing the paper from fossil fuels. Experts estimate that these emission levels can double by 2060, reaching the 4 billion mark.

How Does Recycling Save Energy?

Several processes are involved in manufacturing a product from scratch. You may need a lot of energy to extract the raw materials, ship them to the plant, and manufacture them into the final product.

However, if dealing with recycled items, you don’t have to undergo the entire procedure.

Bar graph of food waster carbon footprint example.

You can find hundreds of hours of lighting in the difference between processing products from scratch and using recycled ones. Constantly using recycled items cumulatively saves energy that can convert for other uses.

Carbon Footprint Calculator for Business

If you own a company, whether a start-up or a large corporation, it is crucial to have a business carbon footprint calculator. It helps you understand how your operations impact the environment and the steps and advice on the steps to take to reduce the emissions.

How To Reduce Carbon Content in Steel Through Carbon Footprint Recycling

The level of emissions from steel manufacture is almost twice the amount of steel produced, at 1.85 tons of CO2e for each ton of steel. The most effective remedy is to develop technologies that implement carbon capture systems to reduce the footprint.

However, until that happens, it is crucial to recycle them to avoid extracting them from virgin ores. Carbon footprint recycling saves about 58% of the toxin emissions, unlike manufacturing steel afresh. The only challenge is that the metal quality usually diminishes, but the best part is that it is safer for the environment.

Carbon Footprint Recycling Economic Benefits

Carbon footprint recycling has a few economic benefits, given the direct connection with the manufacturing sector.

  • Recycling programs offer thousands of jobs yearly for the local community in the green industry.
  • Instead of producing from scratch, using recycled materials significantly reduces the production costs for manufacturers. The energy cost can also be reduced by more than 50%.
  • Setting up recycling plants can uplift struggling workers and give new employees a chance to provide for themselves and their families.

Waste Management for Businesses

Businesses have a huge role in carbon footprint recycling, and the following are some ideas.

  • Recycling packaging boxes can save tons of emissions that end up in landfills every year.
  • Reprocessing plastic films can help reduce manufacturing costs and lower GHG emissions.6
  • Recycled paper can save energy and materials, unlike creating them fresh from new trees.
  • Buying recycled paper saves the planet tons of carbon otherwise released into the atmosphere.
  • If recycled materials can replace transport packaging, it could save hundreds of pounds of carbon.

Economic Benefits of Recycling: Statistics From EPA

According to the latest REI report on the impact of recycling on the economy, this sector was responsible for new jobs, increased wages, and higher tax revenue for the state and local governments.11

Recycling created 681 000 jobs in 2012 and achieved $37.8 Billion in income for the workers and $5.5 billion in taxes for the country. Therefore, 1.17 jobs were available for every 1000 tons of recycled materials.

Carbon Footprint of Virgin Plastic vs Recycled Plastic: Carbon Footprint Recycling of Plastics

Taking three resins and analyzing them for energy and water consumption and overall waste production, the table shows how much emissions were reduced by recycled plastic.

Resin Virgin Plastic Energy Consumption Recycled Plastic Energy Consumption
PET 100% 21%
HDPE 100% 12%
PP 100% 12%

How Does Recycling Carbon Footprint Calculator Work?

The recycling carbon footprint calculators come in different designs to help you measure your effectiveness in recycling. The first step is to enter how many disposable bags or other recyclable materials you use daily, how many of them you recycle, and which method you use.

The system will then calculate the amount of waste you emit against how much of it you recycle, and the results will show in terms of CO2 emissions into the air or the amount you have recycled.

Uses of the Recycling Calculator

There are various online calculators like EPA’s Recyculator, which helps businesses and other large corporations determine the impact of their recycling efforts. After using it, it displays results as four main aspects.

It tells how much CO2e you have saved in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, how much energy you have conserved in megajoules per household annually, and the amount of water and landfill space you have saved.

How To Use a Simple Carbon Footprint Calculator: What Is My Carbon Footprint?

Carbon ecological footprint calculators are simple and practical tools to help you determine your carbon footprint. All your daily actions, from commuting methods to the type of food you eat, impact the environment, and you need such special tools to help you account for them and find ways to reduce emissions.

Food Waste Carbon Footprint Calculator Examples

Food Waste (Kg) CO2e Emissions (kg) Equivalent Days of Electricity Consumption Equivalent 50L Petrol Tanks
50 95 8.48 0.82
100 190 16.96 1.64
150 285 25.45 2.46
1,000 1,900 169.64 16.43

How Does a Paper Recycling Calculator Work?

Here is a summary of how much you can save by recycling paper.

Bar graph that shows how much can be saved by recycling paper.

Amount of Paper Recycled (Pounds) Hours of Electricity Saved Gallons of Water Saved Gallons of Oil Saved
50 13 40 1
100 27 80 3
150 40 120 4
1,000 267 801 25

How Plastic Bottle Carbon Footprint Calculator Works?

  1. You need 2 kilograms of oil for raw materials and energy to produce a kilogram of polyethylene, the most common resin for plastic bottle manufacture.
  2. A kg of oil accounts for around 3 kg of CO2; therefore, a kg of plastic creates roughly 6 kgs of carbon emissions.
  3. One plastic bag weighs 8-60g, based on the design and type, but most people use one weighing an average of 32.5 g.
  4. Calculating the relationship between one kg of plastic and one kg of CO2, which is around 200g, you notice that five bags can equate to 1 kilogram of carbon.

EPA Waste Management Strategies

Since most activities generate waste that can sometimes be lethal to the environment and the people nearby, EPA has formulated effective management plans.12

While working towards carbon footprint recycling, the organization handles the transportation and disposal of these materials. It constantly works with stakeholders to find more sustainable solutions to reduce landfill waste.

Carbon Footprint Recycling Facts About Metals

  • Recycling steel reduces emissions by 58%.
  • Recycling steel reduces 86% of air pollution, 40% of water consumption, and 76% of water pollution.
  • People still use 70% of the steel and 75% of the aluminum produced worldwide.
  • Recycling aluminum reduces carbon emissions by 92%.
  • Recycling copper reduces 65% of the emissions.
  • 44% of the copper in the European Union is from recycling.

Highest and Lowest Recycle Index by Countries

A country’s recycling index assesses its willingness and ability to manage waste sustainably. Top-performing countries like Slovenia, South Korea, and Germany have some of the best recycling rates worldwide.13

Country Recycle rate (%)
South Korea 56.5
Slovenia 51.5
Germany 48
Sweden 32.5
Belgium 34.1
Denmark 33.5
Latvia 35.4
Ireland 28.2
Australia 24.6
Czech Republic 22.8
Netherlands 27.7
United Kingdom 26.9
United States 23.6
Switzerland 29.9

Bar graph about recycle rate by country in percentage.
Reversing the impacts of climate change starts with you as the consumer. Industries produce a lot of one-off plastics, from bottles to paper bags and plastic packaging materials, and most of them wind up in dumpsites, landfills, and water bodies.

Leaving them in this state harms the environment and the wildlife depending on it for survival. Thanks to recycling, people can use them again, reducing their carbon footprint and making the mills and plants more economical.

If you want to care for the environment and provide jobs to people in marginalized communities, you can do both by practicing carbon footprint recycling and involving your friends and family in the process.

Frequently Asked Questions About Carbon Footprint Recycling

What Is the Carbon Footprint of Recycling Paper?

Creating recycled paper emits less carbon than manufacturing it from virgin fiber since the process is less energy intensive. A ton of recycled paper can account for 38% less carbon footprint than producing paper from its raw materials, translating to about 40.3 tons of carbon emissions saved.

What Is the Impact of Stainless Steel Carbon Footprint Recycling: Recycled Steel Carbon Footprint?

Using a ton of recycled steel from scrap metal saves the planet 4.3 tons of emissions and 1.67 tons of carbon steel. Therefore, using recycled metals instead of ores equates to the energy used to drive a petrol-driven car for 9,000 km.

How Much Energy Is Saved From Recycled Steel?

Recycling steel can help the planet save enough energy to power about 18 million houses in one year. Each ton saves over 600 kilowatt hours of energy, 1.8 oil barrels and 10.9 M BTUs of power and conserves four cubic yards of landfill.

What Is the Carbon Footprint of Steel per Kg?

Steel is one of the metals with the highest carbon footprints due to the heavy production process. Its emission per kg produced ranges between 1.5- 3 kg of carbon equivalent for each produced kilogram of steel.

How Much CO2 Is Saved by Recycling Plastic?

Recycling plastic saves an average of 2.5 kg of CO2 per kilogram of plastic produced. Therefore, unlike new plastic creation that emits around 6 kilograms of toxic waste, recycled plastic only generates roughly 3.5 kg for incineration and production.

What Are the CO2 Emissions per Kg of Plastic?

For every kilogram of plastic produced, 1.7-6 kg of carbon is released into the environment. The amount varies based on the plastics’ type and size; for instance, the emissions from plastic bottles differ from those from plastic bags or milk jugs.

What Are Copper Carbon Emissions Before and After Recycling?

Mining copper accounts for 2.3-2.5 tons of carbon emissions for each ton, and smelting the metal adds another 1.65 tons. However, recycled metal is responsible for only 1.5 tons of GHG. Recycling copper is the best option for the environment, unlike disposing of it, which leads to pollution in landfills.

What Is an E-Waste Carbon Footprint Calculator?

E-waste centers help you recycle your electronics instead of discarding them in the trash and winding them up in landfills. You can recycle your home appliances like microwaves and office and kitchen equipment. The result is how many kilograms you will have saved by recycling.


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