Commentary: Why Recycle? Why Use Renewable Energy?

Lead Author: Dr. Jeff Howe

Publish date: 04.20.2012


What is the Goal, Again?


A few weeks ago, I was discussing with a group of college students the importance of recycling and our relatively high level of success with recycling paper.  I then noted that, contrary to common perception, the total harvest of trees is unlikely to be significantly reduced even if we maximize paper recycling to our highest current technical ability.  In response, one student asked, “If it won’t reduce logging, then why bother recycling at all?”   Good question, right?  With all the reminders to “Save a tree, Recycle”, it is easy to assume from current discussions that reducing tree harvest must be the main goal of recycling, right?  However, if we think back to why recycling started in the first place, it was often out of concern over landfill capacities and the ability to manage our waste streams.  We started recycling to save waste, not trees.


So, have we been successful?  Has recycling helped us manage our waste stream and reduce the pressure on our landfills?  As recently as 2000, as much as 90% of waste in England was going to landfills; by 2008, that proportion had been reduced to 59.9% of household waste.[1]  As of 2009, 82 million tons of waste in the United States was being composted or recycled each year, for a recovery rate of 33.8 percent.[2]   For some materials, the recycling rate is much higher. For example, 74 percent of office-type paper is recovered in the U.S. and 60 percent of yard trimmings.   Remarkably, the per-person amount of waste discarded in landfills is lower now than it was in 1960.[3]    So, overall it would appear that recycling has helped and lessoned the stress on our waste stream and landfill systems.


Similar to the question of “why recycle” is the question of “why use renewable energy”?  Current debates often focus on the requirement for renewable energy to result in significant reductions in carbon emissions.  This is a bit like pursuing a policy of recycling primarily to stop trees from being cut.  Renewable energy is important for addressing a number of important issues.  According to the Union of Concerned Scientists[4]  renewable energy helps provide:


  • National fuel diversity and energy security
  • Regional economic benefits such as affordability and jobs
  • Environmental benefits such as improvements in air and water quality


One of the most powerful characteristics of renewable energy, especially resources such as woody biomass, is that the supply can be relatively continuous and predictable.  With responsible management, we can plan and provide a steady stream of resources essentially forever, if we so choose.  Unlike the finite, diminishing and non-renewable fossil-fuel resources, responsibly managed renewable energy can be permanent and non-diminishing. Of course there can be concerns about the use of renewable energy, and these concerns need to inform our development of these energy sources.  The original goal of supporting renewable energy was to reduce all of the negative impacts of being dependent on non-renewable sources of energy.  A current focus on carbon should not distract us from the many other reasons renewable energy is so important.


We engage in responsible behaviors such as recycling and renewable energy production for many reasons, and all of these reasons remind us of the necessity of, and the need to be open to, change.  If we are going to accurately measure the benefits of change, it is important to remember the goals we were aiming for in the first place.  As Voltaire[5]  once said, “don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.”  Certainly there are benefits to addressing carbon concerns as it relates to our energy production.   But it may be much more important to be able to say at some point in the future, we’ve eliminated landfills and are using less fossil fuel and less non-renewable energy per person than in decades past.  And just maybe having a clear successful start is better than spinning in circles debating the issue.


Dr. Jeff Howe

April 2012



[3]  Due to population growth, current total amount discarded in landfills is higher than in 1960, yet lower than 1990.


[5] Voltaire in his poem “La Bégueule” (1772)