When we make new products out of virgin materials, we expend energy to extract and process those materials. This includes burning fossil fuels. However, if we manufacture products using recycled materials, we reduce the need for virgin materials and save the energy required to extract and process them.
Take aluminum cans, for example. When we recycle aluminum cans, we save 95 percent of the energy required to make the same amount of aluminum from its virgin source bauxite. By recycling just 1 ton of aluminum cans, we conserve more than 207 million Btu, the equivalent of 36 barrels of oil or 1,665 gallons of gasoline.
While the amount of energy we save by recycling varies depending on what type of material we are recycling, almost all recycling processes save significant amounts of energy when compared with processes that use virgin materials. So how much energy do Americans save by recycling? In 2014, we recycled and composted over 89 million tons of municipal solid waste. By doing this, we saved over 181 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MMTCO2E) emissions, comparable to the annual emissions from over 38 million passenger cars.
To estimate how much energy you can save by recycling certain products, EPA has developed a tool called the individual Waste Reduction Model (iWARM). This tool calculates how much energy you save by recycling aluminum cans, glass or plastic bottles, magazines or plastic grocery bags, and shows you how long those savings could power different electrical appliances.