Sustainable Impact

How much CO2 is saved by recycling?

Elisa Bonnin
June 16, 2022
3 minutes

You probably already know that recycling your trash is better for the planet than just throwing it away. But did you know that you could save 904 kg of CO2 each year by recycling correctly? That’s equivalent to eating the average weight of a person in cheeseburgers! Here’s how.

The environmental benefits of recycling

Recycling reduces the amount of waste dumped in landfills. But when waste isn’t properly disposed of, it can increase pollution because plastics and other materials release harmful chemicals into the environment. For example, microplastics were recently discovered in freshly fallen Antarctic snow and have even been detected in human blood.

Recycling also reduces the need to make new materials, minimizes costs, and helps conserve natural resources.

To understand how recycling can impact our carbon footprint, we first need to look at how much CO2 is emitted when we source these materials in the first place.

How recycling saves CO2

The act of sourcing and refining raw materials results in carbon dioxide emissions. Usually, these production processes are very energy-intensive.

So when we recycle materials, we save CO2 because we aren’t emitting the CO2 in the first place. And that effect is often compounded because we can recycle materials more than once.

To give you an idea of how significant those carbon savings can be, take a look at the graph below. It shows the amount of CO2 emitted when we produce each of the most common packaging materials versus the amount of CO2 you can save by recycling that same material.

You can start to see that recycling saves a lot of CO2. And in the case of aluminum (e.g., soda cans), you can save up to 95% of the environmental impact by recycling. That’s because aluminum is very energy-intensive to source and produce but can be recycled almost infinitely.

But how much does this really help?

The carbon impact of recycling depends on many factors, and each country has its quirks. But to see how much recycling can help, let’s use an average person in the US as an example.

The average adult American produces 4.9 pounds of trash each day. That’s about 1789 pounds or 811 kilograms each year.

Next, we’ve made some assumptions to take into account the breakdown of different materials inside this hypothetical heap of trash:

  • Our example person throws out an even mix of paper and cardboard and an even mix of aluminum and steel.
  • This person’s plastic waste is made up of 20% PET plastic and 20% PP, and the rest of their plastic waste isn’t recyclable.
  • They recycle everything they can.

That means our example person has saved about 903.5 kg of carbon in a year just by recycling!

That’s equivalent to eating 282 quarter-pound cheeseburgers, doing 430 loads of laundry (washer and dryer), taking 565 hot baths, or purchasing about 900 paperback books. So that adds up to a lot of carbon!

So in conclusion

Some materials are more efficient than others for recycling — for example, cardboard, aluminum, and steel. So we should try to prioritize these as much as possible. But overall, recycling has a positive environmental effect.

The takeaway is that while recycling alone won’t solve climate change, recycling correctly is still one of the easiest ways we can have a meaningful impact on the future of our planet — every day.

Curious how you can become a better recycler? Check out Scrapp — our free mobile app scans your items and shows you what’s recyclable in your local area. Together, we’ve already recycled almost 12,000 items!

Article by
Elisa Bonnin