In honor of Earth Day on 4/22 (a little late, I know), let’s consider the relationship between “green” production and conservation.
Our question is does conservation or “green” production result a greater positive impact regarding our use of resources. I am going to take the case of paper, as it is relatively simple product to manufacture, is a major waste product, and can be easily recycled.
As of 2000, paper consumption in the United States was approximately 324 kg per person. Americans recycle approxmately 38% of that total, and of the remainder that is thrown away, it makes up nearly 40% of the municipal waste stream eventually being incenerated or deposited in a landfill. Recycling has been growing slowly, however, only growing from 20% in 1921 to 38% today. Consumption has grown faster increasing more than 1% compounded annually or over 23% since 1990.
This is what the paper consumption and recycling percentage would look like if present trends continue. Here I am assuming a linear continuation.
Obviously, stopping the use of a certain amount of paper or any resource will save more than recycling the same amount of that resource because recycling still requires some energy, and other inputs even if it is less than new paper. In the case of paper, as compared to normal paper from wood fibers, recycled paper uses approxmately 40% less energy, and results in 35% less water pollution and 74% less air pollution as measured by the US EPA.
So, on an energy basis, what amount of change in recycling compared to business as usual would we need to match a 10% reduction in the rate of increasing paper consumption (essentially a plateau in usage by 2017 with only minimal increases afterwards). As the graph below indicates, a 14% annual increase in recycling would be required to match the limited conservation measure of slowing the increase in paper consumption. Although, it may not be obvious, the total energy consumed in the two scenarios (integrated area under the curves) is equal in both cases.
Other measures such as cost or the amount of raw material required could also be considered, and the most beneficial policy would be to include both conservation and recycling, if able. But conservation measures should typically be the primary and initial focus of efforts to reduce energy or resource consumption, and only accompanied by or followed by recycling programs.