Back to Energy Efficiency Basics

The nuclear plant tragedy in Japan, which has already compounded the disaster in the coastal communities north of Tokyo, highlighted the complexity and dangers endemic to trying to meet our growing energy needs.

Photo by Argonne National Laboratory via

Last November, the Wall Street Journal published “Changing the Energy Conversation.” In the article, the author suggested that because clean energy is still more expensive to generate than the traditional, polluting alternatives, there are other things that we in high-polluting countries can do to reduce the impacts of climate change. The smaller stuff includes helping poor countries to replace old diesel generators and wood stoves with more technologically-advanced alternatives and capturing methane, the incredibly potent greenhouse gas, with 21 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. Other suggestions included modifying the Clean Air Act.

An essential and much simpler approach he didn’t mention is to encourage recycling.

Imagine this: it’s warm outside and you are hosting a neighborhood barbque. You invite your college friends, your parents, people from church, from work, and casual acquaintances. They all show up. The result of this one day’s relaxing, eating and drinking is 48 12 oz. aluminum cans,  21 glass bottles, 3 glass wine bottles, 6 12 oz. plastic bottles, 5 2-liter soda bottles, 3 boxes of corrugated cardboard, and the 10 plastic grocery bags you needed to carry the stuff home from the grocery store.  You may or may not also have a plastic bottle of antacid.

According to the EPA, if you just recycle that one day’s worth of stuff, you’d save the equivalent of 21.6 kilowatt hours of delivered electricity. That would be like not running your laptop computer for just over 18 days, or not using a 60 watt lightbulb for almost 2.5 months. 

To better imagine the impact you could have by recycling, think of all the households who barbque on a nice spring or summer day in your town. Think of all the get-togethers to watch football or baseball on TV. Think of all the birthday parties, picnics, family reunions, graduation parties in your town. In this hypothetical town, say there are 50 thousand people, and one person in five goes to one of the events in a year. Now we’re talking about running a lightbuld for 1,927 years.

Ok, now imagine that the U.S. Census numbers still hold and there are 311,190,829 people in the United States. What kind of impact would that have?

You can learn more about recycling and climate change by viewing the EPA-sponsored videos  about the connections among consumption, recycling and climate change.

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