On your journey to becoming a more sustainable contributor to your community, you may find yourself coming across a lot of different terms (namely ones that start with the letter R) that are littered throughout the sustainability space. And you may be wondering, “What’s the difference?” “What do they mean?” “How do they impact me?”
Well today we’re going to be talking about the difference between recyclable and renewable and how that may play a part in the way you understand and use the resources around you.
Let’s start off with some basic definitions of what each of these words mean, and then we’ll dive into their implications.
A recyclable resource is one that can be processed from waste material into new material. In essence, we can recycle something if we can restore its properties back to a former or original state.
There are also several ways of recycling that can be implemented, all effective in their own rights, and useful based on the context.
Mechanical recycling - this process involves altering a resource’s physical properties to restore it to its original or previous state
Chemical recycling - this process involves modifying a resource’s chemical structure so that it becomes a new material
Energy recycling - this process involves capturing the energy released from disposal of a resource and converting it into thermal/electric energy.
A renewable resource is one that can be replenished naturally over a given time period. Technically speaking, a resource is only renewable if it can be restored without human intervention or processes.
Some notable renewable resources are things like solar energy and wind energy. There is an essentially “endless” supply that we can leverage. The caveat with renewable resources, however, is that they take a given time period to replenish, but if the rate of usage exceeds the rate of recovery, we may deplete these resources.
It is worth noting that while renewable resources should be able to replenish themselves, human intervention can aid in their recovery. Wood, for example, is a renewable resource because it grows in nature, and can continue to grow without human intervention. However, if our dependence on wood and subsequent usage of it doesn’t allow it to replenish itself, we could make efforts to replant more trees to help sustain its growth. In this case, we are intervening, but it’s still renewable because as long as we maintain those efforts, we’ll still have access to them. Nonrenewable resources, on the other hand, are finite, and will not replenish no matter what we do.
So what does this mean for sustainability?
Glad you asked! Because our growing population continues to place a high demand on resources, it’s important for us as a society to turn our focus on utilizing renewable resources in place of nonrenewable resources. Reducing our reliance on nonrenewable resources sets us up in the future to sustain our lives even when those nonrenewable resources cease to exist (that’s the exact definition of nonrenewable!) It may seem like we have an endless supply of fossil fuels (think gas for your car…or brand new plastics even), but we don’t.
As an average person, there isn’t too much that we can do in our daily lives when it comes to cutting back on nonrenewable resources. Sure you can get solar panels and get yourself an EV car, but the scale at which we leverage these resources in extremely impactful ways is at the municipal, industrial, and commercial levels. I may have solar panels helping to power my home, but I still rely on energy from the electric grid in my city, which likely isn’t getting their power in entirely sustainable ways from renewable resources, and there’s not much I can do about that. That’s why we need avenues like wind farms, solar farms, and hydroelectric facilities to immensely reduce our reliance on fossil fuels to power our communities on national, and even global scales.
This is precisely why recycling is such an important part of the sustainability equation. We can not only reduce our reliance on nonrenewable resources by shifting to renewable resources, but more importantly by recycling.
Plastics, for example, come from oil, which is a nonrenewable resource. The more we recycle plastics in both frequency and volume the less we’ll need to create new plastics from more oil.
But aren’t bioplastics renewable?
By definition, yes, bioplastics, which are plastics made from renewable resources (like corn starch, plant sources, etc.), are “renewable” because their source material can restore itself. However, the process of converting these materials into the bioplastic itself is still heavily reliant on non-renewable resources like oil. This is an important piece of the equation to remember. Not only should we think about what items are made of, we should also consider what resources are used to create them! Read more about the nuances of bioplastics and their impact on the environment in our Myth of PLA article here.
This, however, is still better than conventional petroleum-based plastics, so if we’re talking about plastic alternatives, bioplastics are definitely promising! The thing to bear in mind is that the buck doesn’t stop at plastic sourcing. Sustainability plays an important role in every step of the resource management process, and every step has room for improvement.
What can I do about it?
Again, another fantastic question! Like we mentioned, as a consumer there might not be any major movements that you can take to wildly alter the path we’re currently on with regards to nonrenewable resource depletion. However, even small decisions that you make in your daily life can have an impact!
When shopping, take a look at what your goods are made out of! It’s not always easy to determine, don’t sweat it too hard, but when you have a chance to buy something made from natural resources, or recycled resources, give it a go! (Beware of harmful and misleading “sustainability” marketing, however!)
As a recycling company, we are always a fan and strong proponent of recycling! For most of us, that mostly means sorting your recyclables properly so that you don’t contaminate the recyclables your waste management company picks up from your curb. This way, the waste can be properly sorted and have a higher recycling rate!
When possible, reuse your goods that would otherwise go in the trash. People come up with plenty of creative ways to reuse their waste and give it a new purpose.
Go renewable where you can
Don’t go and buy a new EV car to be sustainable, but if you’re in the market for one anyway, consider an electric or electric hybrid car. Not only would this be better for the environment in the long run, but it could also be better for your wallet!
Now that you know a little more about the difference between recyclable and renewable, and the different roles these resources might play in your life, we hope you can take this knowledge and help make the world a better, more well-sustained environment! This Earth Day try to do a little R&R (recycling and reusing, that is!) and encourage your friends and family to do the same!