How does recycling save energy?

The bills for electricity, heating costs or even petrol remind us that we use a lot of energy. But they don't tell you everything about our energy consumption, because there is a form of energy that never appears directly on the bill: the gray energy. It is energy that has to be invested in the products before we can buy them. This includes, for example, the energy that has to be used to obtain the raw materials for the manufacture of the products, and then also the energy that is and is not required for transport (on roads, over water or in the air) and also for storing the products Finally, it also takes energy to sell the products. And what is easily forgotten, but should not be ignored, is that energy has to be invested again in the products when they have reached the end of their service life. Then you have to recycle them with energy, dispose of them properly or drive the waste incineration plant together with the waste. In Switzerland, therefore, an average of around 1.2 kilowatt hours (kWh) of gray energy must be charged for every franc used to buy a product, regardless of whether the product was manufactured in Switzerland or abroad. This amount of energy corresponds to a small glass of petroleum or the amount of electrical current that is roughly required for one wash cycle in the dishwasher.

Complete energy balance

Not all consumer products contain the same amount of embodied energy. Most electronic devices are calculated on average three times more energy than the electricity they consume in the course of their lifespan. From the perspective of a comprehensive energy balance, it therefore makes more sense to use them for as long as possible instead of replacing them for short-term reasons to save electricity. Household appliances, on the other hand, consume around four times as much energy over the course of their life as was required to manufacture them. It is therefore worthwhile to replace an old refrigerator with a new one with a better energy class (A +++), because its power consumption is so economical that it will "make up for" its gray energy in three or four years.

Embodied energy and CO2

Consuming gray energy would not in itself be problematic if it did not have a negative impact on the environment. Unfortunately, energy consumption is always linked to greenhouse gas emissions - especially carbon dioxide (CO2), which is upsetting the climate of our planet. This is clear to everyone when it comes to burning fuels of fossil origin. But these emissions also arise in the production of electricity from hydropower plants and nuclear power plants, because these large systems must first be built and then permanently maintained, and then the installation and maintenance of the power distribution networks are required - which is also done with the help of fossil fuel and fuels happens. Therefore, the gray energy invested in consumer goods can be converted into a CO2- Convert equivalent - and then it becomes possible to compare the effects on the climate of such different products as strawberries, building materials or T-shirts. For this purpose, the information about so and so much "grams of CO2", which are increasingly found on the labels of many everyday goods.

In short: a product contains all the more CO2 from gray energy, the more non-renewable energy has to be used for its production, transport, storage, distribution and disposal.

The national balance sheet for greenhouse gas emissions does not include all of the embodied energy

If you compare the effects of the various nations in the world on the climate, the CO2-Equivalent that is directly emitted in the respective country, not included. In other words: if a country imports and consumes consumer goods, the high proportion of gray energy generated abroad is not taken into account in the importing country's balance sheet. The CO2-Emissions resulting from the manufacture of a smartphone, for example, are attributed to China, even though the device is used in Europe. And like most EU countries, Switzerland also imports many consumer goods, foodstuffs and petroleum products, the embodied energy of which does not appear in the balance sheet. If we were to take them into account, our country's harmful impact on the climate would be around 50% greater.

How can you save gray energy?

We all understand how important it is not to waste electricity, fuel or heating energy. And it is just as important to use as little of this gray energy as possible, although it is far less easy to spot. Of course you can use the grams of CO2 on the product labels, but it's easier to follow a few principles in everyday life:

  • Choose local products that are made from natural materials and of good quality.
  • Take care of equipment and devices so that they last longer and, if possible, repair them instead of replacing them when they are defective.
  • Lending and lending everyday objects: easy to share with other people.
  • You can give away things that you no longer need or give to a charity, for example.
  • Produce less waste by recycling items, but also by avoiding products that are wrapped in too much unnecessary packaging.