Crushed cans wait to be recycled.

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Top Things to Recycle

If you're anything like the people at HowStuffWorks, then odds are good you've already gone through several of these today. You're probably finishing off another one right now. Drawing a blank? I'm talking about the ubiquitous aluminum can. Sometimes touted as a recycling success story, aluminum cans are not only the most frequently recycled product, but also the most profitable and the most energy efficient.

The recycling of aluminum, which is made from bauxite ore, is a closed-loop process, meaning that no new materials are introduced along the way. Aluminum is infinitely recyclable: Cans can be recycled over and over again without degrading. Because of this efficiency, more than two-thirds of all the aluminum ever produced is still in use today [source: Aluminum Now]. So the next time you're feeling lazy and the recycling bin seems so much farther away than the garbage can, you might want to think about the following:

  • Recycling aluminum prevents the need to mine for ore to create new aluminum. It requires 4 tons of ore to create 1 ton of aluminum.
  • Recycling aluminum cans takes 95 percent less energy than creating new ones.
  • The energy it takes to produce one can could produce 20 recycled cans.
  • The energy saved from recycling one aluminum can could power a 100-watt light bulb for four hours or a television for three hours [sources: Can Manufacturers Institute, Russell].

Not all recyclable products deserve the bragging rights that aluminum does, but some materials come close.

Steel: another recyclable metal made mainly from mined ore, requires 60 percent less energy to recycle than it does to make anew [source: Economist]. Recycling one ton of steel prevents the mining of 2,500 pounds (1,134 kilograms) of iron ore, 1,400 pounds (635 kilograms) of coal and 120 pounds (54 kilograms) of limestone [source: Scottsdale].

Plastic: usually downcycled, meaning it is recycled into something of lesser value like fleece or lumber, but requires 70 percent less energy to recycle than to produce from virgin materials [source: Economist]. And while some people argue that recycling plastic is a lost cause because of its tendency to weaken during reprocessing, manufacturing plastic from new materials requires the messy business of mining for oil and natural gas. Even if plastic can only be recycled once, that's one time that oil and natural gas can be saved.

Glass: recycling glass is 33 percent more energy efficient (and cheaper) than starting fresh and involves no downcycling [source: Economist].

The benefits from recycling some other materials are not as clear-cut. On the next page, we'll follow some e-waste (electronic waste) to China and look at why recycling printer cartridges and paper may not always be such a good thing.