Story at a glance

  • A recent survey shows that while many people want to be more environmentally friendly, they're not always sure how.
  • While more than a third of Americans recycle, just about 17.5 percent of electricity in the United States is generated by renewable energy.
  • Inspire, an energy company, is trying to raise awareness of the effect individuals can have by switching to "clean energy."

American households have recycled for generations and as landfills began getting, well, full in the 1970s, the country turned to recycling as a solution. 

Today, more than a third of Americans recycle, and many of them believe it's for the good of the environment. And it can be, the Environmental Protection Agency is clear on that, but it comes with its own issues and new research shows its effect might not be as big as many Americans think.  


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Inspire, a “clean energy” company, surveyed close to 2,000 people between the ages of 21 and 65 with a household income of at least $40,000 and a median household income of $86,969. Of these respondents, many of whom were college-educated white people with children, 92 percent believe climate change is real and 78 percent believe human behavior has at least something to do with it. Nearly three-fourths of them recycle and a majority think it's the most impactful action they can take. 

But Inspire calculated that if you recycle, saving more than 600 pounds of coal from being burned annually, you are making just a little more of an impact on the environment than going one day without meat each week, which saves about 500 pounds of coal burned in food production annually. Meanwhile, biking to work, driving a hybrid or electric vehicle and powering your home with renewable energy can have up to 10 times the impact. 


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Of course, committing to clean or renewable energy isn’t cheap. Wind, solar and other sources of renewable energy require more capital from energy companies than gas and oil power plants, and that cost can get handed down to customers. But solar and wind power can also be cheaper than coal and gas power, according to a 2019 report, especially once you make an initial investment in the infrastructure. 

A little more than three-fourths, or 77 percent, of consumers surveyed said they were willing to make changes to their lifestyle to reduce their personal impact, even though more than half of them didn't have much faith in the world getting its act together to reverse climate change. Still, 49 percent said they wanted to know more about how to reduce their impact. 

In 1960, less than 7 percent of Americans recycled. But faced with a decision, a not insignificant number of Americans chose to recycle over letting landfills spill over into their neighborhoods. As climate change continues to take its toll, Americans are once again being asked to make a decision.


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Published on Oct 14, 2020