It is difficult to determine the amount of energy consumed or produced in waste disposal processes in broader ecological terms, where causal relations dissipate into complex networks of material and energy flow. For example, "cities do not follow all the strategies of ecosystem development. Biogeochemical paths become fairly straight relative to wild ecosystems, with very reduced recycling, resulting in large flows of waste and low total energy efficiencies. By contrast, in wild ecosystems, one population’s wastes are another population’s resources, and succession results in efficient exploitation of available resources. However, even modernized cities may still be in the earliest stages of a succession that may take centuries or millennia to complete.":720 How much energy is used in recycling also depends on the type of material being recycled and the process used to do so. Aluminium is generally agreed to use far less energy when recycled rather than being produced from scratch. The EPA states that "recycling aluminum cans, for example, saves 95 percent of the energy required to make the same amount of aluminum from its virgin source, bauxite." In 2009 more than half of all aluminium cans produced came from recycled aluminium.
The amount of energy saved through recycling depends upon the material being recycled and the type of energy accounting that is used. Emergy (spelled with an m) analysis, for example, budgets for the amount of energy of one kind (exergy) that is required to make or transform things into another kind of product or service. Using emergy life-cycle analysis researchers have concluded that materials with large refining costs have the greatest potential for high recycle benefits. Moreover, the highest emergy efficiency accrues from systems geared toward material recycling, where materials are engineered to recycle back into their original form and purpose, followed by adaptive reuse systems where the materials are recycled into a different kind of product, and then by by-product reuse systems where parts of the products are used to make an entirely different product.
The Energy Information Administration (EIA) states on its website that a paper mill uses 40 percent less energy to make paper from recycled paper than it does to make paper from fresh lumber. Some critics argue that it takes more energy to produce recycled products than it does to dispose of them in traditional landfill methods, since the curbside collection of recyclables often requires a second waste truck. However, recycling proponents point out that a second timber or logging truck is eliminated when paper is collected for recycling, so the net energy consumption is the same. An Emergy life-cycle analysis on recycling revealed that fly ash, aluminum, recycled concrete aggregate, recycled plastic, and steel yield higher efficiency ratios, whereas the recycling of lumber generates the lowest recycle benefit ratio. Hence, the specific nature of the recycling process, the methods used to analyse the process, and the products involved affect the energy savings budgets.
In a 2002 article for The Heartland Institute, Jerry Taylor, director of natural resource studies at the Cato Institute, wrote, "If it costs X to deliver newly manufactured plastic to the market, for example, but it costs 10X to deliver reused plastic to the market, we can conclude the resources required to recycle plastic are 10 times more scarce than the resources required to make plastic from scratch. And because recycling is supposed to be about the conservation of resources, mandating recycling under those circumstances will do more harm than good."
In a 1996 article for The New York Times, John Tierney argued that it costs more money to recycle the trash of New York City than it does to dispose of it in a landfill. Tierney argued that the recycling process employs people to do the additional waste disposal, sorting, inspecting, and many fees are often charged because the processing costs used to make the end product are often more than the profit from its sale. Tierney also referenced a study conducted by the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) that found in the six communities involved in the study, "all but one of the curbside recycling programs, and all the composting operations and waste-to-energy incinerators, increased the cost of waste disposal."