We All sorts of things get renewed

We use a variety of Earth’s resources, but not all of them will be around forever. This lesson explains the difference between resources that can be regenerated for our use and those that are gone after they are used once.

We All Need Resources

You can renew your lease when it runs out at the end of the year. You can renew your driver’s license and license plate on your birthday. You can also renew a library book when your allotted time with it has expired. All sorts of things get renewed in our everyday lives when they ‘run out’ or expire. These are easy to renew because you don’t have to create a new one, you just renew the ability to use whatever it is you are using.

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You can apply this same principle to natural resources. We use all kinds of natural resources: minerals, wood, coal, natural gas, wind, water, plants, animals and many more. Some of these are renewable and some are non-renewable.

The difference is that some renew at faster rates than others, making them more sustainable than those that do not renew very fast.

Renewable Resources

Renewable resources are resources that are replenished by the environment over relatively short periods of time. This type of resource is much more desirable to use because often a resource renews so fast that it will have regenerated by the time you’ve used it up.Think of this like the ice cube maker in your refrigerator. As you take some ice out, more ice gets made. If you take a lot of ice out, it takes a little more time to refill the bin but not a very long time at all.

Even if you completely emptied the entire ice cube bin, it would probably only take a few hours to ‘renew’ and refill that ice bin for you. Renewable resources in the natural environment work the same way.Solar energy is one such resource because the sun shines all the time. Imagine trying to harness all of the sun’s energy before it ran out! Wind energy is another renewable resource.

You can’t stop the wind from blowing any more than you can stop the sun from shining, which makes it easy to ‘renew.’Any plants that are grown for use in food and manufactured products are also renewable resources. Trees used for timber, cotton used for clothes, and food crops, such as corn and wheat, can all be replanted and regrown after the harvest is collected.Animals are also considered a renewable resource because, like plants, you can breed them to make more. Livestock, like cows, pigs and chickens, all fall into this category. Fish are also considered renewable, but this one is a bit trickier because even though some fish are actually farmed for production, much of what we eat comes from wild stocks in lakes and oceans.

These wild populations are in a delicate balance, and if that balance is upset by overfishing, that population may die out.Water is also sometimes considered a renewable resource. You can’t really ‘use up’ water, but you also can’t make more of it. There is a limited supply of water on Earth, and it cycles through the planet in various forms – as a liquid (our oceans), a solid (our polar ice caps and glaciers) and a gas (as clouds and water vapor).

Liquid water can be used to generate hydroelectric power, which we get from water flowing through dams. This is considered a renewable resource because we don’t actually take the water out of the system to get electricity. Like sunshine and wind, we simply sit back and let the resource do all the work!Geothermal energy is a renewable resource that provides heat from the earth – ‘geo’ means ‘earth’ and ‘thermal’ means ‘heat.’ You know all of those volcanoes on Earth that spew hot lava when they erupt? That lava has got to come from somewhere, right? It’s actually sitting underneath the earth’s surface as incredibly hot rock and magma.We find the most heat in places like plate boundaries because these are like large cracks under Earth’s surface where the heat can escape as well as places on Earth where the crust is relatively thin.

Old Faithful and other natural springs and geysers are the result of geothermal energy and that water can be hotter than 430°F!Biofuels are renewable resources that are fuels made from living organisms – literally biological fuels. Ethanol is a biofuel because it’s derived from corn. Biodiesel is vehicle fuel made from vegetable oil, and I bet you didn’t know that people can actually run their cars on used oil from restaurants! Firewood, animal dung and peat burned for heat and cooking purposes are also biofuels because they come from living (or once-living) organisms.

Non-Renewable Resources

In contrast to renewable resources, non-renewable resources are resources that are not easily replenished by the environment. Let’s think about this in terms of that ice cube maker again. Imagine that this time you don’t have an automatic ice maker at home, you have to wait for someone to bring it to you, and they only do this once a month.If you used up all your ice quickly, it wouldn’t regenerate in your refrigerator, and you would be out of ice until the next delivery comes.

The same thing happens with non-renewable resources on Earth, except the wait time is much longer than a month – usually more like thousands or millions of years!The fuels we use to heat our homes and drive our cars are non-renewable resources because there is just no way that the earth can regenerate them in a usable time frame. Minerals are also considered non-renewable resources because, not only do they take millions of years of heat and pressure to form deep underground, but they’re also found in a very limited quantity on Earth. Not all non-renewable resources are usable only once, though.Recycling is a great way to renew non-renewable resources because this is the process of making used materials usable again. Cardboard and paper come from trees, so instead of cutting down new trees, we can recycle paper once it’s been used.

The same is true for glass, some plastics and many metals, like aluminum and steel. So, make sure you recycle your cans and bottles, because if you throw them out in the trash, they’re gone for good!

Lesson Summary

We depend on Earth to supply us with many things – water, shelter and food just to name a few. How quickly the earth can regenerate the resources we use determines whether they are renewable or non-renewable resources.

Like your fingernails and hair can grow back quickly after cutting them, renewable resources can regenerate quickly – often as fast as they are used. Solar, wind and hydroelectric energy are all sources of energy that we simply sit back and take advantage of because no matter what, the sun will shine, wind will blow and water will flow.Both plants and animals are renewable resources because like people, they can repopulate in short periods of time. We use both plants and animals for food as well as for clothing, shelter and a variety of other purposes. Water, fuels from biological organisms called biofuels and heat from the earth known as geothermal energy are also resources on Earth that can be used and regenerated within a reasonable amount of time.

In contrast to these, non-renewable resources are like the limbs of your body – they are resources that are not able to regenerate. If you cut your hair, it’ll grow back. But, if you cut off your arm, you’re certainly not going to have a new one grow back in its place!There are many resources on Earth that will be gone forever once we use them up. Coal and other minerals form under extreme pressure and heat over very long periods of time (much longer than humans have been on Earth in fact!), and once we pull them from the ground, they’re gone forever.

Both renewable and non-renewable resources can be recycled, which saves them from ‘expiring’ after just one use. You don’t throw a library book away after reading it; you turn it back in so someone else can read it too. Paper, plastics, metal and glass can be recycled, which allows these used materials to be used again. Recycling is a positive alternative because it prevents many non-renewable resources from being lost forever in the trash as well as reduces the waste of renewable resources.

Learning Outcomes

Once you’ve completed this lesson, you’ll be able to:

  • Differentiate between renewable and non-renewable resources
  • Provide examples of each
  • Explain the importance of recycling
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