Can Energy Be Recycled in An Ecosystem?

Get answers to all your questions about energy flow through ecosystems.
Kashyap Vyas

It is a known fact that ecosystems maintain themselves by cycling nutrients and energy that they receive from several external sources. To begin with, primary producers such as algae, some bacteria, and plants, at the trophic level, use the sun’s energy in order to generate organic plant material by way of the process of photosynthesis.

Thereafter, herbivores or animals that only feed on plants are a part of the second trophic level. The third trophic level comprises of the predators that ultimately eat herbivores.


Also, if there are even larger predators, they occupy higher trophic levels. In the same vein, organisms such as the grizzly bears that eat both salmon and berries are at the highest trophic levels as they feed on multiple trophic levels.

Nutrient Cycle
Source: Thompsma/Wikimedia Commons

Then comes the decomposers, including fungi, bacteria, worms, insects as well as mold that break down all the dead organisms and waste to energy. The transformation takes place to return their nutrients to the place they belong- the soil.  

This, in a nutshell, is how the ecosystem works. Let us now delve a bit further into why energy is not recyclable!

Why is energy not recyclable?

In order to understand why it is not possible to recycle energy, it is first crucial to take note of the working of the ecosystem. Plants convert solar energy into their roots, leaves, stems, fruits, and flowers by way of photosynthesis.

Then, the organisms that consume these plants use the stored energy through respiration to carry out a number of everyday activities. Some energy is also lost as heat in the process.

In simple terms, 90% of the energy is used by organisms that they get from plants, and therefore, when this progresses a few steps into the food chain, there is no energy to recycle.

It is important to note that the transfer of energy in the ecosystem is a rather complex process. Energy is needed at all levels of the food chain, as are nutrients.

However, when the energy passes on to organism after organism from the initial plants, it is also used up and exhausted, and ultimately, nothing remains that can be recycled to form more energy.

What is the role of energy in ecosystems?

Energy plays a crucial role in ecosystems for an obvious reason. It helps organisms carry out their daily activities optimally. There is a stunning array of varied ecosystems on the planet, and the process of energy transfer makes it possible for these ecosystems to carry out their function naturally. The availability of energy decreases as it moves along a continuum.

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Energy Pyramid
Source: Swiggity.Swag.YOLO.Bro/Wikimedia Commons

When energy enters in an ecosystem, the energy transfer basically depends on which organism feeds upon which another organism. Primary producers, consumers as well as decomposers play their own roles in the energy cycle.

All three get energy from the previous step of the food chain to carry out their processes. It is vital to note here that during the process of decomposition, all the remaining energy from the ecosystem is then released as heat, and it disperses later.

This is also the reason why garden mulch and compost piles emit heat. Therefore, the role of energy cannot be disputed when it comes to ecosystems.

If there were no energy, there’d be no ecosystem in the first place.   

Is energy recycled in the biosphere?

As mentioned above, energy cannot be recycled, and it is not recycled in an ecosystem. On the contrary, it flows in and out of the ecosystem.

But the matter does recycle in the biosphere, and it is here that matter and energy move very differently. Although energy has a one-way flow, matter can be recycled between and within ecosystems.

It is also pertinent to note here that energy does not recycle in the same way that atoms and nutrients do. It enters the ecosystem through the sun, and later, it exits the ecosystem once the organisms in the food chain and the different trophic levels consume as much as they need in order to carry out their natural day-to-day processes.

Organisms release this energy in the form of heat back into the biosphere. The interior of the Earth is also a part from where a lot of energy is released, and from whence it enters the ecosystem. Therefore, in a nutshell, energy predominantly enters into the biosphere and leaves it.

Why are nutrients recycled in the ecosystem?

Nutrients are essential chemicals that play a significant role in all kinds of ecosystems. They assist organisms in surviving, growing effectively and decomposing.

In this context, a nutrient cycle is an important ecological process that ensures the perpetual movement of all kinds of nutrients into a living organism from the physical environment. After that, the nutrients are recycled back, and they reach the physical environment.

The stability and health of the organisms in an ecosystem depend substantially on a table and balanced nutrient cycle which comprise of both living as well as non-living contributors. These nutrient cycles also include environmental, chemical as well as biological interactions and processes.

Nutrient Cycle
Source: Hannes Grobe/Wikimedia Commons

Hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen are perhaps the most used non-mineral nutrients that exist in the ecosystem. Then comes macronutrients such as phosphorous, nitrogen, calcium, magnesium, and potassium.


Each nutrient plays a vital role in the cycle and is also dependent on the biological capabilities as well as the geology of organisms, the reactions, and the chemical processes.  

Wrapping up

As can be seen, the nutrients, energy as well as the organisms that exist in an ecosystem are all dependent on one another to carry out their processes in order to sustain the physical environment. If even one of these chemical processes or interactions is thrown out of whack, the entire cycle will be disrupted, and there will be a massive imbalance in the natural order of things.

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