In spite of repeated studies showing that it is both possible and economically sensible, energy conservation just has not caught on in America. We still focus on meeting our energy needs through production of new energy, despite soaring costs, the weakening of the dollar and our eroding position abroad.

A major reason for the national lack of interest in conservation is its association with sacrifice: cold rooms, dark streets, long gas lines. But one kind of conservation does not require these sacrifices; one kind of conservation allows us to live exactly the same kind of life we have lived before, but at substantially less energy cost. That kind of conservation is recycling.

Recycling suffers from a bad, or at least indifferent press. For most people, it means Saturday-morning collection centers and bundles of old nespapers in the back of the family car: a process, in other words, that does more to satisfy the conscience of the collector (and maybe his or her obsessiveness) than to reduce waste or save energy. This view is, however, a gross distortion, reflecting ignorance of what recycling can do.

The key fact about recycling, one that gains in importance with every OPEC price increase, is that it uses much less energy than the manufacture of products from virgin materials. To make aluminum from scrap, for example, saves 95 percent of the energy that would otherwise be required if virgin ore were used. For other materials, the savings are equally impressive: copper, 89 percent; steel, 55 percent; paper, 46 percent. And the products that result from this switch to scrap are indistinguishable from their virgin counterparts.

The reductions in industrial energy use that result from recycling can add up to major national energy savings. If, for example, recycling increased by one half in the steel industry and tripled in the paper industry, energy equal to 500,000 barrels of oil per day would be saved. At the current world price for oil, that reduction in energy use is worth over $5 billion a year. Looked at another way, 500,000 barrels of oil a day is more than the daily energy ouput of 14 nuclear power plants. What makes more sense -- to increase the recycling of paper and steel, or to build 14 more nuclear plants? And, of course, there is not reason to restrict recycling increases to just these two industries.

Besides saving energy, recycling has other important benefits. For example, it reduces pollution; in the case of steel, recycling cuts air pollution by 86 percent and water pollution by 76 percent. Recycling also conserves resources and creates urban-area jobs, since it is in our economically depressed cities where most of the garbage is. Finally, recycling reduces waste: if recycling of paper tripled, more than 25 million tons of waste paper would be reused instead of thrown away, generating a savings of over $750 million eacy year in disposal costs.

Of course, recycling cannot be increased overnight, or without cost. Substantial investments in new equipment must be made. Realistic schedules will be required, as well as realistic assistance to the industries involved. But remember that comparable industry switchovers have occurred very successfully. The best recent example is the shift in the American auto industry from low-mileage cars to smaller more efficient models. And increased recycling requires no dramatic new technical breakthroughs, only greater use of a type of raw material -- scrap -- that has been used in lesser amounts by industry for years.

With all of its advantages, why isn't recycling increasing? Largely because of ignorance, coupled with the already noted association of conservation with pain. More people need to know that recycling means conservation without pain, so that they will see recycling as something more than praise-worthy-but-insignificant volunteerism. Informed citizens can then raise the consciences of industry and government officials, who up to now have not recognized recycling's potential. When they do, the government's poor record of enforcement of existing laws intended to spur recycling can be improved, and industry can look for ways to increase use of scrap instead of protesting that it cannot be done. A good starting place would be the federal law, now almost totally ignored, that gives a preference to recycled products in all purchasing funded by federal dollars.

Possibly when we have made recycling a success and are contentedly reaping its benefits -- reduced energy use, pollution and waste and more jobs -- we will have the courage to consider other kinds of conservation and will learn that they are not so painful, after all. If recycling accomplishes this, it will have taught us a lession worth more to our national survival than all of OPEC's oil.