Sunday, May 31, 2009

Recyling from Popular Mechanics

Here is a nicely written article from Popular Mechanics (Dec. 2008) regarding the economic and environmental implications of recycling. While recycling most products makes sense from an environmental standpoint, not all recycling passes the benefit-cost test.

Also, importantly, the costs and benefit of recycling depend a great deal on time and place: current prices for raw materials and local conditions. Regarding the latter, scrap prices are much lower now than those cited in the article, making recycling less likely to be beneficial from a purely monetary standpoint. You can check out current and historic prices of various recyclable products at

Be sure to also read these articles from Popular Mechanics:

"Recyling Myths Debunked"

"Recyling by the Numbers: The Truth About Recycling"

While a bit dated, I think this short article sums up the situation nicely:

"Is Recycling Worth It?" by Cecil Adams of The Straight Dope


Drew Moxon said...

Here's an article that was just released this morning in the Winston Salem Journal as front page news that relates to this. As you can see, how the service is paid for can also affect the effectiveness of the program. Cyclical recessions and expansionary periods can affect garbage output which, in turn, changes the recycling C/B ratio (namely the cost side).

Dr. Peter Schuhmann said...

Thanks Drew!

Anonymous said...

James Marshall said...
The issue reminds me of an article I read during the heat of the election last year in Time Mag. The article was about a company that offered a similar incentive to recycle just as the weighted garbage can example in the article, but instead of charging individuals for more trash they payed them per weight of recycling.

Anonymous said...

From Abby W.

All three of these articles on recycling were very interesting to me. I am a recycler and always wondered if the costs truley outweighed the benifits considering the whole picture; pick-up truck emissions, to the energy used to process recycled materials compared to virgin materials. I was particularly relieved to hear that it is not a complete waste to recycle and that the truck emissions do not outweigh the benifit of picking up the recycling. I was also very surprised to read that newspaper was one of best recyclables and glass was one of the biggest wastes along with mixed paper and plastics(which I already knew). The grass clippings analogy was refreshing it showed that new technology can reduce waste and that there is still hope with recycling so quitting would not be in our best interest!

Kendyll Goeman said...

I agree with Abby. As a recycler, I always hope that taking the time to properly dispose of containers helps the environment. I work at a coffee shop that goes through dozens of flavored syrup bottles each day. The building complex does not have the proper disposal bins for glass recyclables. Although many of the baristas take the glass bottles home to recycle for personal use as vases, etc. it is impossible to guarantee that all of the glass bottles are recycled this way. I was happy to see the exact facts and figures in the second article that stated that recycling glass is not the most productive energy saver. Learning that recycling glass only saves 21% of energy and that sand is not a depleting resource made me feel a bit better about glass bottles that are accidently trashed. The most interesting point made in all three articles was that running out of landfill space is not a reason to justify recycling efforts. This is a myth that I most certainly believed. I especially liked Cecil Adams’ optimistic view of society and its evolving technology. She urges the recyclers of the world to keep recycling and eventually the municipalities will develop a more efficient collection and sorting method.

Chris Liverman said...

I too was glad to hear some of the common misconceptions often heard debunked...i.e. recyclable collection costs outweigh the benefits.
And even if there are items we are currently recycling where the benefit does not necessarily outweigh the costs, I still believe we should continue to reprocess these materials rather than extract new ones...who knows, perhaps we are on the learning curve of a new technology or methodology that will one day cause the benefit gained to be far greater than the costs to reprocess. Sometimes only way to learn is to "do" and make mistakes.
Also, shocked to hear that our recycled newspapers are "China's forests!" And that 90% of landfill waste has market value!

StephC said...

Ever since I was a kid my mom has instilled in our brains everything that should be recycled. I would never dare throw away a soda can, milk jug, or piece of aluminum foil for fear of her dissapointed voice inside my head. I even dig out of people's trashes when I spot the items. Though I am aware everything might not make it to the right place, I truly the believe the benefits outweigh the costs in recycling. I don't think I will ever be okay throwing away a beer bottle in the trash, regardless of what theories I read.