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Recycling? Don't overdo it.

Bails of cardboard and aluminum cans are seen next to eachother at the Norcal Waste recycling facility in San Francisco.

Hey, happy America Recycles Day.  Yeah, that kind of crept up on you, didn’t it?  Americans recycled more than 50 million tons of paper last year, which we all feel warm and fuzzy about, for sure. But is filling up your recycling bin worth it to your town?   

Thomas Kinnaman, an economist at Bucknell University, has given this question a thorough look. And here’s the first answer: Recycling probably costs your town money.

"For every dollar you pay to take that waste to a landfill or to an incinerator," he says, "you're going to pay somewhere between $1.50 to $2 to recycle it." 

Which isn't to say it's a bad thing to do. He’s looked at recycling's benefits beyond the city budget. Like the landfills that aren't being filled. And the energy saved by recycling a beer can instead of refining aluminum.

"These external benefits are actually very substantial," he says. As in: They do make recycling a good deal for the planet, even if it’s a money-loser for cities. 

People like that. He’s done surveys. Americans are willing to pay to do some good.

But it can be overdone. He says the optimal recycling rate is just 35 percent.  After that, the costs pile up faster than the benefits, even the green ones.

"So, we might have a better planet at 100 percent, but we’re devoting a lot of resources to getting there," he says, "and those resources might be better spent doing something else."

Even if cities don’t recycle at all, no big deal.

Adam Minter is the author of the new book "Junkyard Planet," about the global recycling industry. According to him, our empty Coke cans are a drop in the bucket. Only 15 percent of recycling in the U.S. comes from households.

"Most of the recyclables are coming from utility companies and from factories," he says. "And there's giant economies of scale. You might have a couple of pounds of recycling in your home. A utility company  pulling down power lines is going to have thousands of tons."

And none of this activity needs to be subsidized. "No one is going to pick up someone's garbage for free if there's nothing in it for them," he says.

In other countries, people look at recycling the way some of us look at garage sales -- as a way to pick up spare cash for something you're not using. Really, it's more like picking up money that's just lying there. You'd be nuts to pass it up.

"In China even the wealthiest families will still call up the recycling peddler from the street," Minter says, "and sell them the cardboard from their new television."

About the author

Dan is a sustainability reporter for Marketplace.
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Marketplace is a fine show, and I really enjoy it. The Sierra Club's National Zero Waste Communities Team wanted to make a comment on this recent report, however (“Recycling? Don’t Overdo It”). The report is inadequate for a collection of reasons. Some are as follows:
- Landfilling is terrible for climate disruption, which will bring incalculable costs. Landfills are the largest human-related source of methane, a fast-acting greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide.
- Recycling may appear to cost more than landfilling where landfilling’s costs are artificially suppressed. If landfilling’s current costs included the long-term liabilities of closure, monitoring, and cleanup (all landfills will leak someday), the cost comparison would tip dramatically in favor of recycling.
- Incinerators require high-cost contracts that guarantee wasting for 25-30 years. Thus they limit the expansion of recycling and composting. Also incinerators generate toxic emissions including dioxins, and their ash still needs to be landfilled. They're basically a landfill in the air, with small particles available to be inhaled.
- Dismissing household recycling because other sources generate more tonnage misses the point. All sources of both wasting and conserving are important. You wouldn’t discourage people from conserving electricity at home simply because retail uses more. The cumulative impacts of individual households’ efforts are very large.
- Recycling discarded resources into new manufacturing feedstocks reduces the pressure to extract virgin resources, with that associated wastage and other impacts on the land, water, air, and wildlife.
- Communities themselves don’t pay for recycling; ratepayers pay for the service, as they pay for garbage.
- In collecting either recyclables, compostables, or garbage, the collection system is a large part of the cost. Only from the trucker's perspective is it cheaper to mash everything together into one truckful of cross-contaminated resources.
- Recycling produces feedstocks for the projected redevelopment of domestic manufacturing, which will generate large numbers of jobs and economic growth.
There are various other problems with the report, but these comments will do for now.

Barbara Klipp, Chair
Zero Waste Communities Team
Sierra Club

I would appreciate it if reporters actually spoke to people who work in the recycling industry when it comes to this topic. Too often they speak to people like you did who sit behind a desk and never recycle on the scale that it takes to understand all the actual variables that are involved with making a determination about whether it makes financial since to recycle or not.

Location alone stands to be an important variable. It is economically viable to recycle when your landfill rates are high. So where land is at a premium recycling makes more since than landfilling even small items.

There were too many problems with this report to tackle them all. Better luck next time.

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