Solid Waste Management Program

Recycling Economics: Higher Costs Are An Illusion

Hidden Costs
Many people are surprised when they discover their community may pay more for a curbside recycling program than for regular trash pickup. They ask why - in some cases - they must pay more to give their recyclables to someone who will sell them? This leads many people to believe that recycling is not economical.

One reason recycling appears to be uneconomical is that some people already pay a higher cost for trash disposal than they realize. Some local governments pay fees to hauling companies, transfer stations, or landfills out of local tax revenue. That lowers the direct cost to residents and businesses, making the regular trash pickup appear to be less expensive than it really is. But when recycling programs begin, residents usually directly pay the full cost of recycling. This can distort the cost comparisons between the recycling program and disposing of trash at landfills.

Depletion Costs
Recycling also is economical because costs associated with future disposal are avoided.

One of these avoided costs is for landfill depletion. Landfills have limited space, and so can receive a limited amount of trash. When it is full, it must be replaced by another landfill that is generally more expensive to operate and maintain. This is due to higher costs of complying with environmental regulations, higher expenses in siting a new location, buying or allocating land, constructing the landfill, operational expenses, and long-term maintenance costs after the landfill is closed. Additionally, the new landfill may be further away than the old landfill, increasing transportation costs.

Generally, a new landfill costs more than an older one. Paying the higher cost at a new landfill is avoided by keeping the older landfill open longer. Recycling and other waste-reducing methods keep the older landfill open longer. Because these avoided costs are not seen when people pay the bills, they do not usually think of the savings recycling produces.

Environmental Costs
Recycling is economical in several ways related to manufacturing processes. Recycling cuts down on waste produced by processing raw materials into usable forms. For example, recycling aluminum reduces mining wastes, processing wastes, and emissions produced by extracting the aluminum from the ore.

Recycling usually requires less refining than raw materials. For example, it takes much less energy to melt down an aluminum can to make another aluminum can than to process the raw materials to make a can. This cuts down on chances for environmental damage and conserves our natural resources.

With any product, the costs of cleaning up wastes and limiting emissions usually are passed on to consumers who purchase the product. But sometimes damage to the environment is not realized for years, is difficult to attribute to certain industries, or is caused by a combination of many industries. Acid rain is one example of this type of environmental damage. The costs of dealing with this pollution are hard to assess, but are paid for by everyone in efforts to improve the environment.

Energy Savings
Manufacturing products from recycled material also can save energy. The energy required to produce one aluminum can is equal to the energy embodied in the amount of gasoline it takes to fill the can half full.

While recycling saves energy, that does not always mean that industries save money by using recycled materials. Labor costs for recycled products are often higher than those used in processing virgin material. Materials recovered from curbside collection, drop-off centers, and material recovery facilities must be separated, cleaned, and processed.

Making a product from recycled material may require new or retrofitted equipment and other capital expenditures while virgin material supplies and equipment needed to produce most goods already exist.

But since recycling saves energy, it also cuts down on pollution emitted by utilities and the companies themselves. When energy is used, the price of the resulting pollution is passed on to all energy consumers in their utility bills. Due to the new clean air law, utility companies must comply with tougher standards in reducing pollutants they release while producing energy. The cost of compliance is usually passed on to each energy consumer.

If energy use is reduced by methods such as recycling, less pollution is produced. That reduces everyone's cost in terms of paying to reduce pollution and in limiting damage to natural resources.

Once the long-term costs and advantages are weighed, recycling does make economic sense. Using resources wisely is always economical.

For more information on recycling, contact the Solid Waste Management Program: 800-361-4827 or 573-751-5401.