Trash Talk


Reader David McElroy passes along this story about the cost of recycling in Florida. Seems that last year Orange County made around $56,000 selling recyclables—and spent about $3 million collecting them. And it isn't the only local government losing money that way.

This underlines a point we've made in Reason a few times before: that recycling may be a remedy for waste, but it can be pretty wasteful itself when it's divorced from market signals.

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  1. How much were they spending on landfills? How were those costs trending? Which way is the cost of recycling going? Which way is the value of recyclable materials going?

    Without these figures, this is a just “Golly, they said millions” story.

  2. Who gives a rats ass if recycling is getting cheaper? Point is they just blew $3 million on it. Might not cost as much this year, or next year, etc… but for now whatever they were doing seems like a bad idea.

  3. joe: It’s called ROI. This doens’t have it.

  4. joe:

    You don’t seriously believe that hauling junk from A to C and burning it is somehow more expensive than hauling it to B, where it is sorted by type, non recyclable bits are removed and hauled to C, chemically prepped, reconstituted and sold, do you?

    The unit costs are clearly much higher for the recycled good, so the input vs. output is a reasonable starting point to let you know how much you are losing.

  5. seems to me that recycling might make far more sense in time, if technology can find a way to make second-use polymers really usable. as is, their best application is as blown insulation, i.e. a landfill behind your walls. without an application, there will never be much demand; without demand, it will never be worthwhile.

    so for plastics, imo, a landfill represents a future plastics mine of sorts. just remember where you buried it…

  6. In fact, one study concludes that all the trash America will generate in the next 1,000 years could fit in an area 100 feet deep and 35 square miles.

    is that all?!? f*ck — pick a place in nevada and bury it! i’d have assumed it was MUCH more than that.

  7. Burn the plastic in power plants. Scrub the exhaust. Saves all the effort of sorting the plastic by type.

  8. nice idea, burn it power plants, but it just isn’t that simple…much more pollutants, filters can’t currently take the load

  9. Metal – Cost effective vs. mining new ore and making more. Minimal sorting needed, various blends don’t significantly degrade product, still useful for non-high stress situations like canning (just don’t try to build bridges out of it without careful, more expensive processing).

    Wood/Paper – Cost effective vs. growing/cutting new trees for things like low quality paper and corrugated cardboard.

    Plastic – Not cost effective vs. creating new. Too many varieties, sorting difficult and must almost be done by hand to avoid mixing types which significantly reduces usability.

    Glass – Not cost effective vs. making new glass given availabilty/cost of sand and similar energy expenditure melting down sand or melting down glass for recycling.

  10. Not to sound like a retard (I could be one) but before I could pass judgement on the merits of this story I need to know:

    1) What would the collection cost be to simply pick it all up in the trash? What fraction of that $3,000,000 (minus $56,000, of course) are we talking about would be paid out either way?

    2) What would be the distribution cost of simply landfilling or burning the stuff instead of attempting to recycle it? Would it be more? Less?

    Without knowing the tonnage and volume in question we really can’t know if this is a good deal or a boondoggle.

    I do know that a few years back in my community the local waste metro was *paying* glass companies something like eight dollars a ton to take their glass. That got all the talk-show hosts excited till the county said the alternative would be to pay $10.00 or $11.00/ton landfill it.

    Personally I’m recycling-agnostic. Having followed the debate for years I’m aware that recycling tends to low-grade general waste, making it less valuable if you want to incinerate or otherwise post-process it.

    I’m aware that when costs are accounted the only recycling component that comes close to breaking even is aluminum and that, depending on spot-market electricity prices it can sometimes subsidize the rest.

    I’m aware that compared to many paper products, disposable batteries and other non-recyclables neither glass nor plastic is particularly problematic even in older less engineered landfills.

    And I’m even aware that modern landfills are so well built that most organics dry and mummify rather than rot, so that centuries hence they’ll be unbelievable treasure troves to archeologists.

    But still, until has something more intelligent to say than “Golly they said millions” (thanks joe) there’s not a lot to say about this story.

  11. The City of Minneapolis (not in Florida) not only loses money on its recycling program, it has made it illegal for individuals to collect aluminum from recycling bins. It seems the indigents were cutting into the city’s monopoly on the only profitable element of the waste stream.

  12. pete–

    I think glass is not recycled into more glass anymore, but is crushed and used as ballast beneath roads and parking lots.

    I think they still have people separate clear vs. tinted out of habit.

  13. Jesse you are being too kind when you say “recycling may be a remedy for waste.”

    Back in the early ’70’s, I worked for a small paper mfgr. One of the typical Dilbert yuppies was agitating for recycling. He was the fair-haired laddie, but production was out to get him, so the experiment may have been skewed.

    Anyhow, a mountain of IBM computer cards had to be sorted by hand before being recycled to be sure there was not a single staple.

    … a vignette from ancient history.

  14. one study concludes that all the trash America will generate in the next 1,000 years could fit in an area 100 feet deep and 35 square miles”

    Emphasis added. I know of at least three landfills in L.A. (up Figueroa near Eagle Rock, the Verdugos, and the Sepulveda Pass. I’ve never seen them, but I’d imagine they’re rather large. One only need see the huge gash in the Verdugos to realize that landfills aren’t exactly a good thing (except to puro libertarians).

    And, there’s also the pollution and cost associated with transporting the waste to this MegaDump. But, maybe we could give it to NV as a consolation prize if they don’t get Yucca Mtn.

  15. What is the ROI of putting waste into a hole in the ground? This article leaves to many variables up in the air.

  16. Lonewhacko: Yes that’s only one study, but you have nothing but vague personal experience to refute it. I don’t think is a statistic that can be manipulated much anyway. I think trash collection figures are pretty reliable.

  17. compost – if its all so cost-effective, why isn’t anyone making money at it?

    Time to hit the econ 101 textbooks again.

  18. To save money all we need to do is what the third world countries do – dump the trash in a big pile and let the poor and street children pick through it.

  19. Thanks Madog. I think that’s the answer to folks who think that short term cheap is always better than long term necessary. Perhaps we should go back to everybody burning their trash in a big barrel in the back yard like we used to when I was a kid. That would be cheap, wouldn’t it? BTW, when I was a kid it was also a treat to go to the dump- kinda like Christmas for the poor, until the practice was stopped (for liability reasons I imagine). So it hasn’t been that long ago in the US that we used a system such as the one you describe.

    I’m obviously naive, but wasn?t the idea behind recycling that it was a better idea to use recycling rather than tolerate the environmental impact of both the trash and the acquiring of new raw materials? Lots of variables here to reach a real cost/benifit ratio. And since when was trash a profit center for anybody anyway?

  20. Did some LA couple put three kids through school by picking up cans?

  21. This is an alleged scandal here in Tucson, too. We’re collecting recyclables, but don’t have facilities to do the actual recycling. But the real strength behind the push to recycle comes from the fact that if a landfill is closed, then the environmental impact studies must begin. And then the governmental agencies must figure out what’s in the landfill, how it does and can affect the outlying region, and come up with a plan to deal with any pollution. It just makes more sense to not fill the landfills.

  22. I support the recycling program here in my town in the UK. It is true that the council actually has to PAY to get rid of the neatly sorted plastic/glass/paper/metals, however the cost per ton of all of this including transport and labor is less than the cost per ton of landfill (speaking soleley of bills payable by the council, not costs of externalities.) So yes, it costs money and has external costs as well (all of that pollution from the collection trucks), but it saves the council (and hence me, the taxpayer) money.

  23. They didn’t build Rome in a day. They built it on a landfill.

  24. People don’t Recycle because it’s cost effectve or would rather go from point ‘a’ to ‘z’ and everywhere inbetween. People recycle because they know it’s the right thing to do. Even if all their efforts is for a few trees or a slightly clearer sky.
    Brad, 01Dec2003

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