Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Does it pay to recycle? Reconsidered

Recent figures for New York peg the cost of Recycling a ton (US) of waste at $284, compared with $267 for dumping it. This may not completely account for the costs households incur due to mandated recycling, but let's suppose that if you count all the happy vibes people get from doing "good" against the time they spend rinsing cans, bottles, and glass, it's a wash.

A reader points out that glass recycling saves 315 kg per ton (US) of glass recycled compared with making the same ton of glass from scratch. The UN suggests a carbon tax of about $30 per tonne (metric), so the conversion is simple: The added environmental cost of the new glass is about $9.50 per tonne (metric). A metric tonne is about 1.10231 US tons, so divide $9.50 by that equals about an $8.60 per US ton tax on virgin glass. That means the margin for comparison for dumping vs. recycling is about $7.40. In other words, if it were $7.40 per ton cheaper to recycle or $7.40 more costly to dump, recyclying would not only be the warm fuzzy thing to do, it would be the profitable thing to do.

Interval estimates of the harm done by 1 tonne of CO2 is about $20-$50, so if we take the high end of the interval, we get an environmental cost of $15.75 per tonne, divided by 1.10231 is about $14.30 per US ton, and that makes the margin about $2.70 per ton of glass before unsubsidized recycling would be economically profitable (with a high-end carbon tax).

One problem of course is that households aren't benefitting for the effort they put in. You cannot force people to want to recycle. If they could benefit, say be receiving a rebate on their trash removal for the amounts they recycle that might incentivize the whole thing a little better. What irks me most though is the mandating the effort without more careful consideration of other costs. I bike to work, I take short showers, I try to conserve energy used to heat and cool my home, so I'm not trying to advocate for the senseless raping and pillaging of the earth. But, when people say stuff like "we could recycle almost everything we throw out" my first instinct is to think, "sure we could, but at what cost?"

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