The economics of recycling everything

The economics of recycling

Sofia Andrade, a smart girl with lots of good questions, asked, “Why can some items be recycled and others can’t?”

The primary answer is that it depends on where you live, and what kind of recycling your area offers. Sadly, you can’t recycle your glass bottle if there is no one up the chain to recycle it for you. You’re not going to melt it down yourself (or are you?). But I wanted to know (and I think Sofia wanted to know, too), in terms of all the things we can produce in the world, is there some inherent quality that makes an item recyclable or not recyclable?

The simple answer to that is no. Pretty much every material can broken down into its basic properties, and recycled. That’s according to Jeremy O’Brien. O’Brien is director of applied research at Solid Waste Association of North America, which means he knows a lot about all sorts of things we would call garbage.

“Basically, the price of the new material will determine the price of a recycled material,” he said. “The reason some materials can be recycled and others can’t be, is because the cost of recycled material is higher than the price of a new material.”

A big factor in the price of recycling something is what made that product originally. Newspapers and food cans are easily, cheaply recycled because they’re not much more than the material they were made with – wood pulp and steel. But something like a rubber tire has gone through a chemical process in its manufacture, and it’s nearly impossible to convert it back to rubber. (That’s why there are sad places called tire graveyards.)

Your computer is made of many plastics, metals, glass, and circuit boards, which all have to be dismantled and carefully separated. You may have electronics recycling in your area, but most e-waste is exported to be recycled elsewhere in the world. The whole process – collection, transportation, reprocessing the materials, and transporting those materials to make new materials – makes it easy to see why recycled material gets so expensive.

“But recycling saves the environment! And everyone tells us we should do it!” you say.

Those things are all true. But recycling is entirely a free-market enterprise. Kind of like Wall Street (gah!). So economics dictate recycling, at least in America.

The situation is different in Europe. I lived with a family while studying in the Czech Republic, and I was amazed to see my host father dutifully filling up boxes of glass bottles and taking them to be recycled. I asked O’Brien why people in Europe recycle more actively than Americans. He said Europe has less room for the huge landfills that characterize American waste management. So they regulate recycling, heavily. My host father had a big incentive to return his bottles – he had to pay 5 cents extra when he bought them, which he would get back after he recycled.

“You can get pretty much any recycling level you want if you make it a law,” O’Brien said. “That’s not the case in US. There’s no required recycling, the economics drive the actual level of recycling.”

So what would encourage Americans to recycle more (besides regulations)? “I think what would help is a better understanding of the environmental benefits of recycling, versus using new materials,” said O’Brien. With all the talk of “eco-friendly” this, and “greener” that, we can be hopeful that’s something people are coming around to.

December 4, 2008

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