This post is scheduled to appear on Christmas day, so Merry Christmas to all of my first readers. Christmas means many things, and all of the gift-giving also means that we will generate more trash today than any other single day of the year.
I hope my readers recycle as much as possible, but so you can talk to friends and family, what are the consequences of not recycling? Not just at this season, but year round?
I could show you a picture of an albatross skeleton loaded with plastic. The poor bird filled up on what it couldn’t digest, and then having no room for food, starved to death. But pictures like that don’t motivate many people to recycle.
So let’s talk about money. Money motivates everyone. What money comes out of our pockets as a result of the small amount of recyclable material that gets recycled?
Trash disposal costs
If you live in a house, the same line on your city services bill probably includes both trash collection and recycling collection.
If you live in an apartment or work in an office, though, you have to put your trash in a dumpster.
Dumpsters are very expensive. If people throw out enough trash to require two dumpsters, that second one increases everyone’s rent. Apartment complexes may not offer recycling collection, in which case residents must take recyclables to a drop off center. It’s less convenient, but worth it.
When people put paint, batteries, or other hazardous household wastes in the trash, it creates a toxic stew that can poison ground water. So the old garbage dump has become the modern sanitary landfill, with clay liners and leachate collectors. Landfills are expensive to operate. Municipalities pay their expenses with tax money.
Landfills also lower nearby property values. Therefore, if a new one becomes necessary, nearby residents are up in arms trying to prevent it from being built in their neighborhood. Lawyers make out quite nicely, but the legal wrangling puts upward pressure on everyone’s taxes.
Not every municipality has a nearby landfill for its trash. Many must send their trash to another county. Trash trucks, when full, are always overweight and damage streets and roads. Then they must return empty, a very inefficient use of fuel.
On the other hand, processing of recyclables can be done locally. With the sale of processed materials, the municipality can break even on recycling. More recycling means less landfill-related expense.
It’s easier to recycle aluminum cans than anything else. Used ones can be made into new aluminum cans very quickly. Making them from virgin material requires mining and refining the ore, which requires a lot of energy, and transportation from the mine to the refinery to the factory, which requires still more.
Using recycled cans for raw material requires 95% less energy than using virgin aluminum.
The economic benefits of recycling other materials may be less dramatic, but very much along the same lines. Using recycled plastic does not require drilling for oil and refining it. Using recycled paper does not require sawmills and all of the toxic chemicals required to make virgin paper.
So why does recycled paper cost more? It stays on the shelf longer, and so the store has to charge more for the space it takes up and the length of time it stays there. If more people would pay the extra price—if recycled paper moved out of the store faster—the price would come down. The same economic logic applies to other recycled products as well.
I have somewhat covered energy already, but I need to make some more direct connections between recycling and not recycling:
When electricity is made from coal, power companies must pay the costs of capturing and storing fly ash long after the plants are retired.
At first, the state of the art method of disposal was to mix the ash with water and retain it in a pond. But why were the ponds built so close to rivers?
Consumers ultimately bear the cost of managing coal ash and other wastes associated with generating electricity. The same applies to other fuels used in power plants or in the mining and delivery of any other kind of energy.
- It takes more energy to make goods from virgin material than from recycled material. It takes energy to mine, cut, or drill for natural resources and then additional energy to turn them into raw materials useful for manufacturers.
- It takes more energy to transport virgin material to the factory than recycled material. After all, there are two long legs of transportation for virgin material. Municipalities can sell at least some materials to local manufacturers.
- It takes more energy to transport our discards to the landfill than to recycling processors and more energy to operate a landfill than to process recycled material.
Once raw materials or products have been manufactured, they have to get from place to place, and ultimately to your home. Your discards have to get from home either to the recycling facility or the landfill. At the moment, oil prices are falling dramatically. Even so, trash disposal probably puts more miles on the trucks than recycling and therefore costs more.
Health and disaster cleanup costs
Landfills have elaborate procedures for keeping toxic leachate from polluting groundwater. They do not always work perfectly. Leaking landfills can contaminate nearby wells.
Some manufacturing processes—mining coal and making paper in particular—cause much more pollution than anything in the recycling process.
And that does not include such disasters as the coal ash spill in Kingston, Tennessee in December 2008. A ruptured ash pond sent 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash into the Emory and Clinch Rivers there and buried 300 acres of land. The cleanup took more than five years and cost a billion dollars.
A smaller spill happened in North Carolina in 2014. For a full report, read my Kindle book When the River Ran Gray.
Not all manmade environmental disasters make the national news or cause that much damage, but pollution from industrial accidents involving any segment of our energy industry must be considered part of the cost of using energy.
Quite aside from whatever happens at landfills, power plants, and refineries, bad air and water quality has a negative impact on everyone’s health. Not recycling also contributes to medical expenses for everyone.
Recycle as much as you can, even if it means carrying some materials to a drop off center or hazardous waste collection center. And encourage family and friends to do the same.
Money down the drain. Some rights reserved by Images of Money.
Landfill diagram. Source unknown
Trash and recycling truck. Some rights reserved by fairfaxcounty
Coal smoke stack.Some rights reserved by Señor Codo.