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Machine Design

Save energy: Don't recycle

Some people buy hybrid cars to save energy.

— Leland Teschler, Editor

As for me, I do my part by not recycling paper, glass, or plastic.

Well, at least not at the curbside. The occasional Boy Scout paper drive may be economically defensible. But sending around city trucks to pick up glass, paper, and plastic actually consumes more energy than it saves. And it may even pollute the air more than just pitching this stuff in the trash.

A little thought shows why. It takes as many trucks to collect perhaps four to eight pounds of recyclables that a typical household generates as it does to pickup the 40 pounds of refuse created by the same residence. This reality creates situations as have emerged in the city of Los Angeles, where officials now figure the city's fleet of garbage trucks is twice as large as it would be without recycling, 800 rather than 400 trucks. Similar economics are at work in cities everywhere.

The issue has been closely examined by the Franklin Associates Div. of the Eastern Research Group. Franklin has for years prepared the national characterization of municipal solid waste published by the U.S. EPA. It also has looked at the cost per ton of handling recyclables through curbside pickup. One of Franklin's conclusions is that curbside recycling typically costs 55% more than simple disposal because it consumes huge amounts of capital and labor per pound of recycled material. Recycling proponents sometimes claim that curbside recycling is worthwhile because it conserves space in landfills. The mayor of my own community once remarked approvingly about how his recycling program had reduced tippage fees for landfill use. What he did not mention was that the recycling program was subsidized out of tax receipts. Its true cost far exceeded any savings. But this sort of dishonesty is common among local administrators trying to justify actions they think will keep them in office.

There is another problem with conserving landfill space: We have plenty of landfill capacity and there is no reason to conserve it. Claims of a landfill shortage are based on a 1980s study that the EPA acknowledges was flawed. It counted the number of landfills, which was in fact shrinking, rather than landfill capacity, which was and is still growing. So today, the U.S. has more landfill capacity than ever before, according to the National Solid Waste Management Association.

The bad economics of curbside recycling contrast with those of industrial recycling. Private-sector material reclamation can be superefficient. Printers that produce magazines like MACHINE DESIGN, for example, bale up their scrap paper and sell it back to reprocessors, often by the boxcar load. Big users of glass, metals, and plastics all have analogous procedures in place.

Still, curbside recycling might make sense someday. You'll know that day has come when someone knocks on your door and offers to pay you for your paper and plastic.

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