NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

The Economics Of Recycling

March 27, 1998

Many communities began voluntary or mandatory recycling programs in the late 1980s based on claims that recycling trash could achieve significant energy savings and environmental benefits, says a Congressional Quarterly study.

  • In 1988, about 12 percent of the nation's garbage was recycled, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
  • Then EPA Assistant Administrator J. Winston Porter announced a nationwide goal to recycle 25 percent of the nation's trash, which he says was acheived in 1995.
  • Today about 27 percent of the total municipal solid waste stream is recycled, 16 percent is incinerated and 57 percent ends up in landfills.

Critics say those products which it makes economic sense to recycle would be recovered without subsidized or mandatory programs, and that for many materials residential recycling makes little economic or environmental sense. For example:

  • Scrap aluminum went for $1,090 a ton in 1997, according to R.W. Beck Inc., which tracks the recycleables market, and it takes 95 percent less energy to turn aluminum cans into new ones.
  • Thus it is not surprising that 64 percent of aluminum cans are recycled.
  • But it takes only slightly less energy to recycle glass containers than make new ones, and because glass must be sorted by color and may be transported hundreds of miles to reprocess, recycling may use more energy than making new glass.
  • Also, the price of clear glass recycleables fell 20 percent in 1997 to $37 a ton.

Since the market for paper -- which is nearly 85 percent of all recycled materials -- collapsed in 1995, politicians are reportedly taking a more skeptical view of recycling programs. Many cities hoped to finance recycling programs from sales of recovered materials. But the price of newsprint, for instance, fell from more than $100 a ton in 1995 to $15 in 1997; thus collection programs require subsidies to operate.

Source: "The Economics of Recycling," Congressional Quarterly Researcher, March 27, 1998.


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