Recycling vs. Landfill Disposal

One of the main alternatives to which recycling is compared is the disposal of the recyclable waste in landfills. Since no sorting or processing is required beyond transporting the waste to the landfill, it appears at first glance that landfill disposal is cheaper: it requires less money for human labor and less energy for work done by machines. It’s for this reason that Mayor Michael Bloomberg put a moratorium on recycling programs in New York City in 2002, and the diversion of recyclables to landfills for those 18 months was estimated to save the city $57 million.

The cost of picking up and transporting recyclables can range from $20 to $70 per ton, depending on the length and difficulty of the recycling truck routes, and the budget also has to consider the energy cost of the fossil fuels burned to run these trucks, as well as labor and fuel costs to sort, process, and market the recycled material. The average mix of recyclables collected by a homeowner are estimated to be worth about $125 per ton when the recycled materials are sold to manufacturers, so there is a possibility for recycling programs to make a net profit, but only if transportation, sorting, and processing costs are kept lower than this value per ton.

This is a requirement that some but not all current recycling programs may be able to meet. Cities fare better in terms of net profit and energy savings when people recycle more (so that there’s more recyclable material per truck trip), when residents sort recyclables themselves (for free) rather than requiring the city to sort them, when the population is dense (more recyclables collected per mile in the collection truck), and when efficient sorting and/or processing technologies are in place.

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