When Do We Throw It All Away?

First off, I’m all for minimizing landfills and maximixing the use of our resources. But, I’ve been thinking more and more about the economics of ‘recycling’ since listening to Mike Munger on EconTalk in July.

Right at the start of the podcast, Munger asks,

“I have something in my hand, I want you to guess, is it a resource or is it garbage?”

Surprising, it’s a pretty straight-forward answer,

“Would someone pay you for it or can you make something from it that’s higher value?”


Every month we pay someone to haul off our garbage in one truck and our ‘recycling’ in another. We’re not paid as the second truck drives by. Plus, the reason the items are on the curb to being with is that I’m done with them.

Earlier this autumn, when our kitchen was demo-ed, the contractor set a number of the old metal pieces aside the dumpster. After sitting there for a few days, a single beat-up pickup truck rolled by real slow, and a kid – no more than 14 – jumped out, quickly sorted throw the metal, threw a couple pieces in the truck and hopped back in.

If there was a market for ‘recycling’, I imagine we’d see lots of trucks competiting for whatever’s in my orange and green bin every other Tuesday.

Instead, metal, glass, plastic, and paper go into the same bucket (“single-sort”) and transported by one of only 3 vendors to an amazing $3 million machine sorting through everything. Salvaged materials transported to mills and ‘spoilage’ transported to incinerators 1.

I don’t know about the exact margins in all those transactions, but they feel pretty tight – especially considering all the transportation involved.

In addition, there doesn’t seem to be a strong push by my waste vendor or the city for making sure what goes in the single-sort bins are actually ‘recycleable’. No weekly report from the waste hauler on my compliance this month. Simply a few bullet-points encouraging me to rinse glass and cans out.

From this, I can only conclude that spending our time and clean water cleaning waste is the only way to make it valuable again. That doesn’t sound like a good deal holistically, especially with that multi-million dollar sorting robot downstream.

Makes me wonder when the costs of driving 2 trucks around will become too much and our waste haulers will take back one of their buckets leaving us to truly single-sort.

Elsewhere 13 Aug 2007

“However, there is one cost that no one acknowledges: the time spent preparing items for recycling. No one mentions it because it’s done by you, free, in your own home.” – Tim Worstall

1. Assumptions I made from the details in the meeting notes from Anoka City Council Oct 3, 2005 [pdf].

2 thoughts on “When Do We Throw It All Away?

  1. Garrick: Interesting thoughts!

    Did you see
    So, in New York people DO pay, at least with their time, to take away your garbage. Concentrations of recycling, with small margins, become profitable if the pile is big enough and transport is cheap enough.

    But then you don’t have to pay someone to take it away!

    Keep up the good work!


  2. It is tight margins, and there are always pro’s and con’s to any solution. However, at least the recyclers have got the ball rolling. This summer, recycled aluminum hit a record high at $.68/pound for aluminum cans. It’s 3 times what they went for 10 years ago. China is wanting all the steel it can get, and is giving top dollar for any old cars or rusty metal you have laying around.

    Of all the copper that’s been mined in history, 27% of it has been thrown away in landfills before recycling was the thing. Makes you wonder when landfill mining will become the next big thing.

    Who knows which way it will all go, but we have to find ways to reuse and recycle or we will run out. Nobody knows when, but live in a disposable era, where we throw it all away. But all of that has to come from somewhere and go somewhere. It makes sense for that ‘somewhere’ to be the same place, to ensure we always have resources to work with.

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