Save the Environment – Don’t Recycle Glass 8

Last month, I discussed the curious case of the recycled glass that wasn’t.

It seems the Huntsville City Council let a contract out to Allied Waste, paying them $2.3M per year to run the City’s recycling program. Recyclers painstakingly washed and cleaned their glass and made special trips to lovingly deposit their offerings in a special dumpster at the Allied Waste facility on A Cleaner Way (no, I’m not making it up – that’s the actual street name). Then, Allied did the smart thing. They incinerated and dumped the glass into the municipal landfill along with all the other garbage. All was well. The recyclers got to feel good about their noble sacrifices and their investment of time and labor in a greener Earth, and Allied did the economically and environmentally responsible thing by treating their garbage as garbage.

Only then, somebody ruined everything by letting the recyclers know their glass wasn’t really being recycled.

So now, instead of disposing of this garbage glass in an economically and environmentally responsible fashion, Allied just loaded up 16 tons of empty bottles and trucked them three hours to Atlanta. The company sold the glass for $400. “After subtracting the cost of fuel and pulling a worker away from his normal duties for eight hours, the trip was “break even at best” for Allied, said General Manager Bill Brinkley.” I suspect he was being generous. Factor in the time and effort of the people who washed their glass and then drove to the Allied facility and the net result was a great big economic loss.

That the City has to pay someone $2.3M to recycle this stuff should have been the first clue. When you have to pay someone to “recycle” a commodity, that’s a clear indication that the commodity is not worth recycling – it is garbage and should be disposed of in a landfill.  An informative discussion of the economics of glass recycling with reference to other municipalities’ experiences is available from Michael Munger, Chair of Political Science at Duke University. Greensboro, NC councilman, Tom Phillips, showed far greater wisdom than we’ve seen lately from the Huntsville City Council when he observed:

“The net cost for recycling is more than double the cost for regular garbage collection that will go to the transfer station. (This is after selling the recyclables we can.) A lot of what we recycle winds up at the landfill anyway because of contamination or lack of markets for the recycled material…. While it “feels good” it is too expensive and we must look for better alternatives.”

But no economic burden is too great to bear if we can feel good about having helped the environment, right?

Stop and think about it a moment. Allied trucked 16 tons of glass out of state burning diesel all the way there (and back). The people who cleaned the glass burned natural gas heating the water and perhaps a half gallon of gas each driving their glass to A Cleaner Way. All this waste of resources could have been avoided by disposing of the glass in the landfill with the rest of the garbage – even with the incineration we’d have ended up ahead. And what about the single most precious and irreplaceable resource of all – our time? How much time is being wasted by the recyclers that could be spent in more productive and worthwhile endeavors?

Recycling glass makes neither economic nor environmental sense. The sole advantage to the program is the psychic benefit to those recyclers who do not understand the economic and environmental harms their program inflicts on us all. It’s a pity the Huntsville City Council does not recognize this and save the City $2.3M per year.

(Previously on AetherCzar: “When Recycled Glass Isn’t“)

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8 thoughts on “Save the Environment – Don’t Recycle Glass

  • Brian Garrett

    I’m not sure if Munger is a poor author or I’m a poor reader, but this article seems very poorly written. I’m shocked that glass isn’t being recycled, though. I thought that glass was the most easily recycled of all materials. I admit that I have no knowledge of the economics involved, but to say that it’s easier on the environment to use raw glass than recycled is a big shock to me. I choose to recycle because I try to do what’s best for the planet. If recycling is actually HARDER on the earth, then I need to know that. I’ll see if I can find more information, preferably from an author who can at least keep the attention of his own wife. 🙂

  • Aaron

    Recycling may not be cost-effective in the short term, but if we keep putting our refined resources in a landfill, there will come a day when there won’t be resources left to make new products from.

    Recycling is not about being cost-effective, it’s about managing resources. Sometimes it costs more to do the right thing.

    Extrapolating from your logic above, eating at McDonald’s would be better for all of us because it’s cheaper than eating at anyplace that serves healthy food. Throwing trash out the window of your car would be better than expending the effort to take it home and put it in your trash can for the landfill. Pouring your used motor oil down the rain gutter would be more convenient than taking it to a recycler.

    I don’t buy it.

    Yes, the City of Huntsville royally screwed up by not monitoring what their contractor did. No, they are not in the wrong for properly recycling the material.

  • Brian

    First, I wanted to clarify that my earlier crack about “the author’s wife” was pointed at Munger, not Hans. Hope that was clear from the start! 🙂

    I’ll post more as I find them, but I found this article that talks about how easy and energy efficient glass recycling is.—Cradle-to-Cradle-Recycling-with-Glass&id=1065651

    Then this article talks about the cost to the municipality.

    I haven’t been able to find anything else about whether glass container manufacturers WANT the glass or not. I suppose if NYC was having a hard time finding a buyer, then maybe they’re not interested. I agree with Aaron, though. This isn’t just about the lowest cost.

    • Hans Post author

      Your first link discusses recycling in terms of the energy saved, but appears to neglect the energy and economic costs associated with running the recycling system necessary to return, clean, and process the garbage glass to the point where it can be re-used. The second article generally supports my thesis that glass recycling isn’t worth it. It may not be just about cost, but that’s no excuse for spending recklessly and consuming large amounts of energy in pursuit of perceived savings elsewhere.

  • M

    I hate people like you, and I hate those even more who allow such articles and opinions to be spread. I hope you realize the ratio of articles written about how recycling is rational and do, in fact, help the environment, to those like yours.

    There’s a question that’s been asked, “What’s more important: a persons life or money?” As a “logical” answer, you’re the type of person to answer with “money” rather than the life of a human being. Actually, you, author, are the type of person who would actually kill for money, that’s what I’ve gotten out of your opinions, sir. However, no dollar bill would ever be worth YOUR life, would it? But the earth? No siree, the earth’s course of life is worth every dollar!! Heck, if you could make sure this earth goes to shit just to make sure you and your family saves a buck or two, you’d do it!

    LOL. And that statement at the end of your bio, “The views expressed are the author’s and are not necessarily the views of his employer, clients, investors, sponsors, or customers,” shows that even your company probably doesn’t follow what you’re saying. Yes, recycling costs a dollar, but who the hell are you to say it’s going to save the environment not to recycle? Because that’s what you’re saying; you are actually saying “recycling is killing our environment.” You’ve got to be kidding.

    There’s short and long term statistics, burning fuel isn’t going to help, but the pulverized glass that comes out of those glass recycling machines will put gravel and sand into a mixture of salt and save your ass when you’re driving in a snowstorm.

    Check your facts, jerk, before you somehow brainwash someone into thinking the Holocaust never happened. Oh that’s right, that already happened.