Save the Environment – Don’t Recycle Glass

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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