Hidden Energy Costs

I have long suspected, but can't prove, that most of the recycling we do is worthless.  I look in my recycling bin and think -- it's got to be cheaper to start with the raw material than what's in this bin.  The problem is hidden system costs.  For example, everyone thinks they are saving energy by recycling.  But in my town, as in most towns, recycling basically doubles the vehicle miles driven by the sanitation trucks to get all the waste out, because we get a visit from the "trash" truck and later in the week get a visit from the "recycling" truck.  Plus there is all that extra labor in the pickup and the sorting.  And that is all before the processing costs.  And all this is without even considering the staggering amount of "free" labor the recycling system gets from you and I as individuals.**

The Mises Blog has a link to the online video of a Penn & Teller Bullshit! show that takes on this very issue.  Since its Penn & Teller, its both funny and smart, and comes to the conclusion that only aluminum can recycling really makes sense.  All the rest is a big feel-good circle jerk that really saves no money or energy.  Its particularly funny when they put about 15 different colored cans in front of one guys home and tells him each is for a different type of material.  The one addition I would make is that reusing an object for its original use almost always saves money -- for example, we save Amazon boxes to use when we ship things out.

Along the same lines of hidden costs, this study sent to me by a reader looks at the total lifetime energy costs of automobiles, including their manufacturing and transportation as well as their fuel use.  I can't vouch for it's accuracy, but the results are somewhat surprising -- for example, most hybrids have lifetime energy costs higher than average for vehicles.

** But recycling is easy!  It hardly takes any time!  Well, let's say it takes only an incremental 1 minute a week from each individual in the country to recycle (a number that is lower than the actual, I think).  That translates to 260 million man-hours a year or the equivalent of 130,000 full time jobs.


  1. Steve:

    This is why I refuse to recycle until someone pays me an amount worth the effort. However, I can see an argument that the alternative of throwing recyclables away poses a negative externality that I don't capture in my personal cost/benefit.

    I live in Michigan, which has the highest bottle deposit in the country ($0.10 / bottle). In my estimation, it's barely worth recyling for that. Yesterday I got to the grocery store, saw that the line to return bottles was 10 minutes long, caught a whiff of the stench coming from my trash bag full of bottles (some dipshit friend always fails to rinse his (my) Guiness bottle), and decided it wasn't worth the $5.

    Some local non-profits have taken to collecting bottles and cans from people instead of pushing overpriced wrapping paper, popcorn, and candy bars.

  2. Max:

    If I remember it right, Cu (Copper) is also valuable to salvage and re-use (that's why older buildings with lots of copper-wires are often teared down if possible and rebuilt, because the amount of copper-wire to be salvaged is huge). However, Aluminium is still the best, that's why aluminium cans in Germany are still valuable and the so-called "can-tax" is a big hoax.

  3. Shane:

    In Oklahoma theft of copper has become somewhat of a problem because of the price of salvaged copper to the extent that thieves are stealing condenser coils from AC units.

    I loved this entry because I haven't yet hit mises today but am tickled pink that they referenced Penn & Teller.

  4. M1EK:

    That hybrid study is a joke that I've seen fisked a dozen or more times by now.

    And the thing the Penn and Tellers of the world forget is: landfill space. (Well, not the only thing; we also can get by with one instead of two trash pickups per week here because there's so much recycling; arguably there's no added trip; just one trash trip turned into one recycling trip).

  5. Moriarty:

    As to the "recycling is easy" point: A few years back I was chided by a colleague for tossing bottles and aluminum cans into the trash. No arguments would be heard, I was simply being "wasteful" and "lazy."

    I offered her a choice. I would either continue in my slovenly ways (and she could dig through the trash) or I'd help her by depositing my empty cans and bottles on her desk, where she could recycle them more easily and make money besides. (I even offered to bring in my glass bottles from home and throw in a couple of aluminum bumper cores from the junkyard to help her out.)

    Funny thing. She declined either option, loudly demanding that my state of opproprium continue until I converted.

    It's a religion, no more or less.

    Long ago, Julian Simon examined the issue of compulsory recycling, reaching much the same conclusions as Penn and Teller - it wastes time, money and energy.

  6. Xmas:

    My hometown, Worcester, MA, does recycling the smart way. You pay for trash bags, but recycling is free. They have two trucks, one for trash, one for recycling. But it's in the trash-throwers best interest to decrease the amount of trash thrown out.

    You're missing one obvious issue between garbage and recyclables though, landfill space. Recyclables are, well, recyclable. They can be reprocessed and turned into something else. Garbage goes into a landfill where it could stay or be burned. Burning trash could produce electricity, but it is very, very dirty. So the trash will most likely stay where it's dumped.

  7. Craig L:

    This study:
    says that, due to privatization, there is more landfill space than ever.

  8. vtr:

    "That hybrid study is a joke that I've seen fisked a dozen or more times by now."

    what part of the study is wrong? other than someone doesn't like the conclusion.

    I am curious?