Much of what we hear about recycling is about how recycling benefits the environment, or how easy it is to recycle. This is to encourage us to recycle and help “save the earth”. Less is heard or said about the cost of recycling. Sometimes, the costs of recycling would outweigh the benefits and it might not make sense to recycle. So what are these costs?

Recycled Toy Truck

We can think of the costs in a few categories:

1) Cost of Collection

When you deposit your recyclables into either recycling bins or recycling bags, the recycling company would have to collect these recyclables. This collection cost would include the cost of maintaining and operating a fleet of trucks and the cost of employing truck drivers or other collection workers.

2) Cost of Sorting

Recyclables have to be sorted most of the time, especially if they come from households. (Recyclable waste from industries tends to be more homogeneous and may not need as much sorting.) This sorting could be done at the source, i.e. by you and me, when we deposit the recyclables into the correct bin. However, oftentimes this is not done, as it is actually a cost to you and me – the cost of our effort, time and inconvenience.

In that case, and as well as when single-stream recycling is implemented (where all types of recyclables are put and collected together), the recycling company has to do the sorting after it has transported the recyclables to its facility. The sorting could be done by hand (this is done in many developing countries such as China) or by semi-automated facilities called Material Recovery Facilities. All this would incur costs – including the cost of building and running the facility and the cost of labour.

3) Cost of Processing

Recyclables need processing to become useful products – for example waste paper has to be processed before it can be made into recycled paper. This incurs costs that may not always be less than what it costs to produce the item from raw materials. These could be electricity / energy costs, cost of building and maintaining a processing plant and the cost of labour.

4) Cost of Finding a Market for Recyclables or Recycled Products

Recyclables (e.g. plastic pellets processed from waste plastic) may not always have a ready buyer, as they could be dependent on commodity prices. When the prices of raw materials are low and the supply is high, there is little incentive for producers to use recyclables.

Similarly, there may not be a demand for recycled products made from recyclables, especially if they cost more to the consumer and are of a lower quality. Recycled paper often costs more to the consumer; processed wood may have less structural integrity.

The Cost of Recycling

As you can see, there are costs to recycling (both financial and environmental), and it is not an unquestionable good all the time. Much depends on whether the benefits of recycling outweigh the costs – this can well depend on the type of recyclable (for example paper versus plastics), the infrastructure of the municipality or the culture of the people. So next time when you recycle or when your municipality, school or office is thinking of putting in place a recycling program, do remember to factor in the costs of recycling!