Hey Mr. Green,
How far does it pay to transport recyclables for recycling before the transport makes it not efficient? Answer for: glass, plastic, metal. Our desert community has to send its recyclables a long way to get them processed.
–-Dennis, Ridgecrest, California
In the best of all possible worlds, we’d be reusing returnable bottles instead of recycling them, in accord with the old saw, “reduce, reuse, and recycle,” where “reduce” and “reuse” are the better choices. But I doubt that we’ll be returning to returnables anytime soon, as a substantial recycling infrastructure is now in place.
Nevertheless, recycling beats heck out of dumping. Any reduction in the waste stream is beneficial. Besides the energy saved by recycling and its reduction of global warming gas, there are also the substantial advantages of reduced litter and reduced need to build new dumps to hold the billions containers that get tossed every year. Anyway, in many places the dumps themselves are a substantial distance from the municipalities they serve. And speaking of service, in the U.S., we operate twice as many garbage trucks as municipal buses, according to the environmental group INFORM’s study of how we deal with a staggering 250 million tons of refuse to the dumps each year. This is probably reason enough to reduce the waste stream.
Recycling is worthwhile for your town because the energy saved by using recycled instead virgin material exceeds the energy needed to haul your bottles to the nearest recycling outfits. Glass recycling still yields a net energy savings despite fairly long transportation.
Here’s why: The glass recycling companies closest to your town are, as you say, rather distant—about 160 miles. One company manager says he typically receives 25 tons of bottles on semis with open trailers like the kind that haul demolition rubble. Recycled glass saves more than 2 million British thermal units per ton in glassmaking, according to the EPA, or over 50 million Btus for that single truckload of bottles. A truck hauling bottles at a typical 6 miles per gallon would burn about 27 gallons of diesel fuel, which contains about 3.7 million British thermal units. So the long-distance transportation energy is still way lower than the energy that can be saved—about 14 times less. (Of course if the truck doesn’t do any backhaul, the savings are cut in half because of the return trip.) So even for a long trip there’s still a reasonable energy savings.
The savings per ton are higher for plastic and metal, with 22.3 million Btus per ton for plastic; 20.5 per ton for steel, and 185.5 million Btu per ton for aluminum, according to EPA
Beverage container recycling, while a very valuable and essential activity, is really a form of mining for raw materials to make products that have been foisted on consumers by the container and beverage industries. These guys make throwaways that you diligently return to them, whether you’re putting them out for the “miners” collecting at your curb, or you’re a homeless guy mining his ore from a garbage can to sell to . The clean little secret is we’d be better off with refillable bottles like those used before throwaways took over in the 1950s. Even a study done for the glass manufacturer Owens Illinois reports that refillable bottles’ carbon footprint is so small that it didn’t bother to put refillables in its graphs comparing throwaway glass, aluminum, and plastic containers. Researchers found that a refillable bottle, if used 30 times, has only 3.5 percent of the carbon emission impact of a single-use glass bottles even if the single-use bottle is made with 25 percent recycled glass, and the refillable has a somewhat lower level emissions compared with aluminum or plastic bottles.