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[GreenYes] Re: Recycling Glass
Since some of the posts to Jeff were on list, but most of the ones he is addressing below were off list.  Thus, his reply may have seemed a bit out of context.  Let me try to provide some background and clarification here so others can weigh in.

1)  Jeff has pointed to studies of the external costs of glass as justifying why the material should be recycled.  I agreed that glass does have external costs, but pointed out that all of the materials in the waste stream have external costs, and that most likely the external costs of other materials are higher than those for glass.  Specifically.  I would anticipate that many of the plastic resins not now collected are higher; that aluminum foils not collected are higher; perhaps even grades of waste paper are higher as well.  

My point is not to ignore the fact that glass has external effects associated with producing and disposing it, but to challenge the idea that the mere existence of these costs makes glass collection imperative.

-As we have heard from many on the list, the disposal of glass in landfills is non-hazardous.  The collection of glass is quite expensive, both because its resale value is low and because it cross-contaminates other recycle streams, depressing their value as well.  The decision to recycle it seems to rest therefore on the avoided costs of disposal (which are fairly low), and on the avoided external costs by recovering cullet.

If you are down to the environmental costs as the driver, contrary to what Jeff is saying, I do believe you need to look at the issue from a market-economics perspective, as well as from an environmental protection perspective.  In terms of market economics, if glass is costing the program money through low resale values and erosion of the quality of the other materials, recycling managers should do a cold economic calculation about whether they can protect their overall recycling program by jettisoning glass.  

This need not be the beginning of the end of recycling as Jeff argues.  In fact, the environmental perspective may argue for the same conclusion.  Since recycling truck capacity is limited, program managers should optimize for the appropriate mix of materials given economic returns on scrap and the environmental benefits given the relative externality values for different materials.  If my speculation is correct that glass has low externality costs relative to other materials, substituting new materials (e.g., different plastics resins or paper grades) for glass may yield net environmental improvements as well as cost savings.  I am not saying this is absolutely the case with glass because I haven't run the numbers.  If the externality costs of glass do appear at the high end, you would obviously want to keep it in the program.  My basic point, however, is that continual reevaluation of what materials you are collecting from single-material economic and environmental perspectives should not be heresy.  And, the recycling managers should not threaten the entire program to collect marginal materials.

2)  Jeff also argued that bundling recycling services is the way to go, since the cost of recovering glass, or yard waste, etc., to the consumer is zero.  This does seem to be common practice for materials that are produced by all customers, or are hazardous if disposed of improperly.  Expensive to manage goods that are not evenly distributed (e.g., white goods) normally have an incremental charge.  All of this makes sense and causes no disagreement.

Where were differ is on what bundling means for the municipality.  My view is that regardless of the price to consumers, the municipality needs to understand it unbundled costs.  It needs to be able to estimate the marginal costs of adding or subtracting specific material streams, and it should use this cost information in order to periodically evaluate its mix of recycling and disposal services and how they are priced.  Sometimes, these reevaluations will lead to changes in the composition of the bundle:  I believe this type of dynamism very important for the long-term health of recycling programs nation-wide.  It does not cut one way either.  These evaluations can lead to adding materials, or to making strong cases for financial damages where new packaging materials are contaminating existing recycle streams.

3)  In terms of the issue of "markets solving any problem," I don't think we have disagreement here that they cannot.  This being said, it is markets that determine recycling program costs and revenues, and it is recycling program costs that are putting them under threat across the country.  Thus, if you want to save the programs, you must pay attention to the markets.  Even if the programs can't save money relative to dumping in every case, cold evaluation of ways to cut costs while maintaining most or all of the environmental benefits must be done.

The comparisons to littering and open burning are red herrings.  Obviously, if the alternative to glass recycling were rats, plague, and glass shards littering our sandboxes, there would be a compelling reason to ensure the recycling continues.  However, the trade-offs between glass recycling (with high contaminant rates and subsequent disposal) and putting glass directly in the landfill are not nearly as severe.  In addition, the fear of losing the claim that "glass recycles" were recycling programs to begin pulling glass would undoubtedly spur some careful work by the glass industry that could change the economics and contamination issues driving the current decisions.

In summary:  you need to look at both single-stream and overall program economics; what you collect does involve both environmental and economic trade-offs, and these should be optimized; and you should not put the entire program at risk in order to continue collecting materials that have relatively low environmental costs of disposal.

Let the retorts begin...


Doug Koplow
Earth Track, Inc.
2067 Massachusetts Avenue - 4th Floor
Cambridge, MA  02140
Tel:  617/661-4700
Fax: 617/354-0463

>>> "Jeff Morris" <> 03/13/02 08:09PM >>>
I'm having an extraordinarily hard time 
understanding Doug Koplow's responses to my posting 
because he keeps bringing the issue back to short-
term, bottom-line internalized costs, and between 
the lines of his messages I believe infering that we 
shouldn't collect glass in curbside recycling 
programs. Then he also suggests that we should take 
a more comprehensive approach to measuring the value 
of recycling glass. 

I'm confused because I thought that's what I was 
doing - looking at both the internalized and 
externalized upstream (resource acquisition and 
manufacturing) and downstream (waste management 
method) costs of recycling versus throwing away 
glass.  I didn't want to get into a debating contest 
here, but I also don't want to pull back from this 
debate. It's at the heart of the "markets can solve 
any problem" versus the "markets tell you the price 
but not the value" debate. The answer is surely in 
between, but not anywhere close to the "markets can 
solve any problem" answer you get by just comparing 
waste management system internalized costs for 
recycling versus disposal of glass. 

The upstream ecological costs of throwing glass away 
are theoretical only to those who don't live by or 
in the same space as the mine or fossil fuel well. 
They're theoretical to the person who only 
calculates the market system bottom line. That's why 
we're up against the wall with recycling and reuse 
and reduction versus disposal. 

It's cheaper and easier to just throw it in the 
gutter or by the side of the road. But then we don't 
like the consequences of that behavior when it 
becomes widespread or when too many of us do it in 
the same place in a short period of time. So we pass 
laws against those waste management methods. 

Then we find that it's cheaper and easier to just 
throw it in a pile at the edge of town and burn it 
in the open whenever the pile gets too high. But 
then the smoke from the fires and the rats and sea 
gulls from the garbage pile get to be a problem so 
we start to modify that management method. 

And so on, until we get to today's waste disposal 
management methods that push the obvious 
environmental costs out several generations so we 
won't notice what we're doing for a longer while.

But nevertheless we are not paying the real costs of 
our management methods. And the place where we 
really ignore that cost is upstream from our 
consumption and disposal habits -- the ecosystems 
where we externalize the costs of acquiring virgin 
raw materials and refining them into manufacturing 
feedstocks to replace the product discards that we 
throw away.

I thought this was all obvious, but Doug is a smart 
guy and yet I hear him totaling missing the point 
here, so it bears laying out at some length. 
Bundling recycling costs into garbage collection 
rates looks like a cross subsidy from the point of 
view of short-run, bottom-line internalized costs. 
But it looks like internalizing otherwise 
externalized costs of virgin resource acquisition 
from the point of view of all the costs both 
internal and external that flow from waste 
management decisions. 

That's what life cycle analysis keeps throwing in 
our faces - HEY FOLKS! WAKE UP! Your missing the 
really big cost issues here and concentrating on the 
minutia. Sure collecting glass causes some 
difficulties that we wish would go away. But not 
collecting glass curbside means we force that really 
big ecological and public health cost onto those 
(current and future, human and non-human) who live 
around that glass sand mine and fossil fuel well 
that both need to be bigger to produce the extra 
fuel it takes to turn sand and soda ash and calcium 
carbonate into a glass container versus making that 
container from recycled glass. And the concentric 
ripples of that additional mining and fuel well 
drilling spread out beyond the immediate 
neighborhood of the mines and wells to add an 
additional butden of pollution to the air and water, 
eventually driving up health and welfare costs 
across the entire ecosystem and then the planet.

So, NO, I don't think we're cross-subsidizing, nor 
is this analysis I'm describing uncomprehensive. The 
point is the market doesn't send the correct price 
signals and those who only look at market prices and 
costs will get the wrong answer (from a long-term 
societal point of view) every time in making 
resource management choices.

I apologize to anyone offended by this direct 
response to Doug's postings.

Jeff Morris

Dr. Jeffrey Morris
Sound Resource Management - Bellingham Office
112 Ohio Street, Suite 202
Bellingham, WA 98225

360-738-0256 fax or 
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