Solid Waste & Recycling


Recycling vs Disposal

According to Jeffrey Morris, Ph.D., recycling makes more sense than disposal for those discards that may be recycled, and we should push the envelope to divert everything possible from landfill or inc...

According to Jeffrey Morris, Ph.D., recycling makes more sense than disposal for those discards that may be recycled, and we should push the envelope to divert everything possible from landfill or incineration even when recycling appears expensive compared to disposal in simple price comparisons. This is because when the full lifecycle of a product is measured, the energy use and environmental burden from natural resource extraction and manufacturing — the social and human health costs of which are not reflected in conventional accounting — dwarf any presumed savings.

Morris is principal of the consulting firm Sound Resource Management, based in the Seattle, Washington area, and he spoke at the Recycling Council of Ontario’s Energy From Waste Forum in Brampton, Ontario, November 3, 2006. Morris has taught economics at the Universities of Washington and Colorado and has published peer-reviewed articles in The Review of Economics and Statistics, The Journal of Resource Management and Technology, and other periodicals. His 20-year research career has focused on resource use, waste prevention, externalities and free market imperfections/failures, and sustainability. His presentation was refreshing in part because it made the case for reuse and recycling over disposal with fact and rigorous analysis, not ideology.

Of particular interest to waste professionals are Morris’s measurement and costing of the environmental and human health impacts of raw materials extraction and manufacturing distribution, which impute an economic benefit of US $517 per tonne of material recycled. This number was arrived at using data methodologies accepted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other organizations, and includes the cost of global warming, acidification, eutrophication, human health effects from particulates and toxics, and ecological toxicity. (See Chart 1.)

For all the common recyclables, producing products using recycled materials saves between 35 and 90 per cent of the energy consumed to extract, refine and manufacture products from virgin materials. Recycling thus substantially reduces the releases of pollutants and toxins associated with energy production. (See Chart 2.)

Landfill vs. WTE

Also of interest is Morris’s conclusion that while the environmental impacts of landfill disposal and incineration are fairly similar, economic analysis (including energy from waste incineration and landfill gas extraction) indicates that landfill is cheaper than incineration and is to be preferred.

This latter conclusion has been confirmed by other research, notably in Europe. In their paper “Burn or bury? A social cost comparison of final waste disposal methods,” Elbert Dijkgraaf and Herman Vollebergh concluded that the European waste directive that favors incineration over landfill is wrong-headed. They concluded that landfilling is preferable at the margin, and that the Dutch government could reduce the social cost of waste disposal by expanding landfills. Waste-to-energy plants perform better than modern landfills only if one restricts the analysis to net environmental cost, and the difference is small. The net private costs, however, are so much higher for incineration that landfilling is the social cost-minimizing option at the margin. Landfilling with energy recovery is much cheaper, Dijkgraaf and Vollebergh say, even though its energy efficiency is considerably lower than that of a waste-to-energy plant. Land costs should make landfilling an especially expensive proposition. However, as shown by the gross private costs comparison (in Chart 3), the capital costs of incineration equipment and the requisite pollution control technology needed to meet European emissions standards are much greater than a landfill’s land costs. Any small environmental benefit that WTE may have over landfill is dwarfed by these additional investment costs. Morris’ data for the northwestern US show a similar result. Furthermore, Morris notes, Gerard Nieuwendijk, the Deputy President of the Confederation of European Waste to Energy Plants (CEWEP), confirmed this investment cost differential in his remarks at RCO’s Energy From Waste Forum.

Morris’s conclusions relate to the newspaper, cardboard, mixed paper, glass bottles and jars, aluminum cans, tin-plated steel cans, plastic bottles, and other conventionally recoverable materials found in the residential and commercial solid waste stream. The energy conservation and pollution prevention engendered by using recycled rather than virgin materials as feedstocks for manufacturing new products tends to be an order of magnitude greater than the additional energy and environmental burdens imposed by curbside collection trucks, recycling plants, and transport of processed materials to end markets. (See Chart 4.) The energy usage to collect, process and ship those recyclable for manufacturing into new products barely register on the stacked bar chart for energy usage in the recycling lifecycle.

In general, the energy grid offsets and reductions in associated environmental burdens offered by energy derived from landfill gas or from waste combustion are substantially smaller than “upstream” energy and pollution offsets obtained by manufacturing products with processed recyclables. These conclusions will be of interest to public officials and policymakers as they consider whether to divert more materials from disposal, and whether or not to expand landfill capacity or approve more waste-to-energy infrastructure.

Real-world analysis

Morris’s conclusions are based in part on specific research for the San Luis Obispo County Integrated Waste Management Authority and the Washington State Department of Ecology. A direct comparison was made of the collection for recycling versus collection for disposal of the same quantity and composition of materials handled through existing curbside recycling programs in Washington State and in San Luis Obispo County. These comparisons provide a better approximation of marginal energy use and environmental burdens of recycling versus disposal for recyclable materials in solid waste than does a comparison of recycling versus management methods for typical mixed waste, where that waste includes organics and non-recyclables. For both projects, lifecycle assessment (LCA) techniques were used, and included comparisons with landfill disposal where gas is collected and used for energy, and with large-scale waste-to-energy combustion. Emissions estimates used the Decision Support Tool (DST) developed for assessing the cost and environmental burdens of integrated solid waste management strategies by North Carolina State University (NCSU) in conjunction with Research Triangle Institute (RTI) and the US EPA.

The analysis helped the City of Seattle conclude that construction of a waste-to-energy plant could be a systemic disincentive to waste diversion and that emphasis on further recycling should be given priority. An economic and environmental analysis conducted for the city suggested that over 1.3 trillion BTUs of energy conservation and nearly 236,000 metric tonnes of CO2 reduction would result from the implementation of new recycling programs designed to increase Seattle’s recycling from the current 40 per cent to 60 per cent by 2010. These figures don’t include energy conservation and GHG reductions from additional recovery of construction debris and organics that will also occur under the 60 per cent recycling program.

Estimates of the economic value for recycling’s pollution prevention and resource conservation benefits indicate that the societal value of these benefits outweighs the additional economic cost that is often incurred for waste management when systems for handling solid wastes add recycling trucks and processing facilities to their existing fleet of garbage collection vehicles and existing transfer and disposal facilities. (It’s estimated that ten more jobs are associated with recycling and the manufacture
of goods from recycled products than waste disposal.) This may seen like small potatoes to cash-strapped municipal waste management authorities, especially those that don’t cover their costs via user-pay programs or that lack political support for increased recycling. However, Morris argues that developments in the trading of credits for emissions reductions offer hope for the future. For instance, a greenhouse gas credit of just US $9 a tonne would offset the net costs of many recycling programs. Private companies are also increasingly interested in pollution prevention and in the long run will favor recycled content manufacturing, which will drive up prices for recycled materials. Morris agrees that better estimates are needed for the societal value for avoided environmental burdens, as an impetus for greater cost internalization from producers. Furthermore, lifecycle emissions data is needed for additional pollutants, plus other materials that end up in the waste stream (e.g., electronic wastes, scrap tires, organics waste, etc.).

And what about that last per cent that can’t currently be recycled? Morris notes that municipal waste management should focus on the 3Rs (including composting) to shrink disposal quantities down to about a 10 per cent level. Present and future society will benefit more from spending scarce resources on this task than it will from diverting huge sums of money away from the 3Rs to build incineration capacity to dispose of the 40 or 50 per cent of waste that is currently not being recycled. In the meantime, waste prevention techniques, products redesigned for easier reuse and recyclability, and new technologies for recycling difficult to recycle wastes will con- tinue to chip away at even that seemingly obstinate per cent.

Guy Crittenden is editor of this magazine. Contact Jeffrey Morris, Ph.D. at

NOTE: Documents relevant to this article are posted at and include a copy of Jeffrey Morris’s overheads from his RCO forum presentation, his article “Comparative LCAs for Curbside Recycling Versus Either Landfilling or Incineration with Energy Recovery” from inLCA: Case Studies, as well as the paper “Burn or bury? A social cost comparison of final waste disposal methods,” by Elbert Dijkgraaf and Herman Vollebergh from the journal Ecological Economics.

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2 Comments » for Recycling vs Disposal
  1. scott t says:

    “Increased diversion beats landfill or incineration when environment and human health costs are factored in”

    landfilling isnt throwing mattresses in a ditch. i have read that existing incineration methods have virtually removed enough toxic materisl as to make it nearly as toxic as exisiting soil in the ground once dispersed??? not true??

    landfills are geologically sound areas…technology exists to reduce the material bulk for even greater landfill life span and it seems they can be developed on after reaching max capacity….it seems that landfilling does account for environmental and health costs. why the title implies other wise i dont know. a pathetic liar i guess??

    i dont know that resources need to be conserved. used and exploited in a way that when economic conditions frown on its continued use the existing supply can be put toward using a different resource in a broad economically beneficial way (made cheap and abundant).

  2. jake ostler says:

    Great article. I feel like most companies are now offering more resources for recycling than they used to in the past. I know that the company that does garbage collection in Brampton offers numerous resources to encourage recycling of different kinds

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