Now you’re having this conversation over dinner about recycling (yes, I have had this conversation before with lots of people), and there pipes up this voice which says “Well, I read somewhere that it costs more money to recycle than to just throw it away”, and you think, “waitaminnit, that can’t be right, but where’s the proof?” Well, at least for paper, here it is, and bless the EU for taking the trouble (I read about this in the Environmental Valuation and Cost-Benefit News Blog).
No, I did not read all 160 pages, but sure did read the Executive Summary…
The LCA review concludes that the majority of LCAs indicate that recycling of paper has lower environmental impacts than the alternative options of landfill and incineration. The result is very clear in the comparison of recycling with landfilling, and less pronounced, but still clear, in the comparison of recycling with incineration. The CBA review concludes that in little more than half of the CBAs, paper recycling has higher socioeconomic benefits than other management options. In the remainder of the studies, the socio-economic benefits of incineration, landfill or other options are higher than those gained from recycling. It is often said that CBAs are generally favourable to other waste management options than recycling. However due to the heterogeneity of the methodologies used in the reviewed CBAs, it is not possible to confirm or to reject this statement.
They looked at 9 different regions and did an LCA and CBA for each. Apparently, and I did not know this, the LCA evaluation system is well standardized and codified, so it is easy to compare results between regions, but the CBA mechanisms are not as well codified, hence more sensitive to the assumptions made.
Fascinating reading aside, the answer is clear, recycle your paper! At least they make it easy in Chapel Hill.