• Carlo Broderick

Burn vs. Recycle

What should our society do with solid waste: burn for energy or recycle for materials? A study published in 2005 by Jeffrey Morris, an environmental economist, may have the answer the conclusion of his publication titled "Comparative LCAs for Curbside Recycling Versus Either Landfilling or Incineration with Energy Recovery" can be found below as well as a link to his paper.


Recycling of newspaper, cardboard, mixed paper, glass bottles and jars, aluminum cans, tin-plated steel cans, plastic bottles, and other conventionally recoverable materials found in household and business municipal solid wastes consumes less energy and imposes lower environmental burdens than disposal of solid waste materials via landfilling or incineration, even after accounting for energy that may be recovered from waste materials at either type disposal facility. This result holds for a variety of environmental impacts, including global warming, acidification, eutrophication, disability adjusted life year (DALY) losses from emission of criteria air pollutants, human toxicity and ecological toxicity. The basic reason for this conclusion is that 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, recycled material processing facilities, and transportation of processed recyclables to end-use markets. Furthermore, the energy grid offsets and associated reductions in environmental burdens yielded by generation of energy from landfill gas or from waste combustion are substantially smaller then the upstream energy and pollution offsets attained by manufacturing products with processed recyclables, even after accounting for energy usage and pollutant emissions during collection, processing and transportation to end-use markets for recycled materials. The analysis that leads to this conclusion included a direct comparison 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. This comparison provides a better approximation to marginal energy usage and environmental burdens of recycling versus disposal for recyclable materials in solid waste than does a comparison of the energy and environmental impacts of recycling versus management methods for handling typical mixed refuse, where that refuse includes organics and non-recyclables in addition to whatever recyclable materials may remain in the garbage. Finally, the analysis also suggests that, under reasonable assumptions regarding the economic cost of impacts from pollutant emissions, the societal benefits of recycling outweigh its costs.


Morris, J. Comparative LCAs for Curbside Recycling Versus Either Landfilling or Incineration with Energy Recovery (12 Pp). Int J Life Cycle Assessment 2005, 10 (4), 273–284. https://doi.org/10.1065/lca2004.09.180.10.