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I would have a question. I lived till now in a number of Eastern and Western European countries. With time I saw that the states/cities in which I lived made provisions (most recently in Poland-Warsaw), that garbage needs to be separated. Myself being an economist, I always wondered, are there real benefits to this garbage separation, or is it more a "feel good/image thing". Thus my question is, what exactly are the benefits (e.g. cost reduction, garbage processing efficiency...) of garbage separation. Any examples (especially quantifications of the benefits) would be very welcome (references to articles would be appreciated).

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    what are you comparing to? A place where the municipality does the separating and still recycles and diverts, or a place where it just all goes in the landfill? Or incinerator? Or ocean? The costs/benefits only exist in comparison to something else. – Kate Gregory Oct 18 '15 at 17:48
  • By "garbage separation" do you mean separating out recyclables? Or is it more than that, such as separating out green waste, used batteries, or something else? – Highly Irregular Oct 18 '15 at 20:21
  • @Kate Gregory Actually I must admit I don't know. My original idea is whether there is a benefit of recycling vs not recycling (Thus that would be the comparison you are asking for). Yet I would have to ask the question why we would be separating the waste and then everything would still go to the same landfill. As such any example of how waste separation contributed in a positive way (e.g. cost reduction and efficiency), would be deemed as sufficient by me). Highly Irregular--->Primarily recyclables (Glass, Paper, etc...). – Noir Oct 19 '15 at 7:38
  • Your question is very broad. I suggest you limit it to one specific fraction and one specific country to make it answerable instead of theoretical. – Jan Doggen Oct 19 '15 at 11:21
  • While the point of broadness is true, all I would actually want is one example (empirical study optimally), where it is confirmed that waste separation of any kind is efficient. – Noir Oct 19 '15 at 11:39
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Let's compare a garbage-separating and recycling city A to three imaginary cities:

  • B, in which garbage is not separated and it all goes to landfill, incinerating, ocean dumping etc
  • C, in which garbage is not separated by householders but is separated by municipal staff, and some is recycled
  • D, in which garbage is separated by householders but then just all sent to landfill (or whatever) anyway

Compared to B, the benefits are that some recycling happens. This means landfills are less likely to fill up, and the city may recoup some money - for example some cities pay to truck garbage a long way to landfills in other countries, and either pay less for recycles to be taken away or in some cases can actually sell their recycles. The cost savings do not always offset the costs to the municipality (trucks with special sections for recycles, larger storage and processing facilities, employee training) but in many cases they do.

Compared to C, the benefits are that the city doesn't have to pay its staff to sort, the householders do it for free. Also, the city doesn't need a large facility to do the sorting in. The costs are that untrained householders may throw out materials that could have been recycled, or contaminate a load of recycles with something non recyclable. As a result such locales spend money on training the householders. Also typically the city gives out free sorting containers which costs them money.

Compared to D, the benefits are solely the psychological ones (which also happen compared to B) that people become aware of whether materials they buy are recyclable or not, and see what proportion of their waste stream is plastic, paper, compostable, metal, and so on. They may change their consumption habits as a result. There are some places that feel this change in consumer habits is actually more important than what happens to the garbage after it is picked up, while others believe constructing a sham recycling program is ridiculous. The truth is that at any given time some city somewhere is sending recycles to the landfill (or incinerator) because the capacity of the places that take their recycles has been reached. The desirability of the collected material varies, but cities don't dare stop collecting; in fact the pressure is high to include more and more materials in the collection.

For example, where I live I can recycle film plastic (grocery bags etc.) There is a nearby factory that makes them into wood substitute. People who visit me and see this have asked their municipalities to do the same. Well those cities aren't near my factory. And there is only so much wood substitute needed; since it doesn't rot once we all have a picnic table and a deck why keep making more of the stuff? Yet they don't want to feel bad throwing out plastic bags, so they want their cities to take it and make them feel better. Often that means the cities start taking it, and do send a few loads to the diversion project, but not necessarily all of them.

If it's true that the benefits are large even compared to D, where the only difference is consumer behaviour, then it's clear to see they are even larger compared to B, since we both change consumers and divert from landfill. It's not clear how large they are compared to C. Among other things it depends on land cost and municipal wages.

  • Would you have any study or examination of the case C you proposed. From an argumentative POV I find your essay conclusive. – Noir Oct 19 '15 at 11:42
  • some numbers (and some more references) are in large.stanford.edu/courses/2012/ph240/micks2 -- but you don't need a study to show that it's cheaper for me to sort my plastic bottles from my garbage (since I don't bill the city for that) than to build a place where paid city employees go through my unsorted garbage and sort it for me. – Kate Gregory Oct 19 '15 at 12:33

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