Value of disposed recyclables

This indicator tracks the lost market value of recyclable materials when they are disposed in landfills and incinerators instead of being recycled. The market value is calculated by applying commodity prices to estimates of recyclable material disposed.

What happens when recyclables are thrown away?

When recyclable materials are disposed, the embodied energy and natural resources in those materials are lost. This imposes real costs to Washington's economy and society.

When recyclable materials are made into new products instead of buried in landfills or burned in incinerators, resources and energy are conserved, disposal costs are reduced, jobs are created, and our economic vitality benefits.

Recyclable materials included in this analysis are those from homes and businesses that have value in the market. These include paper, cardboard, metals, plastics, glass, and electronics. This indicator does not include the costs of disposing of the recyclable materials; just the average market value if the materials were sent to existing recycling markets. Determining the "lost value of recyclables" gives us a measure of economic vitality, by showing how much money we are "throwing away."

Economic value of recyclables disposed, 2009 - 2013. View our data for economic value of recyclables disposed.
Recyclables disposed in Washington, 2009 - 2013. View our data for economic value of recyclables disposed.

How much are disposed recyclables worth?

Since 2009, we have lost more than $744 million worth of recyclable materials by burying them in landfills. From 2009 to 2013, the lost value of recyclables increased overall from $109 million to $133 million, due mostly to the increased market value of the recyclables. The market was much higher in 2010-2012, reaching a high of $185 million in 2011. The lower graph shows the amount of selected recyclables disposed of in the trash decreased overall annually from 2009 to 2013, but in 2012 and 2013 this number has been on the rise.

The percent of recyclable materials disposed in landfills or incinerators is based on our waste characterization studies. The 2009 through 2013 numbers use 27 percent from the 2009 Washington Statewide Waste Characterization Study.

This indicator has approximately a 1.5-year time lag, due to the process of gathering, compiling, and analyzing data.

Why should we be concerned about the lost value of recyclable materials disposed in landfills?

Disposed recyclables represent wasted resources, many of them non-renewable, as well as energy embodied in the materials. Furthermore, disposed recyclables correspond to increased greenhouse gas emissions from having to extract and manufacture from more virgin materials to make new products.

Disposed recyclables also represent an avoidable cost to Washington's economy and a lost opportunity. Society incurs direct costs to manage and dispose of wastes. Instead of paying to dispose of these useful materials, we could, in many cases, pay less to recycle them if they were separated from the garbage. This would also create additional jobs, reduce the amount of materials going to landfills, reduce the need for virgin materials, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

This indicator helps show the link between recycling and our economic vitality.