Ask the Conservationist

Why Do Recycled Products Cost More?

One reader has a good point: why do products made from recycled materials often cost more than products made from virgin materials?

We asked one of our in-house green living experts—read his answer below, then send us your questions on any conservation subject for one of the Conservancy's 550 staff scientists. (Note: We regret that we can only answer one or two questions each month and that we cannot answer the others offline.)

Stephanie Frost, of Columbus, OH, writes:

Why are products made from recycled material often more expensive than those made from virgin material?

Jon Fisher, senior conservation scientist, replies:

It is a good question! I don't have a definitive answer, but I have some educated guesses (there's only a limited amount of existing research on this topic). I would also note that recycled goods are sometimes more expensive, but not always.

Here are a few possible reasons:

  1. Our government provides subsidies to the natural resource extraction industries. For a long time companies have paid the U.S. government very low rates for mining and logging on public lands, effectively subsidizing non-recycled materials.
  2. Often recycled products also offer other "green" features that may be more expensive. For example, some recycled tissue paper companies also use sustainable energy, have expensive systems to really minimize their waste, etc. These environmental side benefits cost money, but companies targeting "green" consumers may think that offering the most environmentally friendly product is more important than minimizing cost.
  3. Recycling has challenges associated with it which can be expensive to address. For example, glass is physically very easy to recycle, but since it often breaks in transport it can be hazardous to the people who sort the recyclables and may have to be discarded. In general sorting out contaminants from recycling and separating the materials continues to be a challenge.
  4. Demand is relatively low. The more people who demand recycled goods, the more supply there will be, leading to more competition and economies of scale. As long as recycled goods are seen as a niche market, companies won't bother switching their supply until the costs of virgin materials rise.

So what can you do?

First, next time you're at the market, take a look and you will find that for some products the cost is the same, so you can start by purchasing those products. If you can afford to, choose recycled options for any products you purchase.

And if not, try contacting your favorite company and ask them why they don't use more recycled materials?

Originally posted in September 2011.


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