The Social Price Tag for Pollution is Dropping, But Still Big

We often hear about the economic costs of environmental regulations on the energy industry. But there’s a flip side to that issue—the social price we collectively pay for burning fossil fuels to produce our electricity. But is there actually a way to place a dollar amount on the hidden costs of pollution? Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University think so.

Paulina Jaramillo, a professor of environmental engineering, and a colleague designed a model that takes into account EPA pollution figures, weather models and population data. And what they found was pretty clear: Emissions from sources like coal-fired power plants are going down. And because of this, so are the health costs associated with this pollution.

“We cannot pinpoint who is specifically benefiting. But on a population basis, there are benefits,” Jaramillo says.

LISTEN: “Your Environment Update for February 17, 2016”

Jaramillo says new regulations that forced coal-fired power plants to clean up were a big factor. In addition, the Great Recession lowered demand for energy overall. Cleaner energy sources— like natural gas—also cut into coal’s share of the electricity market.

The costs of pollution may be going down. But the price tag Jaramillo calculated—$400 for every person in the U.S.—is still pretty steep.

Reporting by Reid Frazier

 

No—Your Recycling Isn’t Going to the Landfill

Recycling is the ultimate feel-good act of environmentalism. But even the most dedicated recyclers sometimes have dark thoughts. You might have had them too.

“Is it somehow just all going into the garbage?” says Pittsburgh recycler Jana Thompson. “Because who are they paying to break apart shopping receipts from soda cans?”

The idea that somebody really is unjumbling the contents of your recycling bin does seem kind of mind boggling. But that somebody does exist. The proof? We tracked down the guy who oversees the sorting of Pittsburghers’ recyclables.

“Just to give you an idea, our facility is on eight acres. So you figure, you’re looking at about 50 yards of material here, 20 feet high,” says Russell Holby, standing in front of a mountain of unsorted recycling.

The resource recovery facility in Pittsburgh’s Hazelwood neighborhood does pretty much what you’d think. The unsorted stuff is fed in one end, and then a series of machines separate specific materials, one by one. Among the more incredible technologies—the Eddy current machine, which gives aluminum cans a temporary charge that makes them literally shoot right off a conveyor belt.

“The first time I saw it, I was, like, ‘It’s magic.’ But it isn’t magic. It’s science. It’s physics and science,” Holby says.

On average, the system is able to recover about 90 percent of what comes in on the trucks. So, yes—you can still feel good about what you’re hauling out to the curb.

Reporting by Lou Blouin