How much does it really cost (the planet) to make a penny?
How much does it really cost (the planet) to make a penny? Pennies are often found, forgotten on the sidewalk. (Thinkstock)
How much does it really cost (the planet) to make a penny?
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Ah, the lowly penny. It is the one-cent coin. It's graced by Lincoln's face. The penny often is found in fountains. And found in city litter. Kids love to fill their piggy banks with them. Billions are in collection jars and other forgotten places.
Most people know that pennies cost the government more to make than they're worth. They may not know that making all those pennies has a serious environmental impact.
With that in mind, is it possible to make the penny easier on the environment?
Christina Cogdell is an associate professor of design. She teaches at the University of California Davis. She asks her students to parse out each material that makes up a particular product. Two years ago, three of her students chose the penny.
Christine Knobel, Nicole Tan and Darin Reyes analyzed the information they could find to measure the penny's ecological footprint. Their conclusion?  The true cost of making a penny adds up to much more than 1.43 cents.
The Mint itself has tried to find out if making coins out of different metals might make them cheaper to produce. But it concluded that no alternative metal compositions reduce the manufacturing unit cost of the penny below its face value. This is according to a 2014 report to Congress.
Each Mint facility conducts monthly environmental compliance audits. Each Mint aims to reduce direct emissions by 33 percent by 2020. The Denver Mint is already 100 percent wind-powered. And the stamping presses now have a sleep mode to reduce power consumption when not in use.  
Nearly a dozen countries have concluded that the penny's not worth it. Canada got rid of its penny in 2012.  Australia, Brazil, Finland, New Zealand, Norway and Israel also dropped their penny.
The Mint has made pennies since 1982.  Each penny is made of 98.5 percent zinc and 2.5 percent copper.
Jarden Zinc Products is the sole company that produces penny blanks. The U.S. Mint stamps the blanks into finished coins. The company says pennies are "all completely recyclable." This is according to Mark Blizard. He is the company's vice president of coinage sales. A company product sheet states the zinc is "mined, processed and formed in America."  It described the zinc as coming from Tennessee mines. The mines are owned and managed by Nyrstar. Yet Nyrstar company representatives say that Jarden is not one of their clients. It has no direct connection with the penny-making process.
Adding to the confusion, the Mint itself reported in 2014 that the zinc comes from Canada.
Pennies made up 56 percent of the Mint's production run last year.
In 2014, the Mint made 8.15 billion one-cent coins. That's 22,450 tons of pennies. It equates to 21,888 tons of zinc and 562 tons of copper. The same year, 651 tons of copper was used to make "consumer products." That means 86 percent of the copper meant for consumer products was used just for pennies. For zinc, the percentage is smaller. It is 2 percent of the 1.1 million tons of refined zinc consumed in 2014.
Getting all that ore out of the ground is costly. The mining cost includes carbon dioxide emissions, pollutants and power used. A 2009 analysis found that Western copper mines use 35.7 gigajoules of energy per ton of copper produced. Zinc and lead mines are fairly more efficient. They use 6.6 to 6.8 gigajoules of energy per ton.
Copper mines are located mostly in Arizona. They tend to be of the open-pit variety. This allows more substances to be released. Zinc mines can be open or closed.
Here's what zinc must go through before it is pure enough to be covered with copper and punched into a coin. Mining involves blasting and chipping zinc-containing sphalerite ores away from the surrounding limestone. The company then crushes and processes the ores in chemical baths. The baths separate the zinc from other minerals. At the smelter, raw zinc is roasted to remove sulfides. Then it is sent through a leaching and purification process.
The main byproducts of this process include sulfuric acid and sulfur dioxide. Mercury is another impurity removed during this process.
After being rolled out to the proper thickness, coins are stamped out into circles. These are called planchets. Those are polished and then electroplated with pure copper. Then they are shipped to the U.S. Mint in either Denver or Philadelphia. Die presses stamp Abraham Lincoln's likeness and a federal shield onto either side of the coin. The presses use 35 tons of force. Then the coins are trucked to one of 12 Federal Reserve banks.
The United States recycled 71.8 million tons of metal in 2013. But not a single penny made today is recycled, at least by the Mint. Nor are any coins at the moment.
Pennies have an estimated 25-year life span. People do try to "recycle" them. Coinstar is the company known for its green-and-white coin-collecting kiosks. Coinstar processed more than 18.5 billion pennies in 2015. All are eventually deposited with banks. This is according to Susan Johnston. She is a representative of the company.
Between 1989 and 2006, former Arizona congressman Jim Kolbe tried to get the government to ditch the penny.
But plenty of people are fine with the penny. For some, its chief value is sentimental. Others worry that customers will suffer. Prices might get rounded up rather than down.
There's one group that really wants to keep the penny around. That is Jarden Zinc Products. Their current contract with the Mint is valued at $425 million. The figure is according to Mint spokesman Michael White.
For Knobel, the answer seems clear. Economically as well as environmentally, it makes sense to get rid of the penny.
"The penny isn't needed," she said.

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