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, the one-cent coin graced by Lincoln's face. It often is fountain fodder and city litter. Kids love to fill their piggy banks with them. Untold 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 greener?
 
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 comprising a particular product. Two years ago, three of her students chose the penny.
 
Christine Knobel, Nicole Tan and Darin Reyes spent a semester analyzing the information they could find to make an assessment of 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 for the penny, "there are no alternative metal compositions that 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.  
 
Between weak economic demand and environmental impacts, nearly a dozen countries have concluded that the penny's not worth it. Canada abolished its penny in 2012, joining countries including Australia, Brazil, Finland, New Zealand, Norway and Israel.
 
The Mint has made pennies of 98.5 percent zinc and 2.5 percent copper since 1982.
 
Jarden Zinc Products is the sole company that produces penny blanks for the U.S. Mint to stamp into finished coins. The company declined to comment on any aspect of its production or the sourcing of their metal other than to say it is "all completely recyclable." This is according to Mark Blizard, 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 owned and managed by Nyrstar. Yet Nyrstar company representatives assert that Jarden is not one of their clients and 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 produced 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 destined 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 consumed. 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, located mostly in Arizona, 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 lacquered with copper and punched into a coin. Mining involves blasting and chipping zinc-containing sphalerite ores away from the surrounding limestone, then crushing and processing the ores in chemical baths that separate the zinc from other minerals. At the smelter, raw zinc is roasted to remove sulfides, then 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 called planchets. Those are polished and then electroplated with pure copper. 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, said Susan Johnston. She is a representative of the company.
 
So if the penny can't be made greener, why not get rid of it entirely?
 
Former Arizona congressman Jim Kolbe introduced three bills from 1989 to 2006. He wanted to try and get the government to ditch its smallest denomination.
 
But, plenty of people are fine with the penny. For some, its chief value is sentimental. Others worry that customers will suffer if prices 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. "If the Mint is trying to reduce energy, why not reduce it by a whole coin?"

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why does the U.S. continue to mint pennies?
Write your answers in the comments section below


COMMENTS (50)
  • taylorh-4-bar
    6/09/2016 - 07:23 p.m.

    The United States continues to mint pennies because it would cause a change in item costs and would most likely raise the prices rather than dropping them. I found this article interesting because I did not know that we would want to get rid of the penny in the first place.

  • william1108-yyca
    6/09/2016 - 07:24 p.m.

    The U.S continues to make pennies because as stated in the article, people are fine with having the penny, pennies may have sentimental value to many, and the loss of the penny may hurt the economy. On the other hand some want to get rid of the penny because it makes no sense to produce 1 cent pennies if they cost about 1.43 cents to make. Also the penny hurts the environment. I found this article useful because now I know what side I'm on with keeping the penny or leaving it, and I'm on leaving it. But still, maybe one day the pennies will become usefull

  • jennaw-1-bar
    6/09/2016 - 08:01 p.m.

    The United States Of America continues to mint pennies for many reasons. One reason is because most things are $.99 and these stores would be either rounding it up or down and one way one person will be happy and another might be mad. Something interesting I learned from this article was how much pennies cost to make.

  • samuelh-3-bar
    6/09/2016 - 08:38 p.m.

    The U.S. continues to make mint pennies, because, they have sentimental value to the american people, and also getting rid of the penny would change item's prices, most likely causing prices to increase rather than decrease, causing protest, and rioting.

  • colbys-3-bar
    6/09/2016 - 09:10 p.m.

    The reason the U.S. continues to mint the penny is because people still use them and they have sentimental value. Some people say that the penny should not be made anymore because it is a waste of money, but if they did get rid of the penny, the prices of everything would have to change. I thought this article was very interesting because I knew that the penny was more to make then it actually costs and I did not know if they would keep making them.

  • darianv-3-bar
    6/09/2016 - 11:44 p.m.

    The u.s. continues to mint pennies because it can be very sentimental to the people. "For some, its chief value is sentimental. " i think this article is very interesting because the penny can be sentimental, but also can hurt the u.s. economically.

  • nicolettem-2-bar
    6/09/2016 - 11:47 p.m.

    The U.S. continues to mint pennies because they have a sentimental value to many Americans.
    In the article I learned that to make a penny which is ONE CENT ACTUALLY costs more than $1.43!! That's crazy!

  • caymanm-2-bar
    6/09/2016 - 11:48 p.m.

    The U.S. continues to make pennies because some people don't want to get rid of it and people don't want prices to be rounded up. Also, the Jarden Zinc Products wants to keep the penny because they have a $425 million contract with the U.S. Mint. The article says "But, plenty of people are fine with the penny. For some, its chief value is sentimental." The penny does do more harm than good, it costs more and hurts the environment. I thought this article was interesting because I don't use pennies very often and I would be okay with them getting rid of it.

  • jacksonm-4-bar
    6/10/2016 - 12:56 a.m.

    The US continues to mint pennies because of the sentimental value. Also because consumers are worried the price will be rounded up and not rounded down. This will raise prices for consumers and the government.

  • adamp-3-bar
    6/10/2016 - 01:10 a.m.

    The U.S. continues to mint pennies for mainly cultural and traditional reasons. The penny can't really be used to buy anything. The article says, "its chief value is sentimental." However there are also legitimate objections to getting rid of the penny. The article says, "Others worry that customers will suffer if prices get rounded up rather than down." In conclusion, The main reason the penny is still in circulation is tradition. In my opinion, we should abolish the penny.

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