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?
Lexile

Ah, the lowly penny, the one-cent coin graced by Lincoln's face, 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 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, which 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 with 35 tons of force. After inspection, coins are trucked to one of 12 Federal Reserve banks.
 
Despite the fact that the United States recycled 71.8 million tons of metal in 2013, 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. The company known for its green-and-white coin-collecting kiosks, Coinstar, processed more than 18.5 billion pennies in 2015, which are all eventually deposited with banks, said Susan Johnston, 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 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. Jarden Zinc Products. Their current contract with the Mint is valued at $425 million, 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.
 
"After doing the research, it became clear that 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 (20)
  • theaw-4-bar
    6/07/2016 - 10:58 p.m.

    The U.S continues to mint pennies because pennies are sentimental to many people in this country. "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." I liked this article and found it interesting that many people don't want to keep the penny. However, I do.

  • reidi-4-bar
    6/09/2016 - 10:46 a.m.

    To many people pennies are not worth much, they are city litter and they stuff jars full. Last year pennies made up 56% of the mint production.The mint production is paying 425 million dollars for pennies. I think that we should get rid of pennies all together.

  • taylorp-1-bar
    6/09/2016 - 12:05 p.m.

    The U.S. continues to mint pennies because of its effect on the cost of other items. "Others worry that customers will suffer if prices get rounded up rather than down."
    (paragraph 23). Since the penny is worth one cent, the loss of the penny would mean that prices would get rounded up, which is one of the reasons why people keep them. I enjoyed this article because it showed the struggle to get rid of he penny and how hard it is to make it.

  • seans-2-bar
    6/09/2016 - 12:40 p.m.

    The US will continue to mint pennies because, large companies who have influence in politics and make billions due to the circulation of the pennies will not stand for its abolishment. These companies are the reason for the ever increasing number of bought legislators,and why money is corrupting politics.

  • lucasl-3-bar
    6/09/2016 - 01:26 p.m.

    The United States continues to mint pennies because, as many believe, their production is pivotal to keeping prices down in stores and markets, aiding the economy. However, opponents of the production say that making pennies is more dangerous to the environment than it is beneficial to the economy. As a result, many in the federal government are arguing over the decision. It is interesting how pennies have been devalued over the years to the point that people will not even pick them up anymore.

  • elijahb-6-bar
    6/09/2016 - 03:25 p.m.

    The U.S continues to mint pennies because as they said "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." I think its pretty interesting how it costs 1.42 cents to make a penny.

  • genevieveb-6-bar
    6/09/2016 - 03:28 p.m.

    The U.S. continues to mint pennies for economic and personal reasons. At the end of the article, it proclaims,"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" (paragraph 23). Some citizens want to keep the penny around because of the memories it carries with it, whereas others do not want prices to inflate more than they already are. Pennies are still being minted due to nostalgia and wealth.

    I found this article intriguing because I never knew that pennies, coins that cost only one cent, take approximately one and forty-three hundredths to make, which is more than the coin's actual value.

  • johnl-6-bar
    6/09/2016 - 03:30 p.m.

    The U.S continues to mint pennies because of Congress not being to make a decision. Many bills have been tried to eliminate the making of pennies but some people won't let them go. Some want them to stay because of the sentimental value. Others thing that stores will round prices up rather than down. However you think about it, the penny is not good for the environment or the economy.

  • kevinb-1-bar
    6/09/2016 - 06:31 p.m.

    The US continues to mint pennies because of the value they still have in our economy. For example, if you take away pennies then It would be hard for people to adapt, and all the values of items will go up. So instead of paying $199.00 you would have to pay $200 or some thing near that price. This would mean that stuff would become much more expensive everywhere. The penny also would become problematic to big companies that have shaped their businesses around pennies. It says in the text, "There's one group that really wants to keep the penny around. Jarden Zinc Products. Their current contract with the Mint is valued at $425 million, according to Mint spokesman Michael White." this means that big companies would take a loss in the pennies being banned. What I thought about this article was that it was interesting.

  • annag-4-bar
    6/09/2016 - 06:54 p.m.

    The United States continues to mint pennies because people want them to stay. According to Michelle Z. Donahue," For some, its chief value is sentimental. Others worry that customers will suffer if prices get rounded up rather than down." I found it interesting that people want to get rid of the penny when it is part of our history and very sentimental.

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