Unexpectedly Intriguing!
22 July 2021
2021 Lincoln Penny Observse and Reverse - Source: U.S. Mint

As of 2019, roughly one third of polled Americans favor abolishing the penny.

That's still a minority, since over half of Americans responding to that poll favored keeping the penny circulating in the U.S. economy. But with inflation rising and the penny falling in value, the economics for keeping the penny in use are changing. From that perspective alone, it might soon be worth revisiting whether the U.S. Mint should continue stamping out the millions of copper-plated zinc discs it does each year.

That would follow the example of Canada. We learned a lot of economic arguments in favor of abolishing the penny from that country's "Godfather of the Ban-the-Penny Movement".

But we hadn't encountered an environmental argument against the lowest value U.S. coin in circulation until the American Council on Science and Health's Josh Bloom did some back-of-the-envelope math to quantify some of that impact.

Here's a portion of that discussion:

Pennies are not only a nuisance (stores hate them), but they are also an environmentally harmful nuisance. Here are a few facts that support this.

  • The melt value of a zinc penny is one-half of a cent.
  • Even so, according to the US Mint, it costs about 2.4 cents to make one penny.
  • In 2013 alone, this cost taxpayers $105 million.
  • Since 1982, 327 billion pennies have been minted.
  • A zinc penny weighs 2.5 g.
  • Doing the math, 327 billion pennies weigh 1.8 billion pounds
  • Tractor-trailer trucks can transport 80,000 pounds.
  • Given these figures, it required 22,500 full trucks to transport all the pennies that were minted since 1982.
  • A full tractor-trailer truck gets about 5 mpg.
  • Assuming that your average penny must travel 1,000 miles from the mint to wherever it is going (pure guess), it has taken 4.5 million gallons of fuel just to transport all the pennies that have been minted since 1982.
  • One gallon of diesel fuel produces 23.8 pounds of carbon dioxide when burned.
  • So, by simply hauling around all the stupid useless pennies since 1982, 107 million pounds of carbon dioxide has been emitted, plus who knows how much diesel pollution.
  • A whole bunch of zinc is being mined for no good reason. The mining itself causes more pollution.
  • About two-thirds of pennies don't even circulate. They are either thrown out or sitting around in jars.
  • Other countries have dropped the penny and started rounding off to the nearest five cents. It worked out just fine.
  • Some of this math may be correct.

And, these (very) rough calculations do not include the energy needed to mine the zinc ore, transport it to a smelter, purify the ore, transport the purified zinc to the mint, and then make it into pennies.

And that doesn't consider that most the world's zinc, including that used to make U.S. pennies since 1982, is mined in China before being shipped overseas, which also adds to the coin's carbon footprint.

We think the changing economics of pennies will have more impact on whether it makes sense to stop minting them than the environmental case. Exit question: how many people have already begun hoarding the copper pennies minted in 1982 and earlier the way people harvested silver coins out of general circulation after they stopped being minted in 1964?

References

Bloom, Josh. If Cash Is No Longer King What Does That Make Stupid Pennies? American Council on Science and Health. [Online Article]. 16 July 2021.

U.S. Mint. H.I.P. Pocket Change Kids Site: Penny. [Online article]. 2021.

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