If Cash is No Longer King, What Does that Make Stupid Pennies?

By Josh Bloom — Jul 16, 2021
Pennies are not only profoundly annoying and useless, but they aren't even made from copper anymore. They are zinc. And the amount of energy used, and pollution generated just to mint and transport them is rather horrifying. They need to go.

Pretty soon, cash will longer be king. Kate Marino writing for Axios reports that the use of cash, already on the decline since 2015, dropped sharply due to the COVID pandemic. Perhaps most interesting is that 80% of the bills in circulation are now 100-dollar bills, which are rarely used for legal commerce.

The use of cash has dropped by 40% since 2015. Source: Atlanta Fed, 2020 Diary of Consumer Payment Choice, Axios.

With the rise of bitcoin and other inexplicable forms of currency, it is difficult to say whether removing large-denomination bills from circulation will put a dent in criminal activities. But, as I wrote in 2016, if it makes little sense to print large bills it makes even less sense to mint pennies. They are a nuisance and environmental nightmare. Aside from the zinc mining industry (see below) I cannot imagine anyone who benefits from the damn things. 

When a copper penny is put into a beaker of hydrochloric acid it just sits there. Copper does not react with most acids. But a zinc penny will quickly dissolve. Stability in hydrochloric acid is not necessarily a measure of the value of a metal, but in this case, it is. Zinc is cheap. Copper is expensive and getting more so. This is why the US Mint switched metals in 1982. copper

Source: Copper Investing News 

The mint had no choice. The metal in a copper penny is now worth about two cents. (This is called the melt value.) If copper pennies continued to be minted people would quickly remove them from circulation and sell them for the melt value. This is also the reason that dimes, quarters, half-dollars, and "silver" dollars were no longer made from silver after 1964.

So, now we have cheap pennies. Or is "worthless" a better term?

And if it is, then perhaps it's time to change the old aphorism "Find a penny, pick it up. All day long, you'll have good luck." to something that more accurately reflects the decline of the penny's stature.

But what should replace it? How about if you guys figure it out?

Here's my entry: "Find a penny, pick it up. If you do so, you're a schmuck."

Can you beat that? 

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. We pissed away almost 5 million gallons of fuel trucking around pennies that are barely used. Makes no cents. What do you think? A penny for your thoughts.


Pennies used to have value, and they were pretty cool too: coins

In 1850, pennies were actually worth something. The coin on top is an 1850 large cent. At that time, the mint also produced half-cent and two-cent coins. And, that strange-looking thing at the bottom is a silver three-cent piece. Note its size compared to a modern dime. The three-cent pieces were minted for about 20 years but then discontinued because people kept losing them because they were so small. I used to own one. I lost it. Duh.

Some people claim that getting rid of pennies will impact the environment because more nickels will be required. While this may or may not be true, others believe that the nickel should be eliminated as well.

Josh Bloom

Director of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Science

Dr. Josh Bloom, the Director of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Science, comes from the world of drug discovery, where he did research for more than 20 years. He holds a Ph.D. in chemistry.

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