The following is taken from an article by Michael Munger, an economics professor. It points out the stupidity of recycling as usually run by governments (and sometimes even by for-profit and non-profit groups). My wife and I have long taught that much recycling – especially curbside recycling – is an expensive luxury. This is especially true in the American West in 2019.
Is Recycling Useful, or Is It Garbage?
The problem with recycling is that people can’t decide which of two things is really going on.
* One possibility is that recycling transforms garbage into a commodity. If that’s true, then the price of pickup, transport, sorting, cleaning, and processing can be paid out of the proceeds, with something left over. That’s how it is with real commodities, such as wheat or pork bellies, after all. It’s expensive and complicated to produce wheat or pork bellies, and then deliver them to the market in a form that they can be used. But people will pay you for the wheat or pork bellies. In fact, the “profit test” shows that people will pay you enough to cover all those costs and still have something left over.
* The other possibility, and it’s a completely different possibility, is that recycling isn’t a commodity at all. But it is a cheaper or more environmentally friendly way to dispose of garbage. After all, if you bury something in a landfill, it’s gone. And you still had to collect it, transport it, and process it into the landfill. Recycling might cost money, but if you can sell the stuff for any price you are getting some of those costs back. Further, recycling keeps things out of landfills, and we systematically underprice landfill space. The reason is that we don’t want people dumping garbage in vacant lots or by the side of the road. But that means that recycling may be cheaper, all things considered, than using the space in the landfill. The problem is that “all things considered.” You really do have to add up all the costs — resources, money, convenience, environmental damage — of landfilling, and recycling, and then compare them.
These arguments are often muddled and mixed together, by both proponents and critics. And “recycling” is, after all, not just one homogeneous activity, but a whole collection of possible streams of waste or resources, each of which has to be evaluated separately. Should we recycle aluminum cans? Probably, because the price of recycling aluminum compares very favorably to using virgin materials, the mining and smelting of which are expensive in terms of energy and harmful to the environment.
Should we recycle toilet paper? We could, at some price. But it’s likely not worth it, because it can be composted, it would be awfully hard to clean and sort, and in any case paper products are actually a renewable resource, rather like wheat. You rarely hear someone saying, “Save the wheat! Give up bread!” But that kind of argument is often made for paper, even though the trees grown to produce pulp are simply a fast-growing crop grown on farms expressly for that purpose.
For recycling to be a socially commendable activity, it has to pass one of two tests: the profit test, or the net environmental-savings test. If something passes the profit test, it’s likely already being done. People are already recycling gold or other commodities from the waste stream, if the costs of doing so are less than the amount for which the resource can be sold.
Voluntary “recycling” like scrap iron or aluminum businesses will take care of that on their own. The real question arises with mandatory recycling programs — people recycle because they will be fined if they don’t, not because they expect to make money—or “voluntary” recycling programs such as those at universities or other communities where failure to recycle earns you public shaming.
For coercive or social-pressure recycling to make sense, three things have to be true.
- Scale. You need substantial amounts of the “input,” or garbage. Hauling small amounts is wasteful. Many suburban neighborhoods in the U.S. have small amounts of recycling out by the curb, and fossil fuel–powered trucks come by spewing greenhouse gases. Part of the reason wheat and pork bellies are valuable is that the average costs of transport and handling are low, because the scale is so large. I once watched a young woman in Vitacura, Chile, wait in line in her idling auto for more than 10 minutes so she could park and put two two-liter plastic bottles into a recycle bin. That’s not economics, that’s a religious ceremony. Without scale, most recycling harms the environment.
- Convenience. There is one resource we can’t get more of: time. Our lives pass quickly, and we have many things to do. But we are asked to donate our time to recycling, to “save” resources. We are asked to wash out and clean the stuff (I actually know people who run their garbage through the dishwasher, so it will be clean. Think of the time, coal-produced electricity, and hot water that uses.) Then we are supposed to sort the garbage and deliver it to the recycling facility.
Why isn’t this done at the recycling facility? Because the government realizes (correctly) it is too expensive, and the costs would swamp the tiny savings, if there are any, in doing recycling in the first place. But if the costs of cleaning and sorting are too great at scale, with commercial resources, why isn’t the sum of the individual costs of cleaning and sorting, in each household, even greater?
If you add up the time being wasted on recycling rituals, it’s even more expensive to ask each household to do it. The difference is that this is an implicit tax, a donation required of citizens, and doesn’t cost money from the public budget. But time is the least renewable of all resources; demanding that it be donated to a pointless or even harmful ritual such as recycling glass is government malpractice.
- Environmental savings. For recycling to make any sense, it must cost less to dispose of recycled material than to put the stuff in a landfill. But we have plenty of landfill space, in most of the country. And much of the heaviest material we want to recycle, particularly glass, is chemically inert and will not decompose in a landfill.
Ground “recycled” glass, or “cullet,” is less useful than the virgin silica sand from which glass is made. Cullet has impurities and chemical colorings that make it difficult to use for glass without further processing. To be clear, then: landfilling glass does no environmental harm, and the glass is more expensive than the virgin material it is supposed to replace. Further, glass is heavy, and carting it to distant processing centers, in any but the most urban areas, pollutes the air.
So, is recycling useful? As I said at the outset, for some things it is. Aluminum cans and corrugated cardboard, if they can be collected clean and at scale, are highly recyclable. I myself, on finding an aluminum can in the garbage, will generally take it out and try to find a recycle bin. It seems dumb to waste the aluminum, even though the value of the aluminum in one can is less than 2 cents.
But for most other things, recycling harms the environment. I’m not (just) saying it’s costly. I’m saying recycling is harmful. If you care about the environment, you should put your bottles and other glass in the regular garbage, every time.
This is now truer than ever.
I’ll add some more comments on this topic in a future commentary. My apologies for the length of this post.