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Recycling Myths February 28, 2007

Posted by federalist in Economic Policy, Energy, Government Regulation.
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What’s wrong with recycling? The answer is simple; it doesn’t pay. And since it doesn’t pay it is an inefficient use of the time, money, and scarce resources. 

That’s from an enjoyable essay I came across today, “Recycling, What a Waste!” 

Growing up I always had a feeling that consumer recycling didn’t make sense.  Could the value of an aluminum can or glass bottle really be so high that it is economical for people to sort them into special blue containers, and then pay waste collectors to make special trips collecting those and trucking them to recycling plants?

That’s not to say recyclables are valueless.  If you can get people to donate enough of their time sorting and transporting raw materials for free, then aggregators can often sell them for a profit.  But if it was truly cost-effective then there would be enough profit in the exercise to incentivize consumers to recycle of their own volition.  I.e., without state laws requiring deposits on recyclable bottles, and without local laws fining people for not separating their recyclables.

But if there were really a lot of latent value locked up in all these recyclables, I know where we can find TONS of them: Every landfill around the country is loaded with organic materials that can be burned for fuel (like the coal we use to fire our power plants — only this fuel is already sitting in piles aboveground and close to cities), mixed with glass and metals that can then be recycled.  Except apparently it’s not worth doing.  And if it’s not worth going after this stuff when it’s already collected and sitting in enormous heaps, why is it worth hassling every consumer to sort and carry a few pounds of the stuff to his curb?

Jim Fedako, in the essay cited above, identifies two groups with a big interest in this exercise.  First are the (irrational) environmentalists who derive psychic dividends from “green” behavior.  “The other winners are the companies that do the collecting and process the materials, an industry that is sustained by mandates at the local level.”

If recycling at a financial loss leads you to greater psychic profit, then recycle, recycle, recycle. Let your personal preferences guide your actions, but don’t force your preference schedule on others who have a different preference rank for their own actions. And, do not delude yourself into thinking that you are economizing anything; you are simply increasing your psychic profit at the expense of a more rational investment.

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Comments»

1. federalist - June 11, 2010

From Laralyn Murphy’s essay, “Is recycling worth it?

[Recycling] mandates … keep us from knowing whether recycling is cost effective. Government interference alters the market structure in many ways. California and 10 other states, including Oregon and New York, add surcharges to the price of beverage containers to encourage consumers to take them to recycling collection facilities. Policymakers also create demand for recycling through “minimum recycled content” requirements and by purchasing recycled materials for public projects. The problem is that all this meddling distorts the market, artificially increasing demand while blurring costs.

2. federalist - July 25, 2012

Just found a good 1996 essay on this by John Tierney, “Recycling Is Garbage.” Highlight:

Mandatory recycling programs aren’t good for posterity. They offer mainly short-term benefits to a few groups — politicians, public relations consultants, environmental organizations, waste-handling corporations — while diverting money from genuine social and environmental problems. Recycling may be the most wasteful activity in modern America: a waste of time and money, a waste of human and natural resources.


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