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While it’s very good to have a clean environment, many environmentalists don’t understand cost-benefit analysis. As such, they make our lives less pleasant – inferior light bulbs, substandard toilets, inadequate washing machines, crummy dishwashers, dribbling showers, and dysfunctional gas cans – for little if any benefit.
We can add recycling to that list.
To be sure, all the hassle and time of sorting our garbage might be an acceptable cost if something was being achieved.
Unfortunately, as Jeff Jacoby has explained, that’s not the case – not even close.
Let’s explore the issue.
In an article for the American Institute for Economic Research, Professor Michael Munger explains that most recycling actually is a net negative for the environment:
“… I was invited to a conference called Australia Recycles! … Everyone there, everyone, represented either a municipal or provincial government, or a nonprofit recycling advocacy group, or a company that manufactured and sold complicated and expensive recycling equipment. … Recycling requires substantial infrastructure for pickup, transportation, sorting, cleaning, and processing. … 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. … 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 … 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 … 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. … landfilling glass does no environmental harm … 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. … But for most other things, recycling harms the environment. … If you care about the environment, you should put your bottles and other glass in the regular garbage, every time.”
Jon Miltimore explains, in a column for the Foundation for Economic Education, that hundreds of cities have repealed recycling mandates because they simply don’t make sense:
“… after sending my five-year-old daughter off to school, she came home reciting the same cheerful environmental mantra I was taught in elementary school. ‘Reduce, reuse, recycle,’ she beamed, proud to show off a bit of rote learning. The moral virtue of recycling is rarely questioned in the United States. … recycling is tricky business. A 2010 Columbia University study found that just 16.5 percent of the plastic collected by the New York Department of Sanitation was ‘recyclable.’ ‘This results in nearly half of the plastics collected being landfilled,’ researchers concluded. … hundreds of cities across the country are abandoning recycling efforts. … Like any activity or service, recycling is an economic activity. The dirty little secret is that the benefits of recycling have been dubious for some time. … How long? Perhaps from the very beginning. … there are the energy and resources that go into recycling. How much water do Americans spend annually rinsing items that end up in a landfill? How much fuel is spent deploying fleets of barges and trucks across highways and oceans, carrying tons of garbage to be processed at facilities that belch their own emissions? … It’s time to admit the recycling mania is a giant placebo. It makes people feel good, but the idea that it improves the condition of humans or the planet is highly dubious.”
On a related topic, another FEE column even shows that anti-waste campaigns may actually increase waste:
“To reduce waste, most governments run communication campaigns. Many try to make consumers feel guilty by telling them how much people like them waste (food, paper, water …). … The idea is that once people realise how much they waste, they will stop. Unfortunately, research has shown that when people are told that people like them misbehave, this makes them act worse, not better. In a June 2018 study, we confirm this backfiring effect in a series of studies on waste … Indeed, we found that backfiring effects of anti-waste messages happened because of difficulty. When consumer read that everyone wastes a lot, they think that it must be difficult to cut waste – so they don’t even try.”
Let’s get back to the specific issue of recycling.
The fact that it doesn’t make sense is hardly a new revelation.
Way back in 1996, John Tierny had a very thorough article in the New York Times Magazine that summarized the shortcomings of recycling.
If you don’t want to read this long excerpt, all you need to know is that landfills are cheap, safe, and plentiful.
“Believing that there was no more room in landfills, Americans concluded that recycling was their only option. Their intentions were good and their conclusions seemed plausible. Recycling does sometimes makes sense — for some materials in some places at some times. But the simplest and cheapest option is usually to bury garbage in an environmentally safe landfill. And since there’s no shortage of landfill space (the crisis of 1987 was a false alarm), there’s no reason to make recycling a legal or moral imperative. Mandatory recycling programs … 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. … Americans became racked with garbage guilt … Suddenly, just as central planning was going out of fashion in eastern Europe, America devised a national five-year plan for trash. The Environmental Protection Agency promulgated a “Waste Hierarchy” that ranked trash-disposal options: recycling at the top, composting and waste-to-energy incinerators in the middle, landfills at the bottom. … Politicians across the country … enacted laws mandating recycling and setting arbitrary goals … , typically requiring that at least 40 percent of trash be recycled, often even more — 50 percent in New York and California, 60 percent in New Jersey, 70 percent in Rhode Island. …The Federal Government and dozens of states passed laws that required public agencies, newspapers and other companies to purchase recycled materials. … America today has a good deal more landfill space available than it did 10 years ago. … there’s little reason to worry about modern landfills, which by Federal law must be lined with clay and plastic, equipped with drainage and gas-collection systems, covered daily with soil and monitored regularly for underground leaks. … Clark Wiseman, an economist at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., has calculated that if Americans keep generating garbage at current rates for 1,000 years, and if all their garbage is put in a landfill 100 yards deep, by the year 3000 this national garbage heap will fill a square piece of land 35 miles on each side. … This doesn’t seem a huge imposition in a country the size of America. … The millennial landfill would fit on one-tenth of 1 percent of the range land now available for grazing in the continental United States. … many experts and public officials acknowledge that America could simply bury its garbage, but they object to this option because it diverts trash from recycling programs. Recycling, which was originally justified as the only solution to a desperate national problem, has become a goal in itself … The leaders of the recycling movement … raise money and attract new members through their campaigns to outlaw ‘waste’ and prevent landfills from opening. They get financing from public and private sources (including the recycling industry) to research and promote recycling. By turning garbage into a political issue, environmentalists have created jobs for themselves as lawyers, lobbyists, researchers, educators and moral guardians.”
The bottom line is that most recycling programs impose a fiscal and personal cost on people for very meager environmental benefits.
Indeed, the benefits are often negative once indirect costs are added to the equation.
So why is there still support in some quarters?
In part, it’s driven by contributions from the companies that get paid to process recycled material.
But that’s only part of the story. Recycling is a way for some people to feel better about themselves. Sort of an internalized version of virtue-signalling.
That’s not a bad thing. I like a society where people care about the environment and feel guilty about doing bad things, like throwing trash out car windows.
But I’m a bit old fashioned in that I want them to feel good about doing things that actually make sense.
P.S. There’s a Washington version of recycling that is based on taxpayer money getting shifted back and forth between politicians and special interests.
Daniel J. Mitchell is a top expert on tax reform and supply-side tax policy and is Chairman of the Center for Freedom and Prosperity. Mitchell is a strong advocate of a flat tax and international tax competition.