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Recycling is not wasteful when it makes economic sense to recycle, without government force brought to bear in the form of mandates, taxes or subsidies. The argument that private parties undertake recycling to a less-than-optimal extent is based on the notion that there are external benefits of recycling that go unrecognized. According to this line of thinking, government must mandate recycling and must tax or impose fees to provide recycling infrastructure. It must demand that producers of goods utilize a certain percentage of recycled materials. Children must be taught the sustainability, goodness, and sanctity of recycling. These positions are ill-founded and misdirect resources toward excessive, and yes, sometimes wasteful recycling.

In 2010, The Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) published an excellent paper by Daniel K. Benjamin entitled “Recycling Myths Revisited“. Benjamin begins by offering “a brief history of rubbish”, which recalls the great extent to which recycling efforts have always been made out of sheer self-interest. Scavenging is as old as civilization, and recycling efforts have generated inputs to production from the start of the industrial age. Some older recycling activities have become obsolete for various reasons; others have been spawned by new technology.

Benjamin’s history of rubbish recounts the history of landfill usage and development. He discusses one seminal event in the history of rubbish: the Mobro 4000 garbage barge from New York City. Rumors of hazardous waste  aboard the Mobro led to it’s rejection at various rubbish “ports of call”. However, inaccurate reports circulated that the issue was a shortage of landfill space, a narrative that certain parties were only too happy to encourage, including the EPA and certain trade groups. The episode is a fascinating example of rumor, misinformation and manipulation.

Although the physical availability of landfill space was not an issue, that was not how the situation played out in the press. The Mobro, said a reporter on a live TV feed from the barge itself, “really dramatizes the nationwide crisis we face with garbage disposal”. A strange cast of characters went on to turn Mobro’s miseries into a national cause.    

The result of this steady drumbeat of expressed concern was a growing fear that America was running out of places to put its garbage and that yesterday’s household trash could somehow become tomorrow’s toxic waste. By 1995, surveys revealed that Americans thought trash was the number one environmental problem, and 77 percent reported that increased recycling of household rubbish was the solution. Yet these claims and fears were based on errors and misinformation— myths of recycling.

From there, Benjamin proceeds with an excellent discussion of eight recycling-related myths, which I attempt to summarize below:

  1. We are running out of space for our trash: no, the capacity of landfills in the U.S. has outpaced growth in refuse for years. At 500 feet deep, a century’s worth of trash in the U.S. would fit into an area of five square miles. There is no shortage at all.
  2. Trash threatens our health and ecosystem: actually, the EPA estimates that health dangers posed by landfills are close to zero. Older landfills sited on wetlands or containing any hazardous industrial waste are the only real threat, which has nothing to do with recycling today. Benjamin describes the superior design features of modern landfills.
  3. Packaging is our problem: packaging “amounts to about 30 percent of what goes into landfills, down from 36 percent in 1970“. Thanks to innovations, the thickness and weight of almost every kind of packaging has declined significantly over the years. Moreover, packaging actually reduces waste in many instances by minimizing breakage and spoilage. For example, with packaging you deal with much less waste in your kitchen every time you buy chicken. The producer is able to recycle the useable waste more efficiently than you ever could.
  4. Trade in trash is wasteful: no, trade in trash allows it to be placed where it costs the least, including dumping fees and transportation costs. Both parties to a trash transaction are likely to benefit, including those in areas that import trash by virtue of the local fees and taxes paid by landfills.
  5. We are running out of resources: no we’re not, but it’s not that the total stock of earthbound resources is infinite (though many resources like forests are renewable). Instead, as Benjamin asserts, it’s that proven reserves of many resources keep growing, and the effective known stocks of nonrenewable resources are continually stretched by human ingenuity. Even land! Within a few decades, some resources are likely be mined on extraterrestrial bodies, but only if it makes economic sense. This is not to deny that scarcity is real, but prices in well-functioning markets always convey the degree of scarcity, the value of conservation, the cost of substitutes, the value of  new exploration, and the value of new technological efficiencies. Right now, the world is awash in many commodities, and their prices reflect a relative lack of scarcity.
  6. Recycling always protects the environment: this is nonsense. “Recycling is a manufacturing process, and therefore it too has an environmental impact. … over the past 25 years, a large body of literature devoted to life-cycle analyses of products from their birth to death has repeatedly found that recycling can increase pollution as well as decrease it (EPA 2006, 2010).” Benjamin notes that curbside recycling may well have a negative environmental impact due to the resource costs of the extra trucks, fuel, and exhaust required to collect it. The point is that tradeoffs exist and should not be ignored.
  7. Recycling saves resources: not if the recycled material is inferior to virgin material, with attendant inefficiencies and lower-valued final products; not if the process absorbs more resources than it saves. These kinds of decisions are best left to rational market participants, for whom the question of recycling is a matter of self-interest. “Commercial and industrial recycling is a vibrant, profitable market that turns discards and scraps into marketable products. But collecting from consumers is far more costly, and it results in the collection of items that are far less valuable.” When low-value recycling is mandated or subsidized, the true cost of the activity is hidden.
  8. Without recycling mandates, there wouldn’t be recycling: “Another force behind mandatory recycling is ignorance about the extent of recycling in the private sector. Private sector recycling is as old as trash itself. For as long as humans have been discarding rubbish, other humans have sifted through it for items of value. Indeed, … scavenging may well be the oldest profession.” Recycling must make economic sense. If it doesn’t, it simply should not happen.

Benjamin’s paper is loaded with great illustrations of all these points. Here’s one of my own: Some years ago, a local municipality was revealed to be sending recyclables to a landfill due to the low market value of the material. Net of the costs of sorting, selling and transporting the materials to buyers, it was apparently better to pay the fees for normal waste disposal. Residents were justifiably furious, but the reality is that recycled materials have a value that fluctuates. That value reflects the real resources the recycled materials can save, if any. However, the value may not always cover the variable cost of collecting the recyclables, let alone the fixed costs of the process. That’s to say nothing of the costs imposed on individuals by mandates.

The eight points above demonstrate that there is little in the way of external benefits from recycling. There is nothing mystical here to justify government coercion. Recycling must make economic sense and it must be voluntary. When we allow government to force the decision, the sure result is an overallocation of resources to an endeavor presumed by its adherents to save resources. There is no paradox. It’s just more waste.