The quotation headlined above is from Duke University economist Michael Munger, and it’s essentially what I’ve contended for years (see “When Is Recycling Not Wasteful?“). Munger’s latest essay on this subject is entitled, “For Most Things, Recycling Harms the Environment“. The reasons are very basic: resource costs. As Munger says, the degree of economic and environmental justification for recycling varies, depending on the item, but few supporters of recycling ever bother to look into the details.
First, a very basic economic point: resource conservation is beneficial for the environment. Sometimes there are technological trade-offs between conservation of different resources, but costs are always a matter of resource use: less use, lower total costs. Resource conservation is synonymous with lower costs. Indeed, that is why we are told to recycle, and that is what most people think they’re doing when they recycle.
But while recycling always conserves some resource more or less directly, the mere process of recycling uses other resources. This includes the costs of rolling trucks to collect the items, including fuel, labor, machinery and labor for sorting, water, chemicals, more distant shipping, and separate processes to convert the items into usable goods. In its entirety, then, recycling often does not conserve resources.
Voluntary consumer-recyclers seldom face the marginal costs of recycling directly. This highlights the general nature of environmental problems that arise in any society: external costs are often borne by parties external to the activity in question. And here is where the story of recycling’s poor economics gets interesting. Recycling advocates would have us believe that our private use of products, for which we generally pay full cost, imposes external or social costs on others unless we recycle all recyclable components of the product and it’s packaging. In fact, the opposite is often true!
Therefore, governments, fully on-board with popular recycling myths, often mandate recycling, which is another way of saying that you are not free to make your own decision based on costs and benefits. So the costs of recycling are on you, but you are unimpacted at any margin along which you can make decisions. You are forced to internalize some part of the costs that are presumptively avoided via recycling according to the myth. You pay taxes to fund the collection of materials at the curb, but governments often require citizens to clean and sort those materials. That carries significant costs that governments prefer to remain implicit.
This is to say nothing of the actual net value of the recycled materials, which is often negative. Certain items require so much processing and produce materials of such low quality that no one wants them. Virgin materials are often cheaper than fully processed recycled material, and usually yield better quality, or both. Far better, then, to pay the cost of transporting these kinds of discards to landfills and paying for the low-cost landfill space, which is plentiful, contrary to greenist propaganda.
Munger provides examples of such wasteful-to-recycle materials. For instance, attempts to recycle glass bottles are often completely non-productive relative to landfilling. That’s due to cost factors, lousy quality after processing, and weak market prices for recycled glass. Plastics are of questionable value as recyclables as well: huge quantities had been shipped to the Far East, but the volume was too much for the Chinese (and too dirty, they claimed), so it often ended-up in landfills anyway. Last year, the Chinese banned imports of recyclable plastics from several countries, which means that our plastic materials are probably headed for our own landfills. Yet we still go to the trouble of preparing and collecting them for recycling.
According to Munger, aluminum cans are worthwhile to recycle relative to landfilling. So are certain types of cardboard (though the Chinese don’t want some of those either). Also, scrap metals are privately recycled via active markets for the materials.
Private parties who can internalize costs in their voluntary decisions are wise to abide by the following:
“I have sometimes suggested a test for whether something is garbage or a valuable commodity. Hold it in your hand, or hold a cup of it, or tank, or however you can handle it. Consider: Will someone pay me for this? If the answer is yes, it’s a commodity, a valuable resource. If the answer is no, meaning you have to pay them to take it, then it’s garbage.”
Of course, society as a whole must internalize costs. There’s no way around it. Therefore, governments should behave as if they internalize costs as well, though they hardly ever do. They would sooner mandate recycling when they know full well that the simple economics outlined above don’t support it. That means an unnecessary consumption of resources is attributable to the recycling charade, which is environmentally unsound by the strictest of Green standards.
I am not quite so hard on government recycling mandates when there exist significant external costs associated with sending uneconomic trash to landfills, or when there are real efficiencies associated with recycling. Landfills must price their space efficiently, collecting sufficient fees from users to pay for environmental mitigation as well as the payoffs necessary to mollify those nearby who might happen to harbor NIMBY-ism. But recycling mandates offer strong evidence that the economics of recycling are not worthwhile. So please, whenever you are told that recycling is virtuous, be suspicious. As Munger says, it’s largely a fraud.