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Materials recycling has been practiced for thousands of years, but typically only when it has made economic sense to do so. Thomas J. Bruno mentions several cases in which recycled inputs have been heavily relied upon, not because of mandates, but because of demand for reuse or as inputs to various kinds of production. For example, the “rag trade” provided an important input to “new” clothing till about 1900, and the trade still exists today. Here’s Bruno on some other prominent examples:

Steel is highly recycled already, with structural steel being 93% recycled. Currently, 97% of discarded automotive steel is used in new cars and other products. The market position for aluminum is also good; 75% of all aluminum ever produced is still in use today.

Bruno’s key point is that recycling anything is a process that uses resources. It involves fixed costs of plant and variable costs for other inputs like water, energy, various chemicals, and labor. Thus, recycling makes economic sense and is efficient only when the private demand for recycled end-products justifies the costs of processing the used materials. Otherwise, on balance recycling is a waste of scarce resources.

Yet recycling enthusiasts and too many policymakers proceed under the misapprehension that recycling anything always makes sense! This is blind recycling! They approach the question with a certain religious fervor, rather than sharp pencils and the minds to wield them effectively. The resource costs are borne by local taxpayers, and they are not insignificant. These include the cost of additional facilities, running multiple trucks, and further sorting. If industrial buyers of these materials fail in their assessment of demand for goods with recycled content, then they bear the cost of any additional transport, processing, and disposal. Recycling shouldn’t salve the guilt that anyone associates with producing waste when, as is so often the case, nobody wants that shit! It ends up in the landfill and the effort to reuse ends up as waste as well. But still, the green public veneer of recycling programs remains in place.

Plastics recycling has proven to be perhaps the greatest disappointment to recycling enthusiasts. According to Bruno:

Mechanical recycling involves grinding and remelting the plastic into a stream suitable for molding, but only a few types (out of thousands) of plastics can be so reprocessed. Chemically recycling waste plastics has been an unmitigated disaster, resulting in product streams with far worse properties than virgin feedstocks.

Those difficulties might be surmounted with improved technology or novel uses for plastic waste. Read this for an interesting discussion of using plastic in roads in place of bitumen for binding asphalt, or as modular panels in forming road base, but there is a long way to go before these are viable and economic alternatives.

Regulating products to require recycled content is just as harmful an intrusion as mandates on consumers and businesses to recycle used materials having little or no value. Predictably, it leads to degradations in quality and/or higher processing costs, with the ultimate burden shared by producers and users of end products. If it made economic sense, producers would already use more recycled inputs, but that is often out of the question. Mandates only bring more harm.

Despite constant handwringing in the media and among environmentalists, landfill capacity in the U.S. is adequate. Landfill space is priced based on scarcity, like any other resource. More landfill space will be brought on-line when market prices signal its profitability, despite the power of NIMBY-ism even in desolate lands. That usually can be overcome by compensatory arrangements. Landfills are far better managed and sealed today than in the past. Meanwhile, solid waste compression and techniques that speed the process of decomposition are stretching the capacity of existing landfills.

Once again, this is all a matter of economics. The value of avoiding the use of landfills via recycling is often just not there. Uneconomic recycling is simply a waste of scarce resources.