Arnold Kling  

What is Recycling?

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Don Boudreaux writes,


But I do discard paper plates - for the same reason I recycle my china rather than discard it: it would be wasteful to do otherwise. After all, I could recycle paper plates. Careful washing would enable me to reuse each paper plate two or three times. But valuable time and labor would be wasted. Time I could spend playing with my son, reading a book or fixing a leaky faucet would be wasted cleaning paper plates. And to what purpose? Paper plates are expendable precisely because the materials used to manufacture them are so abundant. This abundance is reflected in their low price.

Economics and environmentalism both value efficiency and decry waste. Economics assumes that the price system works to measure and motivate efficient use of resources. Environmentalism assumes that the price system fails.

An alliance between environmentalism and economics is possible, in which the environmentalist argument becomes an argument that price signals are incorrect. In principle, taxes should be raised on products whose market cost does not reflect the resources that are used in their production and disposal.


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COMMENTS (14 to date)
Omer K writes:

Environmentalists are usually people with a huge liberal chip on their shoulder.


Good luck...

Kyle writes:

While the previous commenter's comment was perhaps impolitic, I have been running a mini-experiment in which I ask self-declared environmentalists I talk to about which they would prefer between a market-created environmental solution (effective fusion power, car fuel cells), and a socialist less environmental solution (rationing, etc.) ... oddly they tend to pick the socialist vision. My experience leads me to believe that a great many of the "environmentalists" are primarily anti-capitalists, and environmentalists only as an aside. And hence, a marriage with economics is perhaps a bit further away than your post might suggest.

Max writes:

But Mr. Kling has a point here. Actually, what environments want is that prices for everything expendable are so hight that no one discardds anything anymore. Also, they want to limit production, not because natural resources could become scarce, but because they ARE natural resources.

Why it is mostly ok to use wood and other parts of nature, as long as you either:

- don't make any money with it
- and the total sum of replenishing and using the resource (fish, trees, deer etc.) is 0.

of course, these are the points of hard-core environmentalists and not of mainstream-anti-capitalists who jump on the environmental band-wagon.

Matt writes:

Generalizations about environmentalists get you nowhere. Rather better to generalize about libertarians.

The market prices objects using observable costs in the current value system (by definition). Objects often last beyond the current value system. But capital assets last longer than the current value period, hence the lawsuit.

How does the libertarian expect me to recover costs when you pollute the atmosphere above my house? I sue you in court. That you did not know, 30 years ago, that you were polluting does not make you invulnerable to damages.

From the libertarian philosophy, no one cares if you are socialist or capitalist or stupid, you are going to be sued for polluting my atmosphere.

Libertarians believe in the law suit, and the aggressive lawsuit because lawsuits revalue past prices. Hence, lawsuit encourage producer set asides money to reflect hidden costs.

Using the public or private sector to signal hidden costs is an oxymoron, because if we knew what signals to apply, these costs would not be hidden. The lawsuit is retroactive. The lawsuit can get at accumulated assets, it is retroactive.

California was right in suing someone for co2 pollution. By filing suit, the damages caused by co2 pollution become assigned and the cost is no longer hidden; therefore other producers can now price the cost of co2 pollution into current prices.

Brad Hutchings writes:

In principle, taxes should be raised on products whose market cost does not reflect the resources that are used in their production and disposal.

That's when economists are needed most, before we suffer the results of the law of unintended consequences. For example, several states including California impose a deposit on bottles and cans. Such programs actually seem to motivate people to recycle their bottles and cans. Heck, if I didn't, I'd be giving away $25/month on my soda and bottled water fix.

But, big but here... An unintended cost of these programs in my neighborhood is that we have vagrants digging through our garbage every morning, making a mess of community garbage bins. And it's not only condo complexes with socialized garbage, they go detached house to detached house on garbage day digging through garbage cans.

I'm considering making T-shirts for this army of rummagers... "Environmentalists made my job possible!"

Omer K writes:

Slightly off Topic.
But on the topic of environmentalism and politics (seeing how environmentalists tend to be socialist/liberals)

I read a book about a year ago called "The Legacy of Chernobyl" by Zhores Medvedev.

Obviously it was about the Chernobyl disaster. But peculiarly most of the problems with it could be traced to big government and socialism.

For instance, the flaw in the Chernobyl plant was caused basically (im summarizing greatly here) a very important repair/maintanence function that had to be done at the start of the nuclear cycle (hereafter called beginning of cycle 'adjustment'). Instead it was left to the end (it is dangerous to leave it to the end because the nuclear fuel is more dangerous and unstable when spent).

Under a capitalist/American system the team that builds the plant is different from the one that runs it. This alone precludes the possibility that a 'maintenance team' would take over without objection from the 'builder team' if the repair function was incomplete.

Under Communism (read 'socialism unchecked'), both teams belong to the same central government. There is a real incentive to gloss over problems when both parties belong to the same organization. Furthermore, bonuses equivalent upto 50% of base salary were given only if the project would be completed in time. Ergo there was massive psychological and social pressure on the 'builder team' to NOT finish the important 'beginning of cycle adjustment' if time was running out.

When they did attempt the adjustment later on... the reactor blew up.

And this is just one example of the blunders caused by socialism in this incident.

ed writes:

Are you already in Greg Mankiw's "Pigou Club," or are you just trying to get in?

Matthew Ponder writes:

I completely agree with this. In my home town the trash is collected sorted for recycling but rarely is recycled because of the cost associated with it. There are very few things that I think can be recycled without putting more time in effort into them than they are worth. I also agree with the fact we recycle more than people give us credit for there are many things when you look around that are reused goods and things that have been used for long periods of time.

Alex writes:

Raising taxes on products whose market costs appear not to reflect the true resource costs is not the right way to go about addressing the problem. It will create further market distortions.

The problem here is that we don't have a sufficiently complete free market - There is no free market in waste disposal. Instead of raising the cost of a paper plate, we should address the economical and environmental cost of disposing the plate. A lot of paper plates will be recycled if it costs $1 to discard it. It's because garbage collection services are run and subsidized by the governemnt that the disposal costs are artificially low.

Robert Speirs writes:

Environmentalism in at least one case leads to waste. For many greenies it feels better to get paper rather than plastic bags at the grocery store. Plastic = bad, paper = good. But by any rational analysis that's nonsense. Paper bags cost much more to produce, transport and dispose of than plastic. Most recycling is similarly wasteful. Whenever I see the huge, costly recycling truck go by with a few bits of paper in it, using gas and carrying a well-paid driver, then I see the regular garbage truck following right behind, I realize: these people are nuts!

Clint writes:

Yes, I agree with you they could work together. Environmentalist actually make jobs happen. Without environmentalist we would have trash flying all around without no one to clean it up. But, on the other hand we need economist to predict how to apply taxes to certain things (when, where, and how) and to further are knowledge of recycling (which is where the environmentalist come back into play.)

Shawn Mallison writes:

Occasionally as I sort through numerous types of plastic and colors of glass I ask myself is it worth it? I agree that the resources I am recycling are not all that costly to produceā€¦ my time is definitely worth more. Yet I continue to make a weekly trip to the recycling drop off. Why? My conclusion is that the cost benefit analysis is not quite that simple. There are a whole lot of costs of manufacturing and disposal that have not been factored in. What is the long term cost of repairing damage done to our environment through the initial acquisition and production process? What is the long term cost to disposal of these products? Once we have figured that out then we can do an appropriate cost benefit analysis.

Jeremy writes:

Just because paper plates are much less expensive and much more abundant than other plating options doesnt mean that they should seem less important to recycle. As stated earlier trees are a natural resource, and the fact that they arent gone now doesnt mean that we wont have a problem with it down the road, as we are having now with our current gas supply situation. Now I by no means consider myself an environmentalists, but we do need to look into the future. The abundance of paper plates comes from a large supply of trees. Now granted that paper plates are probably made from soft woods such as pines which take much less time to regrow but our nations use of hardwoods takes many, many decades to replenish. It just seems that we should be able to learn from our past.

Bob Hawkins writes:

Dude. You re-use paper plates without cleaning them. It all ends up in the same place anyway.

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