Bryan Caplan  

The Economics of Recycling: A Child Could Understand

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When I read to my kids, I rarely editorialize. I figure that if they want my opinion, they'll ask. But when we read Where Does the Garbage Go? this morning, I had to speak up.

As you could guess, the book shamelessly propagandizes for recycling, without even suggesting that there are also good reasons not to recycle. Or, as one of the great one-liners of economics goes: "Recycling is the philosophy that everything is worth saving except your time." (Who originally said that? It won't google).

I found it surprisingly easy to explain this idea to my four-year-olds. Yes, separating newspapers saves paper. But it costs time. Why don't we recycle in our house? Because our time is worth more than a pile of newspaper.

Even if you're a four-year-old.

Update: Here's a great piece on recycling by Don Boudreaux.


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The author at De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum in a related article titled Reciclagem para crianças writes:
    Byran Caplan fala da reciclagem para crianças. Claudio... [Tracked on April 23, 2007 8:25 PM]
The author at amcgltd in a related article titled Cost and Benefit writes:
    Bryan Caplan: "Yes, separating newspapers saves paper. But it costs time. Why don't we recycle in our house? Because our time is worth more than a pile of newspaper." I resist most recycling efforts for the same reason. However,... [Tracked on April 24, 2007 11:57 AM]
COMMENTS (23 to date)
John S writes:

Would you recycle to some extent if they paid you for it? I know paper waste is quite valuable to the paper industry (my industry); using recycled fibers saves a lot of money.

aaron writes:

Recycled Beef? Recycling is like eating shit bull?

Barkley Rosser writes:

It takes you how long to "separate" your newspapers? Of course there are other reasons not to recycle that may not involve one's own time, e.g. if the production process to turn the recyled object into something freshly usable turns out to generate all kinds of pollution or cost a lot directly in public funds, or whatever.

Offhand it sounds to me that you are overestimating the value of your own time, unless where you live has some peculiarly egregious requirements regarding all that separating or depositing (another problem can be if you have to transport the recycled newspapers to some central location, with the obvious negative externalities generated by your automobile, as well as the opportunity cost of your time).

Tom S. writes:

I always thought this precise argument is an excellent example of the general value system of economists. However, unlike other value systems presented by academics, it's rarely explicitly noted this is a value system and tends to be suggested as a matter of fact--which disappoints me.

Although, for this post, it sounds like Where Does the Garbage Go? neglects to point out other systems of thought.

Ivan writes:

Curbside recyling sorta ruined it. So did dogmatic environmentalists.

We should just use vision systems to filter garbage at central repositories. No need to have an inefficient filtering system. No need to have double the diesel bruning trucks to pickup trash twice. No need to take extra space in people's houses.

I work in automation & robotics. I have no idea why people haven't made a vision system to filter trash yet. The technology is there.

mobile writes:

In San Francisco, we have a recycling program that works quite well. No, I'm not talking about the city's formal program with the multi-colored bins. I'm talking about the informal program: on garbage night, you bring all your garbage to the curb. Then overnight a bunch of homeless guys will sift through it and remove all the glass, aluminum, and anything else of value.

Buzzcut writes:

Recycling is evolving. In the most advanced systems, there is no separating of trash. You put it all in one container, and the trash is separated at a recycling center.

The recycling companies know that separating out the trash is a waste of time, and that if they want to get more people to recycle, they need to make it easier. The market has spoken, and the capitalists have responded. Engineers made the system work. It's all quite amazing.

Also, with commodity prices the way they are, recycling makes more sense than ever.

Carl Marks writes:

I am a member of my college environmental program. While we collect all paper to be recycled, many times this paper is thrown into landfills by the company that picks the garbage up because it does not pay for them to recycle it at the time. Who knew there was a market and pricing for waste paper.

So sometimes it really is a complete waste of time. By not recycling, you may raise the price of waste paper so that people who do recycle are not wasting their time as often.

Tom West writes:

I had to laugh when I read this, for I am in roughly the same position of explaining things to a child, but the opposite. My oldest has Asperger's and can be almost pathologically logical. He can and does do cost-benefit analyses that are very close to Bryan's.

For me, the challenge is to teach him the opposite. For example, in this case, that not recycling the trash because it's not worth one's time will be seen by many as an expression of contempt for the community and those who live in it. That we live in a community of humans, and it is human judgment, not economic or logical judgment that will be a deciding factor in how you will be perceived and how you will fare by those that you will live among. (And, since we are social animals, determine much of our happiness.)

He will have to learn the subtle trade-offs of simple efficiency against the wish to be part of a community of humanity, deciding how much to surrender to others and how much to keep.

Still, I think Bryan has the easier job. Far easier to explain economic logic to those who would intuitively understand the risks of alienating friends and neighbors with demonstrations of that logic than trying to explain the how often it is "nonsensical" acts that bind humanity together.

aaron writes:

Thanks, Tom West.

It's a lesson I've long been trying to teach to myself.

TGGP writes:

"Pathologically logical". The existence of that phrase is a sure sign that we live in a pathologically illogical world.

conchis writes:

TGGP, the "pathologically" in your conclusion doesn't follow.

spencer writes:

I'm sorry, I do not see how recycling newspapers takes any more of your time then not recycling newspapers. If you throw the old newspaper in with your other waste it just means that you have to empty the other waste baskets more often. If you but the newspapers in a separate container to begin with and carry them out to the curb every other week when you take the other garbage out how does this require any more time and/or effort?

Every week or two, or twice a week you have to carry x amount of waste to the curb. If you place some share of that x in a separate container it does not alter x, or the amount of time and/or effort to dispose of x. At least this is true for newspapers even though it may not be true for other forms of waste.

Ivan writes:

"If you place some share of that x in a separate container it does not alter x"

Actually, it makes for more trips.
Also, you need to store more containers.
And I think part of the point here is that even 5 minutes does not make it worth it.

This is especially true when you contemplate how much more efficient it would be to sort at the destination, and not the source.

aaron writes:

Does recycling even save any resources? It used to cost more to recycle than to produce new. For a long time recycling didn't even make financial sense, especially without subsidies.

Stefano writes:

The ideal system would be to have different costs for garbage removal: a lower one for sorted garbage, another, higher, for unsorted garbage.

So people could choose whether it's worth it.

mjh writes:

I recycle. Not because I think it has any positive externalities, but because the level of effort to convince my wife that it really doesn't do anything is more than the level of effort required to recycle. It takes an odd few seconds here and there to recycle. It's a weekly argument when my wife feels the glares of the neighbors. It's cheaper to me to recycle.

Bob writes:

My experience follows Buzzcuts' - I fill two containers, one of which is (largely) recyclables, roll both to the curb (not an extra trip, I would need two containers anyway given my family's size) once a week, and done. San Jose moved to this system almost a decade ago because the number of people using the various sorting bins was steadily falling as more of the population crossed the breakeven point (opportunity cost of time versus additional fees). There was some moaning about people not being willing to shoulder their "social responsibility" at the time, but it's actually a great example of how baking some cost-benefit into a gov system can pay off in all dimensions (e.g., the new system takes less time and allows a single truck roll).

Tom West writes:

Not because I think it has any positive externalities

I think you may underestimate externality of *not* recycling. In this case, the externality is the relationship with the neighbours, especially since those who would be most disappointed are also likely to be the most active in the community. I suspect in this case your wife is rather more aware of the externality than you are :-).

Tim writes:

So this is really just an argument on how much our personal time is worth compared to the benefits to society when we recycle. Personally, I see no problem recycling as it does save a lot of money in many industries. Recycling, in my opinion doesn't take that much time out of the day.

eric wilson writes:

This is a pretty interesting topic to talk about because it really hit close to home. When he spoke about explaining the importance of recycling, and I totally agree with the first blogger with getting paid to recycle.I know it may seem petty, but I just think it would really motivate people to recycle, if they were compensated for with some kinda of small payment for their efforts. I can remember be a small child and recycling cans that I found around my neighorhood, in our to earn a couple bucks to buy some bubble gum and a pack of ball cards. My motivation was to get those cards, so I'd pick up and find as many cans as I could. I just think a payment for recycle would motivate people to do more, and ultimately make the eart a much better place.

Bob writes:

Whenever the issue comes up, I repeat the simple fact that recycling is a very good industrial policy, but a dreadful civic policy. In an industrial setting, the materials that are "waste" can be put right back into the process.

The cost of civic recycling, especially the energy cost is astounding. For instance, when we all rinse out our glass containers before driving them to the local recycling facility, the amount of water used is massive (along with the fuel). I live on Maui. All of our recycled materials must be gathered up and shipped by barge back to the mainland. Unbelievable.

JRip writes:

In our area recycling earns a discount on garbage collection. A few dollars.
but even without that...
I am reading a magazine or newspaper and when done I take it to the trash.
but I find a couple choices.
A. a plastic bag I buy for wet (food) trash
and
B. a couple reused paper grocery bags for glass, aluminum and paper.
---
When any bag fills it is transported outside and placed in one of two weatherproof containers.

On trash day someone comes by and takes it all away.
---
No significant extra work for us. No personal-economic argument against.
---
Further - We no longer subscribe to the paper version of the newspapers as we get it all online.
One for free and one with a small annual fee but always less than paper newspapers.
---
So - Do you still still subscribe to a paper newspaper?
---
We teach the kids recycling on moral grounds while describing the economics as OK for aluminum and poor for glass and paper.

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