Bryan Caplan  

The Waste of Recycling

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"Recycling is the philosophy that everything is worth saving except your time" - I still don't know who coined the quip, but I repeat it every chance I get. If that's not enough for you, though, here's Mike Munger on Econlib:

If yard waste were a resource, then trucks would drive up and down streets in your neighborhood, bidding up the price of your bagged grass clippings. That doesn't happen. Ipso facto, yard waste is garbage. No amount of wishful thinking, or worship of nature as a goddess, can change this basic calculus.
Or if you prefer the spoken word to the written, here's Munger's EconTalk podcast on the subject.

I'll be visiting California later this month. The draconian recycling regulations and ethos of the "Golden State" are yet another reason why I'm ever so glad to live in Virginia.

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COMMENTS (19 to date)
K. Hagen writes:

Tim Worstall, I think. He does use it a lot.

Brad Hutchings writes:

If the state imposed a recycling deposit on fertilizer and plant food, and then (after subtracting the cost of overhead to administer the program) refunded the fee for recycled clippings, you would have people lining up to do yardwork for you.

At least that's how the beverage container deposit works to bring our condo complex a whole army of dumpster divers every morning of the week.

SheetWise writes:

Brad -

The "urban miners" know what has value. I certainly am not above it -- as I will stop in a heartbeat to rescue a discarded printer to reclaim the step-motors.

I think "dumpster divers" is a little condescending ;)

David N. Welton writes:

Is there such thing in economics as a "temporal externality" - where something has zero cost now, but may cost a lot later?

Waste may not be a resource, but the space it occupies is, or alternatively, the damage it generates to the environment is real (although I suppose reasonable people may want to argue statistics rather than just gross pictures):

It seems fair to me to put a price on that sort of damage, and let the market internalize it - isn't that what you guys try and teach?

ed writes:

And the recycling zealots often focus on the silliest cases. For example, they are banning plastic grocery bags in SF, even though an entire year's worth is probably smaller and lighter than a couple of the free newspapers that pile up on my driveway, not to mention having all sorts of secondary household uses.

In past years, they worried about cardboard CD packages. Or about disposable diapers, despite the huge advantages of such diapers. (If we really HAD to cut landfill space, and we could measure benefits correctly, I think diapers would be way down the list of things we'd really want to eliminate.)

Brad Hutchings writes:


Let's call them "refuse reengineers" then. My gripe is not with them. Some of them actually take it upon themselves to clean up the trash area and cart away dingy mattresses, old furniture, an increasing expensive to legally dispose of electronics.

The problem is the container deposit system. When you sell the containers back, you sell by weight, not by what you paid, and you lose a portion of the deposit paid. Additionally, if recycling were successful and everyone did it, the line would be ridiculous. I actually do recycle cans, plastic, and glass. I do it because I have the flexibility to hit the recycling center before lunch every 6 weeks or so and turn the visit into $20 in short order. That's if everything goes great. Last time, they didn't have room for glass. So I had to cart that back home and try again another day. Bordering on not worth it...

Tim Worstall writes:

I'd love to claim it but I'm afraid I can't. I saw it somewhere else and only don't acknowledge so because I can't remember where. Russ or Don maybe? James Miller? It's one of the Econ Blogs and I saw it for the first time in the last 60 days or so, but cannot remember where.

Sheldon Richman writes:

That's my quip, Bryan. You're welcome to use it.

Zubon writes:

"Dumpster diver" is a perfectly acceptable term. Wikipedia has a variety of other terms used, but diving is the one I have known for years. You could use it condescendingly, but you could do the same with anything.

Ivan writes:

Want to hear something gloriously ironic?

Putting yard waste in landfills would be a fairly efficient method of carbon sequestration. Instead we double the number of diesel burning trucks needed to sort our trash.

Also, I work in computer vision. I see little reason for curbside recycling, as an industrial sorting machine should be able to sort trash into nice categories. Hell, rather than have an extra driver, why not just have a human find all the legitimately valuable materials, like aluminum.

Wolfram Latsch writes:

It's even worse than Mike Munger says: I have to pay people to come and pick up my valuable resources. Which makes the pick-up look an awful lot like a religious transaction (I'm doing it for the salvation, which is worth paying for) rather than a market transaction (why should YOU get all the value added?). Which might of course explain the ostracism incurred by the recycling-refusenik.

Jose writes:

When cellulosic ethanol and/or bio-butanol become profitable, yard waste will become a valuable resource.

Doug writes:


Does recycling really waste that much time? Maybe it works differently in other areas of the country, but in my area we just throw all the recyclable stuff in one container and all the other trash in a trash can. It takes almost no extra time.

Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of arguments against recycling, especially mandatory recycling, but I have never understood the "it wastes my time" argument.

M Hirai writes:

Take care of the environment is a moral issue not an economic one. Few centuries ago killing someone for land, money or honor was not a big deal but today is not acceptable. The same thing is going tohappen with wasting.

Brad Hutchings writes:

OK, then "dumpster diving" it is. I certainly didn't mean to offend anyone. We're talking about real dumpsters here, but the tend to immerse themselves feet first. At any rate, I am torn between my admiration for their resourcefulness and my not liking the idea of people digging through my trash in plain site. So I shred my TV dinner containers and live with it.

M Hiral obviously didn't listen to the podcast, because that's the whole notion it was mocking. A subtext is that it's often more wasteful to engage in this activity, e.g. green glass. A question for that poster though... Do you think it would be acceptable to kill or severely punish those who refuse to buy into your moral vision? Curious.

J Hayler writes:

This piece overlooks the current prevailing rationale for recycling which is nothing to do with 'using up resources' or running out of landfill space. It is to do with the externality associated with the additional carbon emissions/environmental impacts which result from the extraction and exploitation of virgin material (in many but not all cases).

The example illustrating the environmental folly of recycling glass into cullet is well put, however a wealth of life cycle analyses of different material streams have been published, the majority of which suggest that recycling tends to be the preferred waste management option from an environmental perspective.

This of course does not address the fact that a more efficient way of dealing with this would be through the implementation of a carbon tax (or other market-based policy instruments) to address the problems at source.

Boonton writes:

I have mixed feelings about recycling. In NJ garbage costs about $85 per ton to dispose of in landfills. Using that as a baseline, I can imagine some sceneros:

1. Valuable recyclables - Things like steel, copper etc. If you get a ton of these people will pay you for them. This is a no brainer.

2. Less valuable recyclables - So things like newspaper, plastic etc. are not so valuable so a recycling center ends up losing money. You may end up having to pay them to take your recycling. However as long as the cost is less than $85 a ton it makes sense. In other words, if you're running a small town and the residents generate 10 tons of trash a week you're going to spend $850 on dumping. But if newspaper costs only $40 per ton to dump and your town generates 1 ton per tweek you can save $45 a week by putting in a recycling program (of course that's ignoring the costs of running a seperate truck to pick up the newspapers).

Yard waste should probably be included here. True organic waste can be dumped in just about any hole in the ground. You don't need the expensive environmental barriers that landfills have.

3. Total waste- I would include things like the green glass mentioned in the link. This is areas where recycling is so difficult it's cheaper to just send it to the landfill at $85 per ton.

Time is a cost but it's interesting it's much less of a cost earlier on in the waste stream. At my work cafeteria they have 3 bins for non-trash recycling; newspaper, metal, and glass/plastic. Perhaps behind the scenes they might even do a food bin for composting. At this point it's real easy to seperate and this probably reduces the tonnage heading to landfills @ $85 per ton.

If they just had a single trash bin, though, it would take a lot of time on the back end to pick thru all the garbage to pluck out cans, bottles and newspapers. So it does kind of make sense to mandate some recycling at the start of the cycle but we should be rational about it. It makes no sense to run empty plastic containers through the dishwasher. It makes no sense to have to sperate plastic into ten different kinds of bins.

The deciding factor should be cost but recycling sometimes makes sense even if there's no one around to pay you for your trash. Remember many people are used to getting their residential trash picked up for free. They forget that getting rid of your trash actually costs something. If you ran a business or lived in a town where individuals are expected to arrange for their own trash company you'd know better.

Dan Weber writes:

I've had people "steal" the yard waste that I've left out for the city to pick up.

So there clearly is a market for it.

Rudy writes:

I agree with David Welton. While recycling may be quite an expensive practice right now, we could be saving future generations a lot of money by recycling Today. I was a little surprised that Mr. Munger failed to consider any possible future economic effects of not recycling Today, in his econ talk podcast. What if most business managers only thought about planning for today and the next few years, instead of planning for the next five or ten years. It is important that we consider the possible positive impact that recycling could have in the future.
I understand that recycling is expensive now, but what new product, procedure, or practice isn't expensive as it starts to gain popularity. As recycling continues to become more widely practiced, companies will be able to envision an incentive in developing a process to make recycling cheaper and more profitable. This will undoubtedly happen, because like flat tv's or dvd players, as people begin to like and have a passion for something they will be accomodated.

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