A contrarian’s provocative take on recycling

Annually we produce four billion tonnes of rubbish in the world. This factoid was quoted on the BBC World Service’s In The Balance podcast. The programme about recycling also featured a woman who is out to change all this. Lauren Singer, whose output of rubbish for the last two years would fit into an oversized jam jar. How was she able to accomplish such a feat?

It all began when Singer noticed a fellow Environmental Studies student bringing lunch to class every week with a single-use plastic bag, a disposable water bottle, and plastic takeout container. Seeing the irony of this behaviour, from someone supposed to be studying how to save the planet, Singer was sparked into action. She started to buy her clothes exclusively from second-hand outlets. She then set about making all of her own personal care and cleaning products. She decided to live a minimalist lifestyle, giving away all but her most essential possessions. She now runs a blog called www.trashisfortossers.com. You can see her being interviewed in the video below.

What she has been able to do is undoubtedly impressive. Nevertheless, there is one resource that is impossible to recycle, and she has been very profligate with it. I am referring to time. The amount of time required to live such a lifestyle, which involves making your own toothpaste for example, will take away from other areas of your life. This is indeed a zero-sum game. In fact, we all recycle every day of our lives. Economist Don Boudreaux has an essay entitled “I Recycle!”. Here is an extract:

After I awaken, I shower and dry myself with a towel that I’ve had for a few years. I use this towel day after day. I don’t discard it after one use. When it gets dirty, I toss it in the washing machine to clean it for further use. I recycle my towel.

Then I brew coffee and fix breakfast. Each day I use the same coffeemaker that I used the day before. I clean it after each use, recycling it for the next time. My wife and I drink the coffee from mugs that have been used many times in the past. (Actually, one set of our coffee mugs was handed down to us after my wife’s parents used them for several years.) We also eat our breakfasts using dishes and utensils that are recycled from countless past uses. After breakfast, we don’t throw our mugs, dishes, and utensils away; instead we put them in the dishwasher to be recycled for yet another use

After breakfast, I dress myself in clothes that I’ve worn before and that I will wear again. My underwear, my pants, my shirt, my necktie, my belt, my coat, my shoes, my wristwatch, all are recycled from previous uses. And when I remove these clothes at day’s end, I’ll recycle them again, with the help of our automatic washer and dryer.

When my wife and I drive to work, we drive automobiles that we used the day before and that we’ll drive for the next few years. We don’t junk them after a single use. Instead, we recycle them, day in and day out.

The pots and pans that we use to prepare our meals, our toaster, our refrigerator, our television, our compact discs, our furniture, and, indeed, our house itself are all routinely recycled, use after use after use.

My family and I recycle a lot! And we’re not alone. Everyone recycles a lot.

However, we do need to distinguish between what is a resource and what is rubbish. Mike Munger from Duke University put it like this:

There is a simple test for determining whether something is a resource (something valuable) or just garbage (something you want to dispose of at the lowest possible cost, including costs to the environment). If someone will pay you for the item, it’s a resource. Or, if you can use the item to make something else people want, and do it at lower price or higher quality than you could without that item, then the item is also a resource. But if you have to pay someone to take the item away, or if other things made with that item cost more or have lower quality, then the item is garbage.”

What I oppose is the notion of recycling as a moral imperative, a religious impulse if you will. The rationale seems to be recycling is always cheaper regardless of the cost. I, though, believe in trade-offs. We need to calculate the costs and benefits of each option. Recycling does not always save resources and it does not invariably protect the environment. Recycling is a manufacturing process and, like other manufacturing processes, produces pollution. Take the case of paper. You get toxins in both recycling and producing from scratch. Indeed, sometimes the recycling process actually has higher levels than the virgin manufacturing does. Moreover, recycling more paper will not necessarily preserve trees. If paper recycling reaches high levels, demand for virgin paper would go down. Remember Lionel Robbins’s classic definition of economics: the study of scarce resources and their alternative uses. Some lands being used to grow trees will be put to other uses.

There is another myth that without recycling regulations and laws there wouldn’t be recycling. This is the Guardianista take; there is no problem that can’t be improved by more government regulation. Let’s take the case of aluminium. When I was young you could demonstrate your masculine prowess by crushing a beer can in your hand. Now such a feat requires no great strength. What is behind this change? The high price of aluminium has provided companies with the incentive to reduce amount of aluminium in each can, making them lighter and easier to crush. Here is a clear example of the price mechanism motivating companies to use resources more efficiently.

There is another myth I would like to address – the widespread belief that we are running out of resources. When I was growing up experts said that we were running out of oil. However this is misleading. The amount of proven reserves is not fixed by nature at some immutable number. The key point is that when prices change, consumers and producers change their behaviour in response. Proven reserves are a reflection of the amount of a resource that can be recovered at current prices. When the price of a resource goes up, so does the incentive to find more or find alternatives. Consumers will also conserve more when the price rises. What’s more technological change makes new options viable. Thus it is absurd to look at current reserves or current consumption patterns as being immutable.

So here is my perspective on recycling. I do think that economics, with its emphasis on trade-offs, has a lot offer on environmental questions. Sure, there will be market failures, and government intervention may be required so that companies have to pay for the negative externalities of what they produce. But there is also government failure. Governments providing farmers with subsidised water and the recent ethanol debacle are examples of the government making ecological situations worse. I am not a climate change sceptic. But I do oppose these top-down solutions so beloved of the Guardian. By analysing the costs and benefits of each action, we will find better outcomes. I am pessimistic, however. I think to find an international consensus will be almost impossible.


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