I think that, all things — especially the inhospitable poolside conditions on Venus — considered, Earth is a swell place to live. Some have even established organizations, programs and traditions to act as a buffer against the planet’s normal wear and tear. However, do they work as promised? One of these hallowed traditions, Earth Day, passed the weekend before last. Now that the hangovers are gone, let’s pour some black coffee and assess matters with the sober sensibility that only economics can induce.
Many environmentalist doings are innocuous and, in their own way, beneficial. Who wouldn’t want another tree under which to sit and read fine verse? Others aren’t quite so appealing. Setting aside the nails-on-a-blackboard alarmism over global warming – and, notably, “global cooling” 30 years before – we come to the second hardest to swallow proposition from the Gaia set: recycling.
Members of Gen Y, being the shiftless, latchkey kids that we are, no doubt remember the public service announcements intrusively wedged between – or, in the case of “Captain Planet,” into the shape of – our cartoons. Sort your newspapers, plastic and glass into separate bins, they said, or man’s hubris will engulf our former Eden in smog and flame. We accepted this at face value and dutifully pawed through our own garbage, but it never felt quite right.
The unease was justified. Post-consumer recycling programs, as even the New York Times (“Recycling Is Garbage,” June 30, 1996) admits, “may be the most wasteful activity in modern America: a waste of time and money, a waste of human and natural resources.” This seems even less correct; how could recycling materials be a waste? Wouldn’t that be antithetical to the whole spirit?
Not only are they essential to a well-lived life, cost-benefit analyses are also the cornerstone of economic thought. Without them, you can’t gauge if an activity helps or hurts. On the benefit side of the spreadsheet, we can list one obvious plus: Instead of junking our old newspapers, milk jugs and cardboard boxes, we can make them into new ones. The costs include fueling the trucks; further sorting the items; cleaning them, often using nasty chemicals; processing them; hiring employees to do all of the involved grunt work, thus keeping them out of jobs that are actually productive; the higher price of recycled products and, of course, the inevitable burden of administration inherent to any large, government project.
All told, recycling programs consume more resources than they save. Not only do they fail to conserve, they use more resources than simply throwing trash into a hole. It’s a bit like “recycling” a friend’s term paper in class of your own, but, in return, you have to buy him beer for a month. You’d be better off writing it yourself. Why, then, is this drain on our valuable planet still in effect? Imagine yourself, briefly, in a politician’s shoes. How many elections do you think you’d win as the first to come out against recycling? Average people enjoy the feeling of penance associated with manually handling refuse and paying extra for products of often-dubious quality. Even if a candidate knows that recycling hurts, he won’t say so – voters like conservation, or at least the idea of it. Ironically, they’re often the same ones convinced that no government official could ever trick them.
Economics can identify damage done by ostensibly virtuous ideas and it can identify better choices. If a resource is so scarce that collecting and reusing it makes sense, the private sector will do it; after all, nobody has to instruct firms to manage their materials cost-effectively. While the world isn’t lacking landfill space – a thousand years of garbage could, and should, fit in Branson, Mo. – “pay as you throw” programs, charging users per amount disposed of, provide an incentive to reduce personal wastefulness. With a little imagination and a little economics, most any problem has a solution. There are ways to help out good old Mother Earth; forced recycling isn’t one of them.
Daily Nexus columnist Colin Marshall only tosses his water bottle in the recycling bin when someone else is watching.