Recycling Is a Red Herring

An alert reader sent me this article, which I assumed had to be a hoax, or something from The Onion. But nope, it’s legit. Well, perhaps “legit” is the wrong word. But it’s real, and here is an excerpt:

In most cities, if a person were to look out a window and see a group of people rifling through trash cans, it would be cause for alarm. But in San Francisco, it’s just a typical garbage day.

As part of the city’s latest effort to boost its already high recycling rate, city trash inspectors are going from neighborhood to neighborhood, digging through residents’ carts to make note of improperly sorted materials.

…With clipboards, rubber gloves and a flashlight in hand, cart inspectors hit the streets — before the trash trucks — to analyze residents’ diversion habits.

“There are three of us on the morning route,” said Tina Addi, who has worked as a city cart inspector since August. “We start about 4:45 a.m. because in the neighborhood that we’re in, the trucks come a little earlier than they have before.”

Following the inspections, the afternoon team comes back to each house to explain to residents what they did wrong — and not everyone is thrilled to chat about their poor recycling habits.

Now, let’s be sure you see what is going on here.  The city (in other words, taxpayers) is paying people civil service inspector level salaries (at least $60k) to look at garbage and check to see that none of the things on the list of recyclables is being put in the garbage.

The goal is not to decrease the waste of valuable resources.  The goal is to minimize the physical waste stream by diverting garbage into more expensive forms of disposal.  And the means the city has chosen involves at least 20 full-time human beings who drive around—in trucks with internal combustion engines—to paw through garbage. This is an enormous waste of resources, and an increase in pollution, for the sake of acting on a moral imperative that has absolutely no real basis in environmental stewardship.

Most importantly, and as I have said several times, it completely discounts the value of citizens’ time spent sorting, cleaning, and dealing with garbage.  The only resource that has any value in the whole system is the recycling rate.  And any rate less than 100% is evil.  Not wasteful (throwing the stuff away actually saves resources); evil.

Economists are generally able to combat this sort of thing.  We recognize that optimal child mortality rates are positive, because it is just too expensive—not in terms of money, but in terms of opportunity cost of resources—to save every child born with spina bifida, exposed meninges, or without a functioning circulatory or respiratory system. We recognize that the optimal level of pollution is greater than zero, because the material human cost of eliminating pollution is too horrific. Why are we paying smart and active young people to paw through garbage?  Why are smart and active young people so misled by a pseudo-religious ideology that they are willing to accept such make-work jobs?

This is a cost we have not talked enough about.  There are two ways to think of the solution to a problem.  Consider the problem of polio, a disease that killed tens of thousands and ruined the lives of millions around the world in the 1930s through 1950s.  One solution was to try to ease the suffering of polio victims, developing better iron lungs and systems of braces, wheelchairs, and prosthetics to make it possible that they could live some kind of life.  This industry was enormous, and highly profitable.

The other solution was to develop a vaccine, the one that Dr. Jonas Salk finally perfected in 1952, and which showed itself to be effective within a decade.  By the late 1960s, polio had been reduced sharply in the United States.  Now, it is almost unknown here and in most of the rest of the world.  Of course, the makers of braces, crutches, and iron lungs took a beating, because no one needed their products anymore.  But the total costs to society were dramatically reduced, even accounting for the “loss” to the equipment manufacturers.

When it comes to waste management, we are at the stage of manufacturing braces and iron lungs.  Our brightest and most motivated young people are pawing through garbage, arguing about who is more holy and who is most devoted to the misleadingly moralized cause of recycling.  Huge investments in industry and innovation are being misdirected—may I say “thrown in the garbage”?—because we are working on the wrong problem.

Wilhelm Humboldt, who contributed to the creation and the founding of the modern system of university education (he helped found the University of Berlin, now Humboldt University, in 1810), noted the tendency for misguided government programs to divert talent away from more useful occupations.  In The Limits of State Action, he wrote,

We must not overlook here one particular harmful consequence, since it so closely affects human development; and this is that the administration of political affairs itself becomes in time so full of complications that it requires an incredible number of persons to devote their time to its supervision, in order that it may not fall into utter confusion.  Now, by far the greater portion of these have to deal with the mere symbols and formulas of things; and thus, not only are men of first-rate capacity withdrawn from anything which gives scope for thinking, and useful hands are diverted from real work, but their intellectual powers themselves suffer from this partly empty, partly narrow employment.<

Many of our brightest, most motivated young people are working on how to take materials that are, by any sensible standard of resource stewardship, already garbage, and waste resources by pretending that they are not garbage, but have value.  This is worse than building iron lungs, because at least iron lungs worked to make the problem better, though of course iron lungs could not cure polio or make it go away.

We need to be working on the waste management equivalent of the Salk vaccine:  prevent the creation of a massive and expensive waste stream at the source.  We have to change the incentives so that manufacturers are responsible for the waste they create, the packaging they use to move products, the containers they use to hold liquids, food items, and consumer goods.

I have been criticized by my colleagues in this exchange for being cryptic, unclear, or simply unwilling to offer specific solutions.  The reason is that I doubt that we have a very good idea of the answer, because until now we have not had a very good idea of the question.

Who will solve the problem, and how?  I am a Hayekian; I have no idea.  And unlike the Salk vaccine there may not be any one identifiable person or idea that solves the problem. 

What I do know is that if we recognize that the answer is not arguing over how to handle garbage that already exists, we have to produce less garbage in the first place.  The answer may be counterintuitive, of course.  Where we have reduced the amount of plastic in bottles and aluminum in cans by more than 50% in the last decade, the answer may be to increase the sturdiness of containers so that they can be reused. Instead of reducing the bulk of pallets and packages, the answer may be to make packages reusable, in the same way that shipping containers are now refilled and reused rather than melted down and reprocessed after a single use.

If we start asking the right question—not how to recycle garbage, but how to prevent garbage’s existence—we might make progress.  As it stands, too many people, and too many large powerful corporations, have a financial stake in the status quo. They are making the waste management equivalent of iron lungs and polio braces.

Given the right incentives, one of those bright young inspectors who now is using a flashlight to dig through garbage at 4:30 in the morning might stop wasting her time and figure out a way to solve the problem.  Recycling is a red herring, a way of letting manufacturers and the groups that create garbage avoid responsibility—financial, political, and moral—for the mess they are making.

Also from this issue

Editorial Note

Lead Essay

  • Michael C. Munger begins with the assertion that almost everything that’s said about recycling is wrong. Zero waste isn’t a good policy goal. Some things really do belong in the landfill. But which ones are they, and why? Munger offers a tour of the economics of trash burning, trash collection, landfill subsidies, and mandatory recycling. Along the way, he points out some of the irrational behaviors that flow from the “always recycle” message — irrational even when our highest priority is saving the environment.

Response Essays

  • Edward Humes argues that recycling is indeed economically efficient, and that pointing to occasional exceptions does not disprove the general rule. Still, he argues that recycling should be the last line of defense in our solid waste management strategy: Reductions in packaging, better incentives, and “pay as you throw” trash collection can all help solve the problem long before the recycling bin.

  • Melissa Walsh Innes argues in favor of “extended producer responsibility”—a public policy approach to solid waste that would assign landfill and other disposal costs to producers, not taxpayers. If this were done, corporations would seek out more efficient packaging, more comprehensive recycling methods, and other ways to economize on their use of disposal resources. Consumers would bear the costs in more expensive products, but only if they purchased the products in question. Consumers’ choices would drive producers to make market-based decisions that internalize and/or eliminate the externalities in question. Taxpayers would pay nothing extra, a key difference from many existing recycling programs.

  • Steven E. Landsburg argues that promoting recycling as a moral issue has a sinister cost: It encourages the public to view policy questions moralistically. When they do, they lose sight of tradeoffs, and the ability to compromise deserts them. If we absolutely must preach a morality, he says, let us preach the morality of respecting price signals. These will usually tell us when actions are efficient or inefficient. In short, we should encourage an ethos of respect for voluntary market outcomes.