June 2013

Everyone loves recycling. So often it seems like our natural environment is under attack, but there’s nothing we can do about it. And then there’s the blue bin with the old familiar logo. “Sort your trash,” it says, “and at least you’re doing something.”

The reality is a lot more complicated. Not everything is worth recycling, of course, but even some of the things that we’re used to recycling may turn out on closer inspection to be environmental boondoggles. Price matters. Opportunity costs matter. Local conditions vary tremendously. Whether recycling is a good idea may turn out to vary on a case-by-case basis.

Here to help make sense of it all are four individuals who have given a good deal of thought to the political economy of recycling. Duke University economist and political scientist Michael Munger leads with an essay asking, “Can It Be Wrong, When It Feels So Right?” His answer, in brief, is “sometimes.”

Journalist Edward Humes is the winner of a Pulitzer Prize and most recently the author of the book Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash. He’s written extensively on the intersections among environmentalism, consumerism, corporate governance, and the profit motive.

In the Maine state legislature, Melissa Walsh Innes sponsored the nation’s first Product Stewardship Framework Law, which tasked all those involved in the life cycle of a product with responsibility for its environmental impacts, including solid waste disposal. She now works for Recycling Reinvented, a nonprofit that promotes “market-driven, industry-run recycling.”

Economist Steven E. Landsburg has been a prolific author and public commentator on a wide variety of issues. His manifesto “Why I Am Not an Environmentalist” casts a skeptical eye on recycling itself, arguing that its proponents ignore the obvious and negative environmental effects of their own proposal.

As always, Cato Unbound welcomes feedback from readers, either on blogs, on our Facebook page, or via Twitter @CatoUnbound. We also welcome email to JKuznicki@cato.org. Selections may be published at the editors’ option.

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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.

Related at Cato

Our Widespread Faith in Recycling Is Misplaced,” commentary by Doug Bandow