Re-thinking Recycling

Cato Unbound for June 2013 has a lively and provocative set of essays on "The Political Economy of Recycling." The lead essay is by Michael Munger, with comments from Edward Humes, Melissa Walsh Innes, and Stephen Landsberg.  All of the essays are full of lively examples and sharp writing. Here are three examples from Munger, but these essays have many more treats in store.

Example 1: Wash Your Garbage

"When I was working on recycling policies for cities, I read a lot of web sites that described what was expected of good citizens.  Note that these policies were not mandatory; they were just what a moral person was expected to do.  The duties of good citizens came down to three things:  (1) recycle everything; (2) sort it assiduously; and (3) wash it carefully. Note that this whole approach is entirely insulated from costs or the logic of price.  The reason “we” recycle is that people in our town are good people, not people motivated by money. ...

"The result is that people drive, sometimes several miles or more, to sort their garbage into little bins like they were playing demented Tetris.  Bottles and glass here, plastic here, paper here, aluminum there.  In many cities, the resulting separated waste is actually picked up, re-mingled, and landfilled, because it has no economic value whatsoever.  But that’s okay, because the important thing is the moral act of recycling, not the saving of resources. The strangest part of this fetishization of garbage ... is the practice advocated by many small towns:  run your garbage through the dishwasher.  ...

"Curious, I phoned the public relations officers with the recycling departments in several small cities in the Northeast.  I asked one extremely cheerful and energetic young woman how her city could justify asking people to put their garbage in the dishwasher.  Isn’t that pretty expensive, in terms of human time, and the energy to heat the water, compared to the value of the garbage? Using the same tone of voice one would use to talk to a five year old—she clearly thought I was not the sharpest can lid in the recycle bin—she gave me the most concise explanation I have encountered in the whole genre.  She said, “Oh, you have to understand, sir.  Recycling is always cheaper, no matter how much it costs!” .... The problem is that, from economic perspective, from the perspective of balancing resource use, that’s just not true.  If you are trying to save energy and resources such as water and time, it never makes sense to put your garbage in the dishwasher.

Example 2: Required Composting Goes Awry

"The state of North Carolina, where I live, has a law against disposing of yard waste in a standard landfill.  This makes some sense. Yard waste decomposes naturally and turns into compost eventually, so it can be disposed of more safely than the dangerous waste we put in landfills.  But the city of Durham, where Duke University is located, decided that they would do the state one better.  The city council required all citizens to dispose of their yard waste at curbside, where it was picked up by city trucks and taken to the city composting facility.

"The city collected an extra fee—about $60—from residents to operate this service.  Expenses were much greater than that, but the theory was that the composted yard waste could be resold to pay the rest of the costs of the operation.  Best of all, there would be no need for landfilling the yard waste once the operation was up and running:  yard waste in, compost out, with no waste going to any other kind of disposal. The problem was that much of the yard waste was large stumps and tree limbs, resulting from several hurricanes and large storms.  The “compost pile” quickly became the “stump dump,” an enormous pile of rubbish.  The idea that the stuff was valuable was just wrong. It was garbage, not “black gold.”
"And then it caught fire.  Spontaneous combustion deep inside the pile, a common result of decomposition and pressure, found enough oxygen to begin to smolder.  The city tried to put it out by soaking the pile, but that just made the smoke worse. The fire could not be completely extinguished for weeks, and neighbors for miles downwind complained of the pollution. So the waste that homeowners paid extra for reusing was dumped instead in the main garbage staging facility. But remember, the law prohibits disposal of yard waste in landfills in North Carolina.    So, Durham shipped all its trash, including grass clippings, to a landfill more than 85 miles away in Lawrenceville, VA.  The clean-up and the extra hauling charges cost Durham an extra $1 million compared to landfill disposal."

Example 3: Recycling vs. Reducing the Waste Stream

"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. ... 

"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. ...

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."
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