Is Recycling Useful, or Is It Garbage?American Institute for Economic Research
The problem with recycling is that people can’t decide which of two things is really going on.
One possibility is that recycling transforms garbage into a commodity. If that’s true, then the price of pickup, transport, sorting, cleaning, and processing can be paid out of the proceeds, with something left over. That’s how it is with real commodities, such as wheat or pork bellies, after all. It’s expensive and complicated to produce wheat or pork bellies, and then deliver them to the market in a form that they can be used. But people will pay you for the wheat or pork bellies. In fact, the “profit test” shows that people will pay you enough to cover all those costs and still have something left over.
The other possibility, and it’s a completely different possibility, is that recycling isn’t a commodity at all. But it is a cheaper or more environmentally friendly way to dispose of garbage. After all, if you bury something in a landfill, it’s gone. And you still had to collect it, transport it, and process it into the landfill. Recycling might cost money, but if you can sell the stuff for any price you are getting some of those costs back. Further, recycling keeps things out of landfills, and we systematically underprice landfill space. The reason is that we don’t want people dumping garbage in vacant lots or by the side of the road. But that means that recycling may be cheaper, all things considered, than using the space in the landfill. The problem is that “all things considered.” You really do have to add up all the costs — resources, money, convenience, environmental damage — of landfilling, and recycling, and then compare them.
These arguments are often muddled and mixed together, by both proponents and critics. And “recycling” is, after all, not just one homogeneous activity, but a whole collection of possible streams of waste or resources, each of which has to be evaluated separately. Should we recycle aluminum cans? Probably, because the price of recycling aluminum compares very favorably to using virgin materials, the mining and smelting of which are expensive in terms of energy and harmful to the environment.
Should we recycle toilet paper? We could, at some price. But it’s likely not worth it, because it can be composted, it would be awfully hard to clean and sort, and in any case paper products are actually a renewable resource, rather like wheat. You rarely hear someone saying, “Save the wheat! Give up bread!” But that kind of argument is often made for paper, even though the trees grown to produce pulp are simply a fast-growing crop grown on farms expressly for that purpose.
For recycling to be a socially commendable activity, it has to pass one of two tests: the profit test, or the net environmental-savings test. If something passes the profit test, it’s likely already being done. People are already recycling gold or other commodities from the waste stream, if the costs of doing so are less than the amount for which the resource can be sold.