Zero Waste: Is Recycling a Waste of Time and Money?

As the garbage and recycling trucks rumble through my neighborhood this morning, I feel a little bit better and more capable of answering a question Kyle Smith of the National Review posted last week titled Recycling is a Waste. Over the weekend however, the points he made in the article made me think much harder about where we are as a nation and our approach to how we recycling our finite resources. His accusation that our efforts at recycling are akin to alchemy, the circular economy is less beneficial than advertised and the costs/benefit analysis that supports those efforts is flawed by the warm fuzzy feeling we get when we participate in our communities curbside programs left me wondering.

Is Recycling Alchemy?

Recycling is not magic, nor is it an affront to chemistry and the hard working folks who may not have a firm grasp of the all of the science involved in the processes. However I can understand the conclusions that could be made at 30,000 feet. The economics of resource recovery can be confusing when distilled down into a snapshot. True, as he cites, landfill costs in New Hampshire are inexpensive compared to recycling costs. It is a problem in numerous areas. In a broadcast on New Hampshire Public Radio’s Morning Edition, host Rick Ganley, spoke with Laconia Public Works director Wes Anderson and asked specifically about those rising costs. Mr. Anderson agreed. He did point to China as one of the primary reasons those costs have escalated. Once China refused to take our single stream recycling (admittedly the most fuzzy of the recycling processes whereby little to nothing is separated by the consumer only to be transferred to a material recycling facility – MRF – to be sorted, of which New Hampshire has none) due to contamination (mostly from food waste), municipalities immediately cried foul. And costs went up – dramatically.

Mr. Anderson does cite the rising costs as a real burden for his city. He does offer some hope though; the right can be wronged if the city’s customers followed the rules. Keeping plastic bags out of the collection bins, one of the most often cited reasons programs such as this go sideways would go a long way in correcting the problems. And even though the trash is being incinerated as a result of these higher costs, the waste is recaptured as energy for electricity.

The Cost/Benefit of Virtue

Mr. Smith believes the John Tierney New York Times Magazine article first printed in 1996 titled “Recycling Is Garbage”, a piece that wondered if the “grand national experiment begun in 1987” that spawned increased awareness of the waste our country produced simply created a different kind of waste, specifically those of time, money, human involvement and natural resources should have been heeded as a prescient warning. Mr. Tierney points to the fateful meandering journey of a Long Island barge as the pivot point whereby “The citizens of the richest society in the history of the planet suddenly became obsessed with personally handling their own waste.” In his mind, the emotional need to do something possibly fashioned from a centuries old tale of Puritanical roadmap to their Celestial City is deep seated but tragically misplaced. In the tale, the pilgrim is encouraged to reduce his material burden, one of the tenets of the process.

Quote from The EPA’s Characterization of Municipal Waste in 1998. To read the full report, click on the image.

At the time of the Mobro barge news, our country was recycling about 10% of its waste. A sort of back-of-the-napkin calculation by the then EPA chief J. Winston Porter projected a possible goal of 25% within five years. Considering the fervor, which Mr. Tierney points out was compounded by the journalistic coverage and the EPA’s new Waste Hierarchy actually encouraged local and state governments to do more, go further and do so with the potential of gaining the blessing of the citizenry.

Landfills Aplenty

Mr. Smith also argues the cost of this environmental effort suggesting it is oversold and too costly to continue. Yes, its true, we have as he suggests recovered some landfill space for public use – a “reuse” that does have costs – and yes, there are quite a number of open pit mines that could qualify as future resting places of our consumerism and yes, many landfills do capture the methane from these repositories. And yes, the U.S. is a very big place and yes, the vast majority of the costs associated with recovery of what would be otherwise discarded items does cost more in densely populated areas such as along the coasts of our great nation.

However, simply pointing at the economics is not a viable argument. It is an argument that could resonate with corporate leadership. The costs are worth the effort if:

  • You live in poverty in a third world country. Here, with limited access to new items, the effort to recycle, reuse and repurpose as much as possible illustrates the real cost savings in the process of recovery and is a good reason to continue to encourage the practice here at home.
  • You grew up in the Great Depression or are, as I am, the offspring of those survivors. For instance, I still attempt to grab a second cup of tea from a single bag, cringe when I toss a razor blade surrounded by its plastic into the trash where in a time gone by it was just the razor blade, still wonder how we moved from paper bags to plastic bags without so much as cause for concern decades ago and over time, discarded a host of energy saving techniques in favor of time saving processes.
  • You have reexamined whether the effort to save energy actually increased your usage of it – think clothes lines versus dryers, treadmills versus walking.
  • You believe in people and science.
  • You knew all along that there would be costs to recycling – doing it correctly requires time and energy that offset the damage done to the environment in almost equal measure. At some point in the near future, if my colleagues have any say in the matter, sooner, the benefits/costs will swing in favor of the effort. The virtuous nature of the process forces you to rethink your own habits and possibly reconsider purchases the pilgrim in the 17th century allegory was asked to determine: Do I really need this and if the answer is yes, did the seller consider the downstream impact of that sale?

Opportunity Cost: Doing It for People We Do Not Know

Mr. Smith, guilt is not the driver of the recycling effort. You are not being legislated to do the right thing, there is no crime as of yet to refusing to follow your locale’s standards. Living in the  resource-rich U.S. is a unique experience. I recall a six month trip through Europe forty or so years ago and the preservation of that continent’s limited resources – in Amsterdam, at a small pension, I was chided for boiling eggs in water rather than using an egg cooker. Forty years ago! While my Depression-era parents have set me on a course that might be considered by you to be a life sentence, it is actually more of a commitment.

As I said, today I feel better about where we are headed and I hope to be a facilitator of the movement moving forward. The cost offset in recycling, sometimes referred to as opportunity costs is an apt description of where we are right now.

Russell Roberts wrote in the Library of Economics and Liberty: “Thomas Sowell said it best: no solutions, only tradeoffs. To get the most out of life, to think like an economist, you have to be know what you’re giving up in order to get something else. That’s all opportunity cost is: Opportunity cost is what you have to give up to get something.” And while we can’t quite calculate the full “something” in terms of dollars, just yet, it will come. Give it time. We can however calculate what we will get in return.

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