Once confined to bastions of political correctness like Boston and Berkeley, recycling bins are a staple of modern life in America. There is certainly a lot of variation – compare, say, Madison (recycling Nirvana) to Milwaukee (not so much) – but it is a given that we should be recycling more, and that public policy should require and promote it.
Or is it? Several articles recently have called into question the economics of recycling. Much of the print debate follows predictable party lines: the Natural Resources Defense Council tends to support it, while the libertarian Cato Institute finds flaws. John Tierney, writing in the New York Times, notes that recycling tends to lose money. He does admit the environmental benefits, especially in curbing carbon emissions, but cites the EPA in stating that these are primarily due to recycling a few materials, specifically paper, cardboard, and metals. He goes on to wonder why both the public and many elected officials continue to promote recycling, suggesting that much of it is from liberal do-gooders who want not only to feel virtuous, but to force others to as well.
As I see it, there are several important issues he ignores. First, few people have argued that recycling makes sense on primarily economic grounds, especially in the US. Given the heavy subsidies for extractive industries (mining, oil, etc.) and manufacturing, the playing field is not level. In the absence of these subsidies, and if externalities (such as the cost of future damages due to climate change) were factored in, the economics would look very different. Rather, the benefits are in large part environmental. One that Tierney and others dismiss is the preservation of space that would be devoted to landfills. He ridicules the contention that we are running out of space to place trash. True, there is a lot of space in the US where trash could be dumped. But it is also true that no one wants it in their backyard. The further the trash must travel, the more it costs to dispose of, and the more greenhouse emissions that are generated. And the argument that landfills can be converted back into nice natural areas is questionable. A pristine area that is used for dumping and then “restored” is no longer pristine. There is more to an ecosystem than planting grass and (usually non-native) trees. I have seen many reclaimed landfills, and while they are better than an open trash pit, they’re not exactly Yellowstone or Pictured Rocks or even Kettle Moraine.
Tierney also postulates that the greenhouse gas benefit isn’t that great. He points out that recycling a ton of aluminum saves 20 tons of carbon, whereas you would need to recycle 60 tons of glass to save the same 20 tons of carbon. This is specious, as this is not the relevant question. In both cases you save a ton of carbon, which was the goal. It’s a bit like saying you can buy an ounce of gold with an ounce of 10 dollar bills, but you’d need 50 pounds of quarters to buy the same ounce of gold. You still get the gold. At the same price.
My biggest beef with his argument is the dismissal of recycling as a quasi-religious (his words, not mine) exercise in feeling good. First of all, most actual religious activity offers no economic benefit to humanity, but we encourage and subsidize it anyway. Besides, the fact that recycling may be driven by non-economic considerations isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Intrinsic motivation, such as a desire to improve the planet, is typically more powerful than extrinsic factors like money. (Indeed, this fact has been used to argue against financial incentives for quality metrics for physicians.) Psychologists and neural scientists have also long known that acts of altruism – such as recycling – produce a variety of psychological benefits, sometimes referred to as the “helper’s high.” Given the dire predictions about climate change, and the seeming inevitability of fundamental disruptions to our environment and lifestyle, giving people a sense of hope and optimism has some merit. Most importantly, the real goal isn’t recycling, it’s generating less stuff in the first place. The environmental mantra is “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.” Recycling is the last resort. But by making people more aware of the waste they generate, recycling might lead to reduction and reuse. I wonder if, in that regard, we’ve made recycling too easy, and it would be better to have those systems where people need to do their own sorting. The more I need to think about the waste I generate, the more likely I am to try to create less of it. And that’s an additional benefit that a traditional economic analysis ignores.
Fortunately, the majority of Americans agree. A 2014 Nielsen study showed broad support for recycling, and specifically that people would be willing to spend more (an average of 10-13%) for products that are either made from recycled materials or themselves more able to be recycled.
Perhaps next we can talk about composting….