TCS Daily

Recycle Nation

By Donald Boudreaux - October 2, 2006 12:00 AM

Everyone's talking about the environment these days, whether it's Al Gore's army of global warming slide show presenters or billionaire Richard Branson's quest for alternative fuels. I'm nostalgic for the old days when all the environmentalists wanted was for us to recycle.

In class a few years ago I was lecturing on the economics of environmental protection. As I described the market's surprisingly robust ability to conserve natural resources, one student asked me "Do you recycle?"

"No," I answered.

"Thanks for the effort," he replied sarcastically.

He then angrily marched from the room. I detected that most of the remaining students shared his sentiments, and that day's lecture was awkward and unsuccessful.

Only later did I realize that I'd given the wrong answer. In fact, I do recycle.

Consider a typical day.

After I awaken, I shower and dry myself with a towel that I've had for a few years. I don't discard it after one use. When it gets dirty, I rejuvenate it by processing it through recycling machines that my wife and I own: a washing machine and clothes dryer.

Then I brew coffee and fix breakfast. Each day, I use the same coffee maker that I used the day before. I clean it after each use, recycling it for the next brew. My wife and I drink the coffee from mugs that have been used many times in the past. (One set of our coffee mugs was handed down to us after my wife's parents used them for several years.) We also eat our breakfasts using dishes and utensils that are recycled from countless past uses. After breakfast, we recycle our mugs, dishes, and utensils with the help of another recycling machine: an automatic dishwasher.

After breakfast, I dress in clothes that I've worn before and that I will wear again. My underwear, my pants, my shirt, my necktie, my belt, my coat, my shoes - all are recycled from previous uses. Indeed, I take my suits and coats to a store specializing in recycling such garments: my local dry-cleaner.

In fact, the very house we live in is recycled. It was built in 1993 by the Van Brocklins who, when they moved out of the area in 2001, didn't abandon the house or trash it; they sold it to us.

My family and I recycle a lot. Everyone recycles a lot.

If I'd responded in this way to that student, he probably would have asserted, "That's not recycling. Real recycling is re-using things that many people think of as garbage."

That student, like most people, thinks of recycling as dealing with a handful of items that are wrongly thought to be semi-precious: cans, bottles, plastic containers and newspapers.

But why do I treat clothing and dinner dishes differently than I treat empty beer cans and old newspapers? The student who walked out on me sees that as a moral failing. I don't.

No moral issue turns on recycling. It might be immoral to waste things, but contrary to popular misconception, failure to recycle every physical item is not wasteful. Real waste happens when someone recycles without weighing the benefits against the cost, especially the time required to recycle.

If it's immoral to waste, then it's immoral to recycle when the benefits of doing so are less than the value of the time it takes to do so. It would indeed be wasteful for me to discard my fine china after each use. So I don't do it.

But I do discard paper plates - for the same reason I recycle my china rather than discard it: it would be wasteful to do otherwise. After all, I could recycle paper plates. Careful washing would enable me to reuse each paper plate two or three times. But valuable time and labor would be wasted. Time I could spend playing with my son, reading a book or fixing a leaky faucet would be wasted cleaning paper plates. And to what purpose? Paper plates are expendable precisely because the materials used to manufacture them are so abundant. This abundance is reflected in their low price.

If the materials used to manufacture any items become sufficiently scarce, the prices of those materials will rise. These higher input prices will raise the prices paid by consumers for these items, giving consumers greater incentives to recycle them.

Reflecting on the impressive amount of recycling that actually takes place daily casts doubt on the prevailing misperception that Americans are naturally wasteful and mindlessly irresponsible. In fact, market prices compel us to recycle when recycling is appropriate - and to not recycle when recycling is inappropriate. I'd like to see that logic applied to all environmental pursuits.

Donald J. Boudreaux, an adviser to the Media Research Center's Business & Media Institute, is chairman of the Department of Economics at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. He can be reached at



Don't hold your breath
waiting for the environMENTALists to do cost benefit analysis before they foist their pet theories on the rest of us "unwashed" masses.

A thought for the Third World.
What is the one benefit that locating an operation in the Third World offers?

Cheap and available labor.

What do we lack in America that makes recycling a less valuable use of your time than, say, gazing at your own navel?

Cheap and available labor.

It seems to me that we should keep junking stuff, and barge it down to Mexico, or some similar Second/Third World country. I know that there is a thriving business in Africa that consists almost entirely of recycling metals, and especially cans. People take them home, polish them up, and resell them.

It seems to me that if these countries would take our garbage for little or nothing, they could host thriving recycling businesses...

Good article but if that guy walked out on the author, he would have maybe puked too if I were there. Not only do I agree with the author's main points, but I would also defend the throwing away of his Waterford glasses, or Bohemian Cyrstal. Imagine if say, bill Gates, and Warren Buffet are partying and after a toast they throw their glas into the fireplace like the Russians used to do(or the 'neavuea riche' maybe do again)I think it's their own business to do that. Also her in Asia where I live i see rich guys all the time tear down perfectly good houses, just to have a new one built on the same spot; also OK.

Government Force
You know the economics are out of whack when the government forces people to recycle.

Moral posturing
Recycling is another way to demonstrate your moral superiority. It's part of the post-Christian trend to substitute public for private morality.

Private Morality
Wasn't that once referred to as character?

Recycling is more of a practical approach
In our modern world recycling is becoming less of a virtue and more of a necessity. Every day there are more of us and fewer raw materials. In addition, personal wealth is increasing-- as measured in the amount of manufactured stuff one consumes. So any way yopu look at it, demand for things is on its way to far outstripping the supply of minerals still in the ground. We just plain are being forced to develop more efficient methods of recycling.

Water, for instance, is reused several times before being allowed to reach the sea. If you want a drink of truly fresh water, move to a place high in the mountains. By the time the water gets impounded in the reservoir of a large coastal city it has been through several municipal water treatment plants, each of which discharges the water back into the stream from which they got it. Frequently it has been treated after being used for industrial or agricultural purposes. So don't be too surprised at having to drink a certain amount of allowable pesticide residues or heavy metals. See your local water authority for details.

Computers, televisions and cell phones used to just get thrown away. Not any more. Increasingly, manufacturers are realizing that the amount of col-tan ore (for instance) left in the ground will be insufficient to allow them to continue being in business, unless they reuse the basic elements salvaged from last year's product to build next year's product from.

So we should no longer think of recycling as being a voluntary thing, done only by earth people wearing sensible shoes. Whenever you throw something out now, whole new industries are going through your junk and doing the recycling for you.

Already been thought of
This brainstorm occurred thrity years ago. Essentially all shipyard scrapping is now done in places like India, the Philippines and South Korea. Electronics are being taken apart in China and the basic chromium, germanium, lead, etc being recycled. In fact the new wave now is cheap industrial shredders that enable us to locate electronic recycling centers in the US, utilizing technology over cheap manual labor.

The picture you paint of peasants cheerfully peeling the labels off tin cans and washing them for resale is kind of 1952. You still get a little of this in subsaharan Africa, but most places have gone far beyond that. They now have automated factories that convert the cans and metal scrap directly into billet.

Many categories of industrial reuse materials are far too valuable to throw away, and have been for a long time now. One problem, in fact, is that the nuclear industry recycles low-grade radioactive metals as common scrap, and thus they now show up in many seemingly innocuous products. Next time you buy a hammer or a pound of nails, you might run a geiger counter across it to see whether it is safe.

Can't disagree more with this article. What the author discusses is re-using things for their intended purpose. Recycling is taking materials that have been discarded or thrown away, and finding another use for them, rather than burning or landfilling them.

Yes, I checked. Re-use is under the definition of recycle, but that truly isn't what was meant, and that's why this article is only so much sophistry.

Now if you ask me, the most effective recycling program is the one where we don't have to do anything out of the ordinary. Many communities simply put all the trash on a conveyer belt and let machines or people along side pull out items that can be recycled. This way you get 100% participation.

translation, if there's a profit to be made, you don't need govt mandates.
Low grade radioactive metals are innocuous.
Everything is radioactive, many things used on a daily basis are already more radioactive than low grade radioactive materials.

roy's weird take on economics
If things are truely running out, then they should be getting more expensive.
As they get more expensive, those evil businessmen will fall all over themselves to find a way to use less, and to recapture the value when done with a product.

If there is value in a product, it is already being recycled. If the cost of recycling exceeds the value of the recycled good, then it should not be recycled.

recycling is practical and moral

Thus we have the second layer of justification for the American culture of being wasteful and mindlessly irresponsible: the free market will sort it out when we reach desperation.

The first layer of justification being offered by the author: redefine what recycling means.

I do value recycling as a moral decision. It does make me feel good to recycle. Bottom line: I'm contributing less to waste. Practically speaking, I save money because I put out less trash and I can get some money back with refunds on some materials. There are companies out there who can profit from the materials that would otherwise sit in a landfill. I'll make the effort to recycle just to support those companies.

"Real waste happens when someone recycles without weighing the benefits against the cost, especially the time required to recycle."

So recycling is only beneficial when you make a profit from it. Thats so right-wing of you. Do you make a profit from going to church?

waste is immoral, except when mandated by the self-righteous elite
If you want to waste your money and time, feel free.
Don't feel free to impose your insane morals on me.

BTW, do you know what most municipalities do with the stuff you spend so much time recycling? They throw it out. It costs too much money to recycle.

Real waste is when time and energy is spent on something that has no value. Most recycling efforts serve only to make the weakminded feel good about themselves.

So let the Third World bid for it.
With as many people as Sub-Saharan Africa has unemployed, you would think that they could easily find ways to substitute labor for capital.

The key idea is that instead of US picking through our garbage before we put it curbside, we sell it to them at low-cost/rent space for it from them at low-cost, and let them do it. It does not make sense for us to waste time recycling when there are thousands of peopel out there who would be more than willing to do so on their own.

The market can solve most environmental problems, we just need to get out of the way.

Not your best moment
That was a foolish comment. There is no such thing as a safe dosage level. Even tiny amounts of radiation can be potentially damaging. No authority disputes this.

Also, everything is not radioactive. Most things are not detectably radioactive. Therefore it follows that products offered for sale that are detectably radioactive carry a greater potential for harm than nonradioactive products.

"Opportunity Cost"
The "Opportunity Cost" is the value of all of the goods and services that must be given up to pick option A over the next best option B. If the value of option B is greater than option A, you are giving up goods and services to use option A.

In the case of recycling, you are sacrificing time to clean out cans and bottles, seperate out recyclable paper, etc. You could use that time to work, get some exercise, do something you enjoy... Almost all of these are things that are worth more to us than the extra two or three dollars we would have to pay every week to avoid recycling.

This is not a matter of greed, this is a matter of not wnating to waste time doing stupid chores that the government has mandated so that it can look green. Let the poor of the Third World recycle it, like I suggested above. They need the money, and we don't need the trash.

Au contraire
Everything you've said is true. Yet recycling is constantly becoming more and more the norm, as the rising prices of commodities and the greater efficiencies in recycling (hence lower costs) cross lines. Copper, for instance, must be recycled. It is a basic necessity for electric conduction, and supplies in the ground are insufficient to meet demand.

In the future plain old organic matter will be seen as a resource to be conserved much more closely than it is at present. We wil not be able to continue wasting or destroying this valuable resource because the soil will fall behind in producing what we require of it.

An Addition to Mark's Point...
How much do liberals whine and moan about the lack of money for schools? Mark makes the point that cities, in general, do not do much actual recycling work on the recyclables. This means that the programs are largely useless. So, are there better ways to spend our money?

The same local tax dollars that are wasted administering your recycling programs could be spent paying teachers more or reducing class sizes. Clearly, you just don't care about children if you are in favor of recycling...

Those tax dollars could be spent feeding, clothing and housing the homeless. You don't hate the homeless, do you? Then how can you support recycling?

And so on... And so on...

An even better plan
If money could be made doing what you suggest, people would be doing it. They're not.

The cheaper route is to employ technology. If we want to recover chromium (21 cents a pound) from used electronics we can either find large numbers of people willing to work for fifty cents a day and give them all tweezers, or we can use an industrial shredder and sort it out mechanically. We have elected to utilize the second option, which saves the expense of shipping all that bulk to Africa and back.

Don't worry about the landfills... fact, those will be the 'mines of the future' and very rich ones at that.

As we develop abilities to manipulate matter at finer and finer sizing frameworks, the price of mining landfills for raw material resources will fall relative to mining them from traditional mines.

So, the companies that own the rights to the landfills will be sitting real pretty -- almost as well as the oil shieks who found out they had oil under their otherwise worthless desert lands did.

Then, EVERYTHING will be recycled. It just won't happen right away. But when it does, the market for it will grow exponentially.

Fresh mountain streams
"Almost everybody, at one time or another, has reached into an ice cold, crystal clear mountain stream, dipped a cupful of the water and taken a long drink. If they haven't actually done it, they probably wished they could. Water from those beautiful mountain streams appears so inviting… such a delightful alternative to the stuff that comes out of the tap at home. Not only is it beautiful to look at, but it tastes good too! It seems to be an unbeatable combination. And, herein lies the problem… it’s what you CAN’T see in that cup of water that can hurt you."

Such brave souls
"In contrast, almost daily in Europe, “brave” artists caricature Christians and Americans with impunity. Why?

For a long list of reasons, among them most surely the assurance that they can do this without being killed. Such cowards puff out their chests when trashing an ill Oriana Fallaci or Ariel Sharon or beleaguered George W. Bush in the most demonic of tones, but prove sunken and sullen when threatened by a Dr Zawahri or a grand mufti of some obscure mosque."

More foolishness

Actually, all things organic are detectably radioactive. It's how we do radiocarbon dating. And, there is a naturally occuring radioactive potassium isotope in all living things. Also, granite is detectably radioactive (uranium) and that's how we date rocks (ratio of uranium and lead daughters). Might want to rethink your assertion.

Costs more?
If it uses more resources (costs more) to recycle, is that efficient?

Should I recycle my '90 Buick which gets 22 mpg for a new hybrid that will cost me more money than fuel it saves?

When it is economically feasible
recycling will make cents.

Or, alternate materials will be used, copper clad pennies or Al wiring.

I haven't noticed agricultural production dropping lately as farms continue to be converted to housing.

My county
My county recently discovered that it was spending more to keep "recyclable" items out of the landfill than to buy more landfill space for the items.

Their response was to charge us more for recycling.

Personally, I recycle plastic and newspaper, but not aluminum, because it wastes water cleaning it out.

We need to recyle politicians who do not have common sense. Vote!

Copper, for instance, must be recycled.
Copper is so valuable that it even gets "recycled" from construction sites.

I pay 5 cents more a can
and it is not worth my time to collect and get the refund.

It's something about comparative advantage.

"The division of labor facilitates production of a given good, but how do individuals or groups determine which specific goods or services to produce? The maximum potential gains from trade tend to be realized if you specialize in that activity which you can do at the lowest cost relative to other people’s costs. In 1817, David Ricardo, an influential early economist, focused on international trade when he generalized this idea into an economic law.

The law of comparative advantage: Mutually beneficial exchange is possible whenever relative production costs differ prior to trade.

This law applies to all exchanges, whether between individuals or nations."

Need more hunting.

Cost vs benefit
Certainly, as shortages of basic materials develop we will come up with alternative approaches, like copper clad pennies or aluminum wiring. Of course the aluminum wiring had a tendency to start fires in the wall. But at least they were trying to think outside the box.

I don't quite see the need to endlessly preach the gospel of free markets, though. Recycling has been around for our entire lifetime, and has always been dependent on economic feasibility. It occasionally happens that the price of newspaper falls below collection costs, and in those cases it just goes to the landfill until prices rise. Cost/benefit thinking is implicit in the whole idea.

Free market government mandated recycling?

Our endlessly ideological debate
Are you sure it's the liberals who whine and moan about there not being enough money in the school systems? Isn't it rather just "all parents"? Why must everything be explainable by this dialectical polarity, beyond which point all thinking stops?

Recycling programs are like any other programs. When they are well conceived and administered, they work well. When they aren't, they aren't. The existence of badly managed programs, or the mistakes that occurred in the early recycling programs, shouldn't be used as an excuse to condemn the principle of recycling. It sounds very much like you're saying that all recycling is wrong, just because those people who are labeled LEFT approve of it. Is that your position?

How about the schools themselves? Isn't it a fact that many LEFT people approve of schooling our children? Wouldn't that make schools bad as well?

Yesterday's truth
You're a little out of date, Mark. Landfilling costs continue to rise, while recycling costs decline as a matter of both volume and technology. Meanwhile the prices of recycled materials fluctuate but are more and more making such programs feasible on a cash flow basis. So the trend is for recycling to continue and to price out satisfactorily. As a result, fewer and fewer materials we recycle now get thrown out because of a down market.

But of course the principle itself has no value. You are perfectly happy living in a world that gradually fills up with our trash. When it's full we can just move to another planet. Am I right?

VDH is the best.
It will be interesting to see what happens in Europe in the next 5 years or so. I'm glad I don't live there.

They are doing it. I've seen it.
Turn on National Geographic and tell me that nobody makes a living in Africa, India, Asia, etc. picking through garbage and recyling what they can find?

We aren't shipping them the garbage, that's the problem.

Common denominator of failure: government
Governments have no incentive to be efficient. Only the character of those in charge make any government program work.

Denver has double the background radiation of the rest of the US, 18% less cancer.
(Follow the background link as well to the actual study.)

Roy is wrong again. Low doses of radiation are actually beneficial, or at the very least show no increase in cancer rates. That is further demonstrated by the infomration below, all of which are backed up by scientific papers listed at the given website.

Nuclear Workers. Based on more than 7 million person-years of experience in the U.S., Britain, and Canada, low-dose radiation decreased cancer death rates by 52%. The "healthy worker effect" does not explain this because the control group was made up of non-nuclear workers.

Atomic Bomb Survivors. The effect of an instantaneous exposure to gamma radiation and neutrons is not applicable to low dose-rate exposures. There are many problems with dose estimates and confounding variables. Still, cumulative data from 86,000 survivors show radiation hormesis in cancer death rates-if one looks at the data rather than the conclusions of the Radiation Effects Research Foundation.

Breast Cancer in Women Fluoroscoped for TB. Although it is alleged, on the basis of extrapolation from high doses, that 900 excess breast cancers would be expected in 1 million women exposed to a dose of 15 cGy, the actual data in the Canadian fluoroscopy study show a 33% reduction in breast cancer in women receiving that dose-2.7 standard deviations below a zero increase in risk. That equates to 10,000 fewer cancers in 1 million women.

Radium Dial Painters. Bone sarcomas in radium dial painters, who tipped the brushes with their lips, are said to provide the most definitive dose-response relationships for persons with a body burden of alpha-emitting radionuclides. However, BEIR ignores all the dial painters who were exposed to less than 10 Gy (a cumulative average skeletal dose of 1,000 rads) and had no bone cancers. In American dial painters, there is an inverse relationship between radiation exposure and cancer mortality. In 1983, the U.S. Department of Energy initiated termination of the monitoring program that was supposed to continue for the life of the painters, with more than 1,000 subjects still alive. Of 2,383 cases with reliable body content measures, 64 sarcomas occurred in the 264 cases with > 10 cGy, and 0 in the 2,119 cases with
Uranium miners. Data from uranium miners are the mainstay of allegations about the harmfulness of radon. There are many confounding factors including cigarette smoking and the presence of other known or potential carcinogens in the mines (silica, arsenic, vanadium, smoke from diesel fuel, and partial hypoxia with increased CO and CO2). Excess lung cancer mortality has also been reported in workers in open iron mines. In any event, there is little or no excess lung cancer ortality at exposures below a cumulative 70 WLM.

Marjon is correct.
The government is the wrong agency to deal in this sort of thing. If recycling made economic snese, we would be doing it independent of government, and much more efficiently than the government ever could.

Let all of the hippies who think that government should order us to recycle find their own way to make it profitable. If they can do so, I will be the first person in line to sell these watermelons my garbage.

Don't get in to the liberal/conservative stuff, Roy. You know there are policies on both sides that I back, at least to some extent. Libs is a slang phrase that we all understand to mean those in favor of statist action, weak on national security, and posessing no morals whatsoever.

Sho 'nuff
Sometimes copper even gets recycled from occupied homes, while the owners are at work.

Gold in them thar hills
We can and will recycle from landfills already in place. But in terms of the current waste stream it's a lot cheaper to separate before putting things into the ground. Thus we now recycle most paper, plastics and glass as a cost saving measure. Organics, like yard waste, are best collected separately as well so they can be mulched, bagged and sold.

Tough times will be on us indeed when it becomes economically feasible to mine landfills. Compared to natural ore deposits, metals are found in landfills only in minute concentrations. And everything is mixed up together, requiring separation. These will be mines of desperation.

A vacuous statement
What the hell is your point? You just put a lone question mark there, and this is supposed to be words of wisdom?

If you have a comment, be more explicit.

Economically feasible
"I don't quite see the need to endlessly preach the gospel of free markets, though. Recycling has been around for our entire lifetime, and has always been dependent on economic feasibility"

Most recycling programs are mandated by some government.

You seem to dismiss free markets yet you say recycling is dependent upon them.

So do you support government mandated reclyling even if it is not economically feasible?

Picking through the garbage
Your point is well sustained. There are indeed many among the third world's teeming millions, with no hope of employment, who must survive by rooting through the garbage tossed out by the more fortunate. And if you could make a profit by shipping our trash halfway around the world for them to pick through, and then send the good bits back to America, you sound like you would be well suited to run such an enterprise profitably.

But please don't use the word "garbage". This refers to organic waste, like kitchen waste. What you are thinking of is called "solid waste"-- what's left over after the stinky part is separated. I can see you becoming the solid waste king-- but your future could be bleak if you start sending garbage scows to China with their cloud of seagulls and toxic load of used Pampers.

Feelings.. oh Feelings..
I do value recycling as a moral decision. It does make me feel good to recycle.

Good for you. However, I recycle for a different reason: all those plastics are petroleum based. The great religion of peace has extracted enough from the world because of its fortutious geography. Additionally, I'd rather not add to landfills, since they stink and are offensive to the eye. If it's demonstrated to me that recycling uses more energy than is recovered I'll consider quitting pronto.

Of course here we have demonstrated the typical leftist action barometer. Morals are determined by feelings (not for any other reason) and are curiously applied- there are no moral dimensions to human actions, unless leftist icons decree there are.

If our resident leftists care so much about the environment
They'd turn off their computers once in a while and cease sating their narcisstic urges to deliver their vacant and vainglorious screeds.

Of course that won't happen, although they don't have the time to take two or three courses in economics (well, at least Roy says that-I think its more a lack of apitude than time thats the major impediment), they KNOW their opinions are indispensible to the formation of enlightened public policy.

Hey Publius.
"opportunity cost" is an economic construct that Roy doesn't have time to learn-its easier to dismiss such things as irrelevant than actually work to understand them.

as usual, your opinion and science have no correlation
There is most definitely a level of radiation, beneath which there is no detectable harm.
In fact there is a theory that low levels of radiation are actually beneficial. To my knowledge, the theory hasn't been proven, it is still being studied.

technology isn't free

the best conceived recycling program, is no recycling program.
Yes, it is the liberals who are always whining that there isn't enough money in the schools. The parents are usually complaining that there taxes are already too high.

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