It's Time to Get Serious About Recycling, Via Market Forces

It's Time to Get Serious About Recycling, Via Market Forces
Joshua L. Jones/Athens Banner-Herald via AP
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Whatever you think of New Year's resolutions, a not-so-friendly suggestion for one is heading your way across the Pacific. On January 1, China, which uses "recyclables" as industrial feedstocks, will begin refusing shipments that don't meet its new, higher standards. The prospect of burying our recyclables has made some environmentalists lament the "decades of recycling progress under threat," and others wish the change "will make recycling stronger." Predictably (and incorrectly), greens are reusing the cliché about the Chinese word for crisis meaning both danger and opportunity. Since when has it been a danger to get rid of garbage? And is the alternative really an opportunity? I throw out plastic bottles -- and I think we should take on this challenge, but not in the way environmentalists intend.

Let's be clear about what recycling is. Although you might think it was invented by hippies who, as Ayn Rand once put it, "would pollute any stream by stepping into it," recycling pre-dates China itself, and began the moment someone realized that it saved time, effort, and/or money to re-use an object or any of its raw materials. In fact, the practice was so economical that there was no need for scolds and government bureaucrats: People have made careers by buying, collecting and selling scrap metal, rags, and even human waste. Nevertheless, in the days of rag-pickers and night soil collectors, some things were recycled and some things were not -- because it was a waste of time, effort, or money. Tells, those large mounds arising after centuries of human habitation, attest to this in addition to accounting for many archaeological discoveries. But around the 1970s, hippies changed the goal of recycling from benefiting human life to preserving the natural world. Lest you think I quibble, consider how that affects even a simple choice: Toss out a cheap soft drink bottle -- or wash it and send it off to a recycling plant, regardless of whether it is quicker or cheaper to make a new one.

But recycling saves resources, so it must save money, you might say. I say that if recycling were so economical, some enterprising soul would have found a way to reward me for it. But don't take my word: A few years ago, the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) looked at the conventional wisdom about modern recycling in a study titled, "Recycling Myths Revisited." PERC concluded that, "[C]urbside recycling costs can be as much as double the costs of the disposal option," and "typically wastes resources -- resources that could be used productively elsewhere..." This is hardly surprising, given that "municipal recycling programs are targeting, the very things that people have already decided are too worthless or too costly to deal with further." Elsewhere, the study examines the modern aim of preserving nature and finds recycling wanting. For example, regarding landfills, PERC concludes: "A landfill that would hold all of America's garbage for the next century would be only about 10 miles on a side." More colorfully, Allen Geswein, an EPA official who studied American landfill capacity adds: "I've always wondered where that crap about a landfill-capacity crisis came from."

If modern recycling doesn’t even achieve its stated goals, what does it do? As Ayn Rand advises, "Don't bother to examine a folly -- ask yourself only what it accomplishes." Consider what China’s policy change means for your time and your life. John Tierney of the New York Times concluded that it took eight minutes a week (before the changes) to comply with New York's recycling laws, and that dollar costs per ton to save recyclables were too high. "[Y]ou could find a one-ton collection of those materials at a used-car lot -- a Toyota Tercel for instance -- and drive home in it," he noted. Spending eight minutes a week sorting trash or a few thousand dollars per ton may not sound like much, but it’s your time and your money. And once gone, they’re gone forever. Spend your irreplaceable time and effort “saving” a renewable resource – or cherish the only life you have as much as possible. I choose the latter, because we should bury trash, bit by bit, not ourselves.

China's new rule means that it's time to get serious about recycling, but not about into which bin we drop that soda bottle. We need to examine the cost, in terms of our own life and happiness, of recycling, just like any other activity. We owe this to ourselves anyway, but if anything should shame us into doing so, it is that recycling fails to achieve its touted goals. If China, which supposedly wants this scrap, isn't willing to put in the money or effort to refine it, shouldn’t that cause us to reconsider what and why we recycle, rather than blindly provide even more free labor to an inhuman cause?

Gus Van Horn frequently writes for Pajamas Media and Capitalism Magazine, plus he has his own eponmyous blog

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