Tuesday, December 28, 2010

When Recycling is Wasteful

Here's a fantastic Gregg Easterbrook article on a point about recycling that has always bothered me.  How does it make sense to pay (taxes) the city to pick up recyclable material?  Those items have value as a raw material, so why am I not being paid for giving away something that's still valuable (as opposed to trash)?

The New York Times recently reported that unwanted appliances -- old washing machines and so on -- placed on the curb for disposal in New York City have been "disappearing." With scrap metal prices strong, what the article calls "thieves" have been driving along streets scheduled for used-appliance pickups -- in New York City, this happens by published schedule -- and taking away the unwanted junk before the city's officially approved recycler arrives. The "thieves" then sell the unwanted junk as scrap metal.

Set aside whether it's theft to take an unwanted item that has been discarded in a public place. New York City bureaucrats think so; they've instructed police to ticket anyone engaged in recycling without government sanction. Twenty years ago, New York City bureaucrats were demanding that citizens recycle whether they wished to or not, and imposing fines for failure to comply. Now if the average person is caught recycling, it's a police matter.

This issue is not the cleanliness of streets or the environmental benefits of recycling -- it's control of money. The New York City Sanitation Department pays a company called Sims Municipal Recycling about $65 million annually to pick up and recycle metal, glass and aluminum. Notice what's happening here? Recycling is supposed to make economic sense. If it did, the recycling company would be paying the city. Instead, the city is paying the company. Montgomery County, Md., my home county, imposed recycling rules saying they made economic sense. Now the county charges homeowners $210 annually as a recycling tax. If recycling made economic sense, government would pay homeowners for the privilege of picking up their valuable materials. Instead, New York City, Montgomery County and many other government bodies charge citizens for something they claim makes economic sense.

Recycling of aluminum makes good economic sense, given the energy cost of aluminum and the high quality of recycled aluminum. Depending where you are in the country, recycling of newspapers might make sense. Recycling of steel and copper usually makes sense. But recycling of glass, most plastics and coated paper is a net waste of energy. Often the goal of government-imposed recycling program is to use lack of understanding of economics to reach into citizens' pockets and forcibly extract money that bureaucrats can control.

Notice what else is happening here -- New York City pays a company millions of dollars to do something "thieves" will do for free. The "thieves" harm no one, and could save New York City taxpayers considerable money. But then bureaucrats wouldn't be in control. And surely no-show jobs and kickbacks have nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with New York City sanitation contracts.

Not convinced?  Perhaps you're disturbed by my lack of faith in the environmental religion, refusing to pay my penance for the excess and wastefulness of America by recycling "no matter the costs."  Well, read this from a few years ago.


Anonymous said...

I concur. I read the older article, too. I used to recycle, until I discovered that a lot of my recyclables were actually going to the regular trash dump! I concluded that it was basically a big waste of time and energy (mine)!


Thumper said...

I'm all for being a good steward and we recycle metals. But a lot of recycling hype is just that, hype, wasting more energy in an effort to make us feel good about saving energy.