Ed Driscoll

Recycling: The 21st Century Heliocentric's Equivalent of Alchemy

As Jeff Jacoby writes, in response to a typically inane flier breathlessly promoting the “benefits” of a Boston-area recycling program, “Get excited about recycling? Not me:”

Clevelanders will soon have to use recycling carts equipped with radio-frequency ID chips, the Plain Dealer reported last month. These will enable the city to remotely monitor residents’ compliance with recycling regulations. “If a chip shows a recyclable cart hasn’t been brought to the curb in weeks, a trash supervisor will sort through the trash for recyclables. Trash carts containing more than 10 percent recyclable material could lead to a $100 fine.’’ In Britain, where a similar system is already in place, fines can reach as high as $1,500.

San Franciscans, meanwhile, must sort their garbage into three color-coded bins — blue for recycling, green for compost, and black for trash — and scofflaws who pitch teabags or coffee grounds into the wrong bin can be fined. In other cities, residents must bag their trash in clear plastic, lest they be tempted to toss recyclables out with the garbage.

Does any of this make sense? It certainly isn’t economically rational. Unlike commercial and industrial recycling — a thriving voluntary market that annually salvages tens of millions of tons of metal, paper, glass, and plastic — mandatory household recycling is a money loser. Cost studies show that curbside recycling can cost, on average, 60 percent more per ton than conventional garbage disposal. In 2004, an analysis by New York’s Independent Budget Office concluded, according to The New York Times, that “it cost anywhere from $34 to $48 a ton more to recycle material, than to send it off to landfills or incinerators.’’

“There is not a community curbside recycling program in the United States that covers its cost,’’ says Jay Lehr, science director at the Heartland Institute and author of a handbook on environmental science. They exist primarily to make people “feel warm and fuzzy about what they are doing for the environment.’’

But if recycling household trash makes everyone feel warm and fuzzy, why does it have to be compulsory? Mandatory recycling programs “force people to squander valuable resources in a quixotic quest to save what they would sensibly discard,’’ writes Clemson University economist Daniel K. Benjamin. “On balance, recycling programs lower our wealth.’’ Now whose idea of exciting is that?

Oh I dunno — I can think of lots of hardcore eco-puritans who could get very excited by that last idea.

Incidentally, Penn & Teller had lots of fun with this topic a few years ago. Obligatory language warning right from the title, but still:

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