Burning gas to save glass 

Happy Earth Day America!

Well its 40 years on.... And we're still under the green spell. Government recycling programs, for example, are supposed to conserve scarce resources, help protect the environment, and make us feel good about ourselves. But do they?

To find out, we can imagine what the world would be like without government recycling programs--assuming only private property, free prices and free exchange.

A World Without Recycling

Okay. What would life be like without government recycling programs?

Of course, we wouldn’t have to pay taxes or fees for anything except garbage collection. Instead of two diesel trucks, only one would come around to get our waste.

But wait: where would all the "recyclables" go? Into the landfill? Well, it depends.

If your trash had something valuable in it – like aluminum – one of two things would happen. Either: a) aluminum companies would go around and collect aluminum from the landfill company—you know, pay them for it, or b) aluminum companies would come around and collect the cans from our houses—you know, pay us for it--whichever system is more cost-effective for the aluminum company.

Whether aluminum is 'trash' or 'cash' depends on the price of aluminum, the price of collection, and the price of landfill space.

If your trash had something of little value in it – like newsprint or glass – it would probably end up in the landfill. Despite the fact that a modern landfills can keep far more stuff than ever before, landfill space is scarce. Might all the valueless newsprint and glass eventually fill up the landfill? It's not likely, even if we continue reading newspapers.

But what else does it mean for landfill space to run out? It means the price of landfill space would go up because the landfill companies had less of it. Recycling newsprint could theoretically become cost-effective! Or the company could export garbage to places with space who want the business. How would we know? (Prices would tell us.)

Okay. So what have we learned so far? We at least know that, because of prices, it would be impossible for the world to fill up with trash like in the movie Wall-E.

We've also learned that, due to prices and scarcity, things would get recycled if it made economic sense, but wouldn’t otherwise. Valueless things would go to the landfill, much as they do now. Is there anything wrong with that?

Okay, what about things that aren’t valuable enough to recycle now but might be later? Like plastic? Today’s landfills could become tomorrow’s strip mines. You’d have all those plastic bottles and milk-jugs all in one place for folks to extract—that is, if the price were right. Simple economics.

But wait: don’t landfills harm the environment? Actually, no. (They might smell bad to neighbors, but that’s a different issue.) The EPA doesn’t even regulate landfills. In fact, new geo-textile liners not only allow more waste per square yard, but keep in leachate—the only landfill toxin that poses any risk whatsoever to land and groundwater.

The Real "Story of Stuff"

The real story of stuff is that – by recycling – we waste more resources and cause more pollution than we would otherwise. We spend real money to recycle things that have no value. In short: we burn gas to save glass. (And on top of it, the government subsidizes big corporations at our expense.)

 How's that, now?

As we said, there are not one, but TWO diesel trucks in most neighborhoods due to government recycling programs. These diesel trucks burn oil and gas – all to save paper and glass. Not one, but TWO diesel trucks spew pollution into the air in order to collect valueless things. That can’t be good for the environment.

Recycling trucks are also made of metal—which is scarce. They burn up rubber tires. They cost money to run. People must be paid to drive them. And recycling plants, like any other factory, are manufacturing centers that require capital costs, operating costs, energy and labor. They use financial resources, which have to come from somewhere. Usually, those resources are diverted from more productive uses.

“At least recycling creates jobs,” you might be thinking. But if we created jobs that way, the government could just pay people to dig holes and fill them up again using teaspoons. Everyone should know that a dollar spent on something unproductive is a dollar that can’t be used on something productive—like creating a new boutique, coffee shop or software company--i.e. something people value.

Now, if the stuff in your recycling bin IS valuable, why are you paying the government to collect it? In fact why are you paying – in higher taxes and fees – to subsidize aluminum or plastics companies when they should be paying us for the valuable stuff instead of paying the government (who charges us fees!)? Again, prices can’t give us this information if the government interferes.

The truth is, big corporations have colluded with government bureaucrats to rip us off. They use the fact that you believe you’re “going green” to profit or keep their cushy government job--respectively. Environmentalists are the foils. They keep people feeling guilty, which clouds critical thinking.

In sum, if government recycling programs waste resources and are bad for the environment, should they exist? And again, if stuff in our bins is scarce (that is, valuable), shouldn’t we at least be charged less to have our garbage hauled off?

Now, back to the original question: Do government recycling programs generally:

 a) Conserve scarce resources? NO.

b) Help protect the environment? NO.

c) Make us feel good about ourselves? YES.

Okay, so we feel good when we recycle. Given what we know about basic economics...should we?

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Max Borders

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