This article first appeared in the Greensboro News & Record, January 13, 2008.
Cue music. Julia stared blankly from her jail cell. She thought about the bottle that landed her there… not what was in the bottle, the bottle itself. Julia didn’t get a DUI. She failed to recycle. Now she’s paying in hard time. Thanks to a new statewide law, these are the kinds of stories we may be hearing soon. Any ABC license-holder (e.g. a restaurant or bar owner) who fails to implement a glass and aluminum recycling program will be charged with a class-one misdemeanor alongside those accused of assaulting a handicapped person or burning a cross on someone’s property.
So how did we get to this point? If we’re prepared to jail people for failing to recycle, shouldn’t we at least ask “to what end?” Why has recycling become so serious and, most importantly, why are our elected officials so determined to force compliance with such drastic penalties?
“Applying resource economics to recycling is like applying nutrition research to the Holy Communion,” said environmental policy analyst John Baden. That’s a colorful way of suggesting that people don’t recycle because beer bottles are valuable. If bottles weren’t trash, people would pay us to collect them. There would be strip-mining operations at landfills. Recycling bottles and cans doesn’t make a significant impact on conserving landfill space, either. If it did, we’d already do it without fines – as landfill scarcity would make recycling the more cost-effective option (i.e. the price of waste disposal would become too costly).
Duke Political Science Professor Michael Munger also thinks recycling has become something of a religious rite: “[C]laims for recycling rest on an assumed, if not always articulated, moral imperative rather than on trade-offs or costs. But underlying this claim … is some murky idea that recycling ‘uses up’ fewer resources than making things from scratch.” But it doesn’t. Prices tell us so.
So why do it?
Maybe recycling is more environmentally friendly than landfills—both in terms of pollution and resource conservation. Which pollution? Which resources? Recycling programs are a manufacturing process like anything else, except municipalities have fewer incentives to conserve resources associated with the process than a for-profit company. But that’s not the worst of it. Many cities require twice the number of diesel-and-carbon-spewing trucks to collect recyclable materials separately. Twice the oil and gas. So, it’s not so much that you’re conserving energy or resources. You’re simply displacing the kind of resources being consumed and the type of pollution being emitted.
"The net cost for recycling is more than double the cost for regular garbage collection that will go to the transfer station” said Greensboro Councilman Tom Phillips in a public hearing. “A lot of what we recycle winds up at the landfill anyway because of contamination or lack of markets for the recycled material." He’s right. And if bureaucrats have the gall to fine or imprison someone for throwing out a bottle, they’d better at least figure out how not to break the law themselves.
But won’t recycling prevent us from eventually being buried in garbage? According to environmental economist Dan Benjamin, “Ted Turner’s flying D ranch outside Bozeman, Montana, could handle all of America’s trash for the next century—with 50,000 acres left over for his bison.” Of course, trash deposited closer to its point-of-origin will lower transportation costs and make landfill spots even more diffuse, nationwide. But the point is: we shouldn’t worry about space.
Don’t landfills poison people? Ironically, not even the EPA sees fit to regulate municipal solid waste disposal. Indeed, according to 30-year EPA veteran David Schnare: “EPA regulates the toxic stuff through its hazardous waste disposal regulations. Municipal waste isn’t hazardous, and the only regulations that apply are [landfill] siting, construction and air emissions regulations for methane. The EPA doesn’t regulate risks from these sites because the risks, if any, are undeserving of regulation.” Given the advent of high-density polyethylene and geotextile technologies, modern landfills are able to contain leachate (the only landfill pollutant) very effectively. In short, you have a greater chance of being hit by a recycling truck than being harmed by a landfill.
Here’s a paradox: the more paper we consume, the more trees there are. That’s because paper companies have an incentive to plant more trees when we buy and discard their products. And yet most towns seem hell-bent on recycling newspapers and cardboard. So what about non-renewables like aluminum? Again, look at price: even if we rescue a few aluminum cans with all of our effort, the latest check on aluminum prices suggests we’re nowhere near a peak. So might we be using scarcer resources to conserve more abundant ones? The economics of recycling says we are. That makes recycling a wasteful article of religious faith. Isn’t there something in the Constitution about government getting mixed up in religion? Yet that’s what they’re doing it in North Carolina with draconian punishments associated with ABC laws. Only the new religion is green.