North Carolina: Save Energy, End Recycling

A version of this article appeared in the Clayton News.

How can the state of North Carolina do its part to lower gas prices? We should put a moratorium on recycling program. That’s right. Stop recycling.

In all those walks to-and-from the curbside, have you ever asked yourself: why am I helping the city burn gas to save glass? That’s exactly what recycling programs do. (Well, diesel fuel.) But with fuel prices at more than $4 per gallon, why are we sending around extra trucks – that is, in addition to our normal garbage collection – to save bottles (silicon, which is abundant) and newspaper (wood, which is renewable)? Why are we rescuing garbage?

‘Garbage,’ you may be mumbling to yourself. ‘It’s not garbage. That’s why we recycle it.’ But I can prove it’s garbage. All I have to do is look at the price. If it weren’t garbage, someone would pay you for it. (Currently, in fact, you pay someone to take it away—and way more than you need to). Prices are an indicator that something has value. Since we have to count on volunteerism or mandatory recycling programs, we know that the practice of recycling is little more than a religious rite from which the only benefit is feeling good. As environmental policy expert John Baden says, “applying resource economics to recycling is like applying nutritional analysis to the Holy Communion.”

Now, when you factor in fuel prices, some things stick out:  First, it may soon be cost-effective to recycle plastic bottles, since they are made from petroleum (the feedstock of which doesn’t go in our cars, by the way). But when we get to that price-point, won’t it be easier to strip-mine landfills of plastics or pay people to turn them in, rather than to rely on all the extra diesel-spewing garbage trucks on the road? Given that energy conservation and air pollution are becoming bigger issues, it’s hard to see how cities can justify recycling at all.

Which is scarcer? Landfill space or fuel? Prices tell us it’s fuel. (That despite the artificial scarcity of landfill space created by Marc Basnight (D-Dare) and the left-dominated N.C. General Assembly. Last year’s de facto moratorium on new landfills in the state is driving up the price of waste disposal). But suppose people just don’t like the idea that non-bio-degradable materials might lie in the ground for millennia. We certainly don’t think of water bottles as being like clay artifacts from ancient Greece. But so what? What’s the problem?  Landfills aren’t poisoning anyone.

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.”

With the advent of high-density polyethylene and geotextile technologies, modern landfills are able to contain leachate – the only significant landfill pollutant – very effectively. And landfill companies have learned to pack in much more garbage per square yard than ever before. In short, you have a greater chance of being hit by a recycling truck than being harmed by a landfill. Apart from NIMBYism (not-in-my-back-yard syndrome) about sights or smells, which can easily be resolved through application of the common law, why are we worried about making use of landfills?

Here’s a puzzling fact: the more paper we consume, the more trees there are. There are more trees now than any time in modern history. That’s because paper companies have an incentive to plant more trees when we buy and discard their products. Yet most towns seem bent on recycling newspapers and cardboard. 

What about aluminum, which isn’t renewable? Again, look at price: aluminum is worth recycling. The trouble is mandatory recycling programs make people think they should give their aluminum to the city when they could be profiting. Might a more robust, efficient recycling market in aluminum cans exist were it not for city recycling programs? They simply make it such that aluminum companies leech off of our labor (the privilege of which we get to pay for in higher taxes) and the city uses your aluminum profits to offset the non-cost-effective recycling of glass, plastic and paper.

When it comes right down to it, we have to ask: are we using scarce resources to conserve more abundant ones? Economics says we are. So while it might make people feel good to recycle, we are actually doing more harm to the environment than good.

This article was posted in Environment by Max Borders on June 1, 2008 at 12:00 AM.

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