Recycling is Not Worth the Cost

Commentary, Environment, Frontier Centre

Curbside recycling programs for paper, plastic and metals have been around since the 1970s. Yet, in all that time, there has been relatively little discussion of whether they are worth what they cost.

The recycling movement began during a period of relative shortages, global inflation, high prices for paper, minerals, and other commodities including oil.

Blue box programs were considered a way of diverting valuable materials away from garbage dumps, now called sanitary landfill sites.

Since then, prices for most of the targeted materials have remained steady or fallen, chiefly because of technological innovation.

If there is anything economists are agreed upon, it is that markets, price adjustments and product substitution mean that economically speaking, we can never run out of raw materials.

When charcoal grew too expensive, we started using mineral coal, then oil, wind, gas and tides. If we retain our ingenuity, there will be yet unimagined things in the future.

Then and now, advocates claim that recycling is more environmentally benign than dumping garbage in landfills and opening new mines, drilling new wells or cutting down forests.

In Canada today, however, extracting raw materials causes far less disturbance to the environment than it did a generation or two ago, if you consider that both mines and drilling are done on much smaller footprints, reforestation is mandatory and there are stringent regulations around mediation and restoration of sites.

Meanwhile, technology, not blue boxes, has made the costs of regulatory compliance relatively low.

There are, for example, more trees in North America today than there have been for a century and a half, according to a 2000 report prepared by Moore and Simon for the Washington-based CATO Institute.

In 2002, Valfrid Paulsson, former head of the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, and Soren Norrby, former head of the “Keep Sweden Tidy” movement, reported that the benefits of recycling solid waste in their country were cancelled by the environmental costs of collecting and processing it.

About the same time, municipal recycling of metal, glass and plastics was disrupted in New York City during a budget crunch.

Full recycling was restored within two years — not after serious analysis of the costs and benefits, but because New Yorkers were persuaded the expenditures were “Earthfriendly.”

Such emotional appeals often get in the way of civilized disagreements over the merits of recycling. Advocates have a deep commitment to living green that tends to overwhelm practical considerations such as cost.

Moral superstars accuse recycling skeptics of being callous and greedy, without concern for the welfare of future generations or the health of the planet.

At their rhetorical heights, environmental prophets speak of the need for humanity to “save the planet” — though, so far as we know, human beings, unlike God, lack the capacity even to save goldfish, let alone whole planets.

Green prophets cry that the stakes are too high to consider mere costs of implementing a favoured policy. This is as true for following the Kyoto protocol to cut so-called greenhouse gas emissions as it is for the mandatory recycling of dog food tins into more dogfood tins. For example, in the opinion pages of the Herald last week, the argument that the proposed municipal tax hike of around $250 was excessive received a curt dismissal from advocate Adrienne Beattie. If we Calgarians, “the richest citizens in Canada . . . cannot afford to make responsible choices for our waste, who can?”

Strip away the moralism and consider what genuine “responsible choices” entail. If Calgarians prosper, one reason is they don’t invest their money before taking a hard look at the costs and an even harder look at the promised benefits.

Just consider the real requirements for landfill sites. Twenty-five years ago, an economist at Gonzaga University in Spokane calculated that a square pit, 100 metres deep with nine-kilometre sides, could hold 1,000 years of compacted U.S. garbage. Compared to the surface of Alberta, that is a small dump.

Here is another question. Let us say household A produces twice the garbage of household B. Equity alone would indicate that the first pay twice as much as the second for garbage collection, whether combined with recycling or not.

But user-pay programs are ridiculed by most greenies as “pay-as-you-throw” schemes. In fact, there are nearly 6,000 communities in the U.S. and Canada that have user-pay programs. Once in place, surveys have shown that customers strongly favour them.

Finally, because you can tax and spend a dollar only once, taxes raised to spend on an unproductive recycling program means less is available to deal with real problems such as health, education and infrastructure. These practicalities need to be considered along with the “Earth-friendly” emotions.