Don’t Recycle Bad Ideas

With the Fleet Street landfill in need of expansion, the City of Regina is consulting the public about how it should manage waste. By doing so, it has entered a complex web of environmental beliefs, economic realities and collective decision making. If badly handled, this consultation could deliver the worst of both worlds: an expensive system that inefficiently recycles more resources than it saves.

A public desire for subsidized, mandatory recycling has already emerged. Eighty-five per cent of respondents to a recent survey said they would support a city-funded curbside recycling program. A similar number favoured bylaws that force businesses to separate waste for recycling.

There is a naïve belief that recycling is good for the environment no matter what it costs.
The least helpful perspective is that since we live on a planet with finite resources and we want our descendents to survive for an infinite time, we must use zero resources. To achieve this, we must recycle everything and throw away nothing.

Unfortunately, we do not know what kind of materials our descendents will use. Thirty years ago, it might have seemed reasonable to conserve copper for future generations’ telephone wires. This would have been useless, because the majority of electronic communication goes through much more efficient fibre optics. Our descendents will live in a world we cannot plan for.

Even if we knew what resources would be needed in the future, recycling could still use more resources, not fewer. Some municipalities in the United States have instructed residents to run packaging through their dishwashers so that it is clean for recycling. Any rational environmentalist must ask if running an electrical appliance that uses heated water and then emits wastewater that contains caustic soda justifies any benefits from eventually reusing the material. With any luck, Regina is safe from such follies, but this raises two relevant observations: Not all recycling programs are created equal, and recycling can consume more resources than it saves.

Intelligent recycling would use the best processes available and would use them only when the overall ecological impact is smaller than that of dumping and replacing. The questions then are a) for each waste material, does the transportation, sorting, cleaning and reprocessing have less impact than dumping and replacing it and b) which programs are best?

As a rule (and it is not a perfect one), prices answer these questions. Prices transmit information about millions of people’s needs and wants. They tell us how much people value consumer goods, materials and environmental assets now and in the future. If recycling costs more than dumping and replacing, the process probably consumes more resources. But, if recycling is profitable, chances are it imposes lower costs (than dealing with the impact of landfills, for example) and uses fewer resources (than producing goods from new materials).

It is worth noting that Regina has a thriving private recycling market where people’s actions are largely guided by prices. Habitat for Humanity, for example, recycles building materials that people actually find useful. The Girl Guides sell compost bins, because people want to buy them. About one household in six voluntarily pays a modest fee for the curbside collection of recyclable material. If this sounds like a second-rate, amateur solution to a pressing problem, consider that large-scale politically organized schemes have come up with ideas as stupid as putting garbage in dishwashers.

The aforementioned survey hints at why such mistakes happen. Politically organized schemes insulate people from the true costs, and therefore their true resource consumption. While eighty-five per cent favour a city-funded recycling program, only about 46 per cent say they would be willing to pay more than $10 per month for it. That is compared to the 16 per cent who pay private collectors. The same people who are cautious about spending their money on recycling are happy to let the city do it for them.

Contrary to popular belief, spending more on recycling can open the way to wasted resources and greater environmental impact. If the City gets heavily involved in recycling, it should regularly and publicly report on the costs and benefits of its activities. Otherwise, we will lose sight of our true environmental impact. This can seem like a mean-spirited approach to saving the planet, but people who are concerned about the overall resources used by a scheme ignore prices at their peril.