Greener Than Thou: Recycling Edition

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by Shawn Regan

In today's Boston Globe, columnist Jeff Jacoby says he's not too excited about a recent household recycling campaign in Brookline, MA. But, he writes, "things could be worse."

Clevelanders will soon have to use recycling carts equipped with radio-frequency ID chips, the Plain Dealer reported last month. These will enable the city to remotely monitor residents’ compliance with recycling regulations. “If a chip shows a recyclable cart hasn’t been brought to the curb in weeks, a trash supervisor will sort through the trash for recyclables. Trash carts containing more than 10 percent recyclable material could lead to a $100 fine.’’ In Britain, where a similar system is already in place, fines can reach as high as $1,500.

San Franciscans, meanwhile, must sort their garbage into three color-coded bins — blue for recycling, green for compost, and black for trash — and scofflaws who pitch teabags or coffee grounds into the wrong bin can be fined. In other cities, residents must bag their trash in clear plastic, lest they be tempted to toss recyclables out with the garbage.

Does any of this make sense? It certainly isn’t economically rational. Unlike commercial and industrial recycling — a thriving voluntary market that annually salvages tens of millions of tons of metal, paper, glass, and plastic — mandatory household recycling is a money loser. Cost studies show that curbside recycling can cost, on average, 60 percent more per ton than conventional garbage disposal.

He concludes with the work of PERC senior fellow Daniel Benjamin on recycling.
But if recycling household trash makes everyone feel warm and fuzzy, why does it have to be compulsory? Mandatory recycling programs “force people to squander valuable resources in a quixotic quest to save what they would sensibly discard,’’ writes Clemson University economist Daniel K. Benjamin. “On balance, recycling programs lower our wealth.’’ Now whose idea of exciting is that?
Read Dan's recent Policy Series paper on recycling here or his recent interview on BigThink.com here.

UPDATE: See Part II of Jacoby's recycling column, which discusses more of Dan's findings.

Shawn Regan is a research fellow at PERC. He holds a M.S. in Applied Economics from Montana State University and degrees in economics and environmental science from Berry College. He is also a visiting fellow at the Breakthrough Institute. His work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Quartz, High Country News, Reason, Regulation, Grist, and...
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