The Business Case for Recycling
Let's talk about recycling. No wait, where are you going? Put down that mouse! Don't click the next headline in bloglines!
Oh sod it.
OK seeing as I've alienated the audience already (except perhaps for the one member that really counts) there's no harm in drawing this out and starting at the beginning.
I'm a fan of the Penn & Teller Bullshit! show. (Sorry no link to the show's website because of corporate cluelessness.) If you haven't seen it, it's an amusing show where anti-magicians Penn & Teller pick on most of the usual skeptic targets — mostly new age hippy crap — and rip them to shreds with amusing blind tests on unsuspecting punters. There's also gratuitous swearing and nudity.
Most of the P&T shows are excellent, like when they demolish some fraudulent bastard for claiming to talk to the dead, or hilariously expose Feng Shui for the nonsense it is. Unfortunately they sometimes let themselves and audiences down by calling bullshit when there isn't any, and relying on some highly questionable sources. This critique of Penn & Teller's show explains in great detailed the flawed arguments of P&T and their sources, for several different topics, not including recycling.
When I saw the episode on recycling I was pretty surprised, as some of the claims were pretty startling. However after discovering the above-mentioned critique I thought I'd have a go at examining some of the P&T arguments about recycling a bit more closely. I don't claim to be an expert on this topic, but I can use google and at least think about it.
The first point that P&T bring up is that people mainly recycle because they feel good about it. To which the obvious response is: so what, if it doesn't do any harm? The show goes on to make some reasonable arguments (eg the employment benefits are largely imagined) and some not-so-reasonable ones (eg recycling is bad because the New York Times says it is). But the fundamental theme underlying the show is that recycling is bad because it costs money.
In order to make the business case, there is a lot of hand-waving and apples-to-oranges comparisons going on that it's hard for ordinary punters to see what the costs and benefits are, and who is paying for and benefiting from the activity of recycling.
The business case argument is expressed in different ways such as: if recycling is so good then why does it need to be subsidised by the guvmint? This is nonsense. If we accept that subsidised = bad, then we are obliged to abolish, well, prettymuch all government activities. Healthcare, defense, education — I look forward to these becoming profit centres soon.
So it's all about the Benjamins. Appropriately enough one of the main anti-recycling sources they use for the show is another Benjamin: Daniel Benjamin, author of the Eight Great Myths of Recycling. This seems to be fairly widely quoted and cited in conservative circles, and like the P&T show it mainly relies on economic arguments.
[Aside: I particularly like this one from an economist who argues that recycling is bad because, well, Adam Smith says so. Actually not quite, there's more: persuing private interests alone is beneficial to the public interest, hence you should not explicitly act in the public interest. No I don't quite follow it either.]
Benjamin (and hence P&T) concedes some legitimate points in favour of recycling, and also raises a number of legitimate problems with the economics of recycling. The latter are unsuccessfully challenged by the pro-recycling interviewees. One of them goes so far as to say that the "net economic benefit of recycling is as great as the net environmental benefit of recycling." However, the ex-EPA guy goes on to say that it costs $50/ton to dump trash in a landfill, and $150/ton to recycle it. I'm guessing that the $100/ton difference buys a lot of 'virgin' material production (obviously depending on the material). Either way, it's the wrong argument for the pro-recyclers to make.
The argument that should be made is that evaluating the benefit of recycling in purely dollar terms is missing the point. Dog knows there are stupid things we all do in our lives which cannot be justified purely on economic grounds. It might be that recycling is one of those things: sure it costs money but we are going to make the right decision and do it anyway.
Besides monetary cost, there are other, admittedly more complex, criteria that I believe we should be applying to the question of justifying recycling. A few off the top of my head:
- Energy/water usage. Does recycling uses more energy than the combined cost of dumping plus manufacturing from virgin materials? Ditto for water and other valuable resources.
- Renewable materials. To me there's no problem dumping paper in a landfill if we can easily grow more trees (assuming all other factors are equal). A variation on this is where materials are produced as by-products of other processes, such as plastics from petroleum production. The plastic is not going to run out before the oil does, so it's effectively renewable for the medium term at least.
- Toxic waste. Does the recycling produce more toxic waste than the original manufacturing process? Is there an additional risk of exposure to toxic waste when recycling? This needs to be weighted against the risk of toxic waste leaking from landfills, for example.
- Other waste production. Even if it's relatively harmless to humans (eg waste heat) or if the effects are relatively non-localised (eg greenhouse gas emmissions), the downstream effects on the ecosystem are not to be ignored.
I believe economists call most of these externalities, and by definition they are not adequately reflected in the business case for recycling.
Some people on the environmental side seem to take the view that everything should be recycled, and that if we were to do this Gaia would smile on us. This is an understandable reaction: throwing things away when they could be reused just feels wrong. However I believe we need to be more rational than this in order to make the right decisions. Recycling has it's costs and we need to dispassionately assess these on a case-by-case basis. Another way of saying this is that landfills are not necessarily evil.
So lets say that we've done this assessment and found a circumstance where it makes sense to recycle. The questions that naturally arise next are: does it make economic sense, and if not, who should pay for it?
It seems to me only fair that the economic cost of recycling an item should be built into the cost of production of that item, and hence born by the purchaser. It should be another cost of doing business, like the raw materials, labour, broadcast spectrum licenses, etc. P&T claim that there are currently huge government subsidies for recycling, and this clearly isn't the way to go.
However the key point for me is that you need to separate the environmental decision from the economic decision. This allows us to change the economic conditions in order to ensure that a correct economic decision will also result in a correct environmental decision. Lets change the way the economic costs of recycling are structured to ensure that they are correctly accounted for in the marketplace, based on an understanding of the full environmental costs.
For example I could imagine landfills paying insurance against the risk of leaching toxic materials into the ground water (an analogy might be the indemnity insurance paid by medcial professionals). This might then encourage them to separate the incoming trash into high-risk and low-risk, to be deposited in landfills with differing degrees of protection (ie insurance policies). Just an idea.
The intent here is to use the marketplace as a tool for the greater public good. The reverse idea, defining the greater good to be whatever is served by the marketplace, seems to be what P&T and others are propagating in their show, and that really is bullshit.