It's ALL 'Wish Recycling'

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Or: You Can't Recycle Your Time, Part 7084

A new logistical problem with government-sponsored recycling programs that prompted me to write a column earlier in the year is finally making the news. The LA Times reports (HT: Steve D.) that China's new standards for quality are causing ripples in the domestic recycling industry and sending lots of material to the landfills:

In January, China began barring "contaminated" material it once accepted. And under China's new rules, if something is one-half of 1% contaminated, it's too impure for recycling.

"This policy change is already starting to have adverse impacts on California," CalRecycle declared last month in a bulletin, "and is resulting in more material being stockpiled at solid waste facilities and recycling centers or disposed of in landfills."

Eric Potashner, a government relations official for Recology, a curbside hauler that sorts San Francisco Bay Area trash for recycling, says, "There's no market for a lot of stuff in the blue bin. What we can't recycle we take to a landfill."
Interestingly, although the focus of the article is China's new standards, those are hardly the only thing causing people to realize that recycling is uneconomical.
"A year ago," Potashner says, "we were getting $100 a ton for newsprint. Now we're getting an average [of] $5 ... . Revenue has fallen off the cliff."
And quality is being compromised by a practice called "wish recycling," in which people put things that can't be recycled into bins simply because they wish they could be recycled.

But in my column, I argued that these programs are all "wish recycling":
The only thing worth reusing in this picture would be the metal these bins are made of. (Photo by Christian Wiediger on Unsplash)
... Although you might think it was invented by hippies who, as Ayn Rand once put it, "would pollute any stream by stepping into it," recycling pre-dates China itself, and began the moment someone realized that it saved time, effort, and/or money to re-use an object or any of its raw materials. In fact, the practice was so economical that there was no need for scolds and government bureaucrats: People have made careers by buying, collecting and selling scrap metal, rags, and even human waste. Nevertheless, in the days of rag-pickers and night soil collectors, some things were recycled and some things were not -- because it was a waste of time, effort, or money. Tells, those large mounds arising after centuries of human habitation, attest to this in addition to accounting for many archaeological discoveries. But around the 1970s, hippies changed the goal of recycling from benefiting human life to preserving the natural world. Lest you think I quibble, consider how that affects even a simple choice: Toss out a cheap soft drink bottle -- or wash it and send it off to a recycling plant, regardless of whether it is quicker or cheaper to make a new one. [bold added]
This goal has caused countless Americans to waste enormous amounts of time sorting through trash for decades now. If China's new standards cause us to see this, that country will have done us a great favor.

-- CAV


Dinwar said...

Two things have always struck me about recycling.

First, there seems to be an inverse relationship between recycling and affluence in a culture. Poor cultures (hunter/gatherers, Medieval peasants, backwoods explorers, and the like) didn't waste much, simply because they didn't have resources to waste. Something that we would consider waste--say, grease from cooking meat--they considered a useful resource--say, fuel for rush lamps. Even middin heaps, the quintessential pre-industrial garbage heap, was a resource--it was food for pigs, and fertilizer. It's only once a culture reaches a certain level of affluence that common people can afford garbage.

Second, we still recycle constantly--but it's not the "right" way to recycle. Any image captioned with "Redneck engineering" is an example of someone recycling trash into a useable form, but since it's not government-subsidized it doesn't count. Many home crafts also involve recycling. I recall my relatives making rugs out of old cloths that were too worn out to repair, for example. Just yesterday my wife picked up a pamphlet about using newspaper as part of preparing a garden for winter. I could go on at length.But no Environmentalist pushes for such things. All we hear about is government-sponsored recycling at big-name locations. They are not interested in recycling as such--only in government-sponsored recycling.

Gus Van Horn said...


Even washing clothes is recycling -- in the proper sense of recovering something valuable being more cost-effective than acquiring something new. But, yes. The lack of interest in actual, sensible recycling is precisely because the government is being run, in that improper function, largely by people for whom human flourishing is a secondary consideration, if it is one at all.