Time to Dump Recycling

Monday, January 14, 2019

Pardon the clickbait-y headline, as imprecise as it is, but I am hoping to attract the attention of thoughtful folks here and there...

I don't. (Image via Pixabay.)
About a year ago, as Maggie Koerth-Baker of FiveThirtyEight reports in "The Era of Easy Recycling May Be Coming to an End," China greatly tightened quality requirements for certain kinds of recyclable material it imports. This change was due in large part to its unsuitability as an industrial feedstock.

Although it took longer than I expected for American news outlets to start discussing the consequences, it seems to be happening now. Unfortunately, although I think many might agree that this should start a serious conversation about recycling, this isn't the case. Consider the closing paragraph, concerning "single-stream," the most popular form of municipal recycling because it does away with much of the tedium of sorting through trash:
Single-stream isn't the only cause of higher contamination rates... But it's a big factor. And with China no longer buying -- and other countries considering similar restrictions -- we're going to have to make our recycling cleaner. That means either less single-stream recycling or more public education and more stringent use of single-stream systems. Either way, you can expect recycling to get at least a little less convenient. [bold added]
This follows a somewhat detailed analysis that includes the following highlights regarding government-sponsored residential recycling: (1) a quarter of the material is "too contaminated to go anywhere but the landfill;" (2) the growth of single-stream "pretty closely tracks with skyrocketing contamination rates" -- in part due to how the waste is collected; and (3) the increased amount of material collected is largely offset by this higher contamination.

If only the intelligent folks at FiveThirtyEight would sort through their philosophical premises as thoroughly as they do their trash. If they did, they might hesitate to claim that we "must" redouble our efforts at this astoundingly wasteful activity.

I, for one, disagree that millions of Americans spending more time contemplating their garbage every day is something we "must" do, and I reached that conclusion about a year ago, when I got wind of China's new standards. (In today's context, this is really a call for massive donations of free American labor -- of your time.)

Last year, in "It's Time to Get Serious About Recycling," at RealClear Markets, I wrote in part:
Let's be clear about what recycling is. Although you might think it was invented by hippies ... 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]
And, later:
China's new rule means that it's time to get serious about recycling, but not about into which bin we drop that soda bottle. We need to examine the cost, in terms of our own life and happiness, of recycling, just like any other activity... If China, which supposedly wants this scrap, isn't willing to put in the money or effort to refine it, shouldn't that cause us to reconsider what and why we recycle, rather than blindly provide even more free labor... ? [bold added]
Rather than checking our trash, we should, as Ayn Rand, author of The Virtue of Selfishness, might put it, check our premises, first and foremost the idea that our purpose in life is to "save the planet," whatever that means.

Indeed, I can't help but wonder if today, she might advise environmentalists to do the following: Chuck your premises.

-- CAV


Dinwar said...

I think a portion of this arises from the fact that most people have a fundamentally mystical viewpoint on money.

When recycling works, either you save money or folks pay you to do it. An example of the first type of recycling is the repurposing of used items--I have instructions for turning a six pack of beer into microfossil slides, for example. Cheap, effective, and convenient, freeing up resources to be used elsewhere. An example of the second is beverage can recycling--they pay you to provide these materials, because it's cheaper to process aluminum cans than it is to process bauxite (the ore from which aluminum commonly is derived).

The fact that no one is willing to pay you for your recycling is de facto proof that it's not worth recycling. They are not willing to put any resources into obtaining the material--they are not willing to pay you--because the material isn't worth anything.

Another way to look at it is labor cost. If a company wants me to do something for them, they pay me; that's what employment is, an agreement to provide money (unconsumed resources) for labor. When recycling works, this holds true--I used to pick up cans and sell them to the recycling center for gas money when I was a kid. What's being demanded now is that we provide labor for various companies without compensation--so either we are slaves, or the stuff we are producing isn't worth obtaining.

Someone who understands what money is (unconsumed resources) will have no problem seeing this clearly. But since our culture instills a mystical view of money, most people can't see it. They don't understand that they are being told to do unpaid work for a company.

Gus Van Horn said...


I think having a clear view as to the nature of money can help, but even then, if such a person subscribes to the idea that "nature" is a higher consideration than his own life and well-being, he will probably recycle anyway.