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Recycled lunacy

By Trevor Bothwell
web posted November 21, 2005

Last Tuesday, November 15th, was America Recycles Day. In honor of this fine day I did the only logical thing I could think of: I threw my plastic soda bottle and paper plate into my garbage can after I ate my lunch.

I hate recycling. Well, check that. I hate recycling for the sake of recycling. More to the point, I hate that the government feels the need to tell us what we should recycle. Taxpayers all across America are fleeced so state and local public works departments can manage the collection of our aluminum cans, plastic bottles, newspapers, phone books, cardboard boxes, you name it.

Aside from the idea that government knows best how we should live our lives, the main reason I hate such recycling programs is that every one of us recycles, whether we realize it or not. Don't believe me? Look at your wrist. How long have you had that watch? How many times have you worn the shirt you have on? Your pants? Your shoes? How many times have you driven the same car to work? How many of us could afford to wear a business suit once and simply throw it away afterward?

You get the idea. When the cost of not recycling outweighs the cost of recycling, we'll recycle. Automatically. Here's an excerpt of an article by George Mason University economist Don Boudreaux, who explains this concept brilliantly:

We recycle as much as we do because it makes good sense to do so. It would indeed be wasteful for me to discard my fine china after each use. So I don’t do it. And I don’t do it because the market reliably tells me that it’s wasteful to do so. I’m of no mind to purchase new china after each meal because the price of fine china far exceeds the value to me of the time I must spend cleaning and storing mine for future use. I’d quickly go broke if I refused to recycle most of the things that I regularly recycle. (Incidentally, I’ll bet that even Bill and Melinda Gates recycle their fine china.)

But I do discard paper plates after each use. The reason, at bottom, is no different from the reason I recycle my china rather than discard it: it would be wasteful to do otherwise. After all, I could recycle paper plates. Careful washing would enable my family and me to reuse paper plates a couple or three times. But notice what would be wasted: valuable labor and time. One important reason for using paper plates would be undermined. That reason, of course, is the importance of saving the time and effort that it would take to wash dishes following the meal. Time that I could spend playing with my son, relaxing with my wife, reading a good book, or fixing a leaky faucet would be wasted cleaning paper plates. And to what purpose? None. Paper plates are so expendable precisely because the materials necessary to make them are so abundant. This abundance is reflected accurately in their low price.

But what about the environment? Or landfill space? Isn't it just plain smart to recycle things like paper products to save trees? Indeed, the primary excuse proffered by government and the environmental lobby is that without recycling we would exhaust our natural resources and run out of dumping space.

The answer is quite simple. It's No. Trees -- which, by the way, are a renewable resource -- are plentiful, regardless of what recycling advocates might say to the contrary. If they weren't, paper products wouldn't be so cheap (the same goes for aluminum, plastic, cardboard, what have you). In a free market, as soon as a resource becomes noticeably more scarce, its value rises accordingly, which results in higher prices. If prices grow high enough that we can no longer afford to simply discard materials made from certain resources, we will recycle them all on our own -- whether reusing them in our homes, or even opening up our own, privately-operated, recycling centers.

Perhaps I should be grateful that Maryland (where I reside) provides no state funding for recycling. However, Calvert County (where I reside, more specifically) allocates millions of its $12.2 million 2005 waste management budget to a recycling program that covers everything from employee salaries and recycling centers to county education and training programs encouraging the practice. But at least the county leaves trash collection to the private citizen. I choose to pay for trash pick-up, but others opt to take their waste to the dump.

Other state and county residents aren't so lucky. Some local governments that provide trash service won't even pick up your garbage unless recyclables are separated out at the curb. In New York state, my parents pay a $.05 per can deposit on beer and soda, which is nothing but another state tax. How many people really think the state cares whether or not you return your case of empties just to get your $1.20 back? It knows full well most people won't endure the hassle just to collect a buck.

The market dictates what's really worth recycling and what's not. Most garbage isn't worth it. And neither are the recycling programs government bureaucrats like to shove down our throats.

Trevor Bothwell is a contributing writer to Democracy Project. He can be contacted at bothwelltj@yahoo.com.

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