When my students are prompted to write an essay about recycling, many make the same mistake lay people make when evaluating the success of a program. For example, I had a student argue that the recycling program in his hometown was a success because the town collected X million tons of recyclable material each year. And that each year the program was in place, the volume of recycled material collected increased.
What is wrong with this assertion? Well, to measure the “success” of any program, you must define what success is. If we are evaluating this on economic terms only, then we must ask the question of “what are the benefits of collecting this much material as compared the costs of collecting this much material (including spillover costs.” It might be the case that increasing the volume of recyclables passes the cost-benefit test, but you cannot tell that at all by merely citing the quantity collected. Think of an analogy. Were you to become a proprietor of a business, would you measure your success merely as a function of how much of your product you could get into the hands of other people? After all, you could give away 100% of your inventory to people at no money cost, would that mean you are successful? For some businesses, like blogging, that is perhaps the right metric. But for most others, that would be disastrous. I’d love to see some firm come out next year and report to its shareholders that it clearly is a success because it is able to offload all of its stuff – even if it costs many multiples of revenues to do it.
There’s lots more to say about recycling, and we’ve covered it before and will cover it again, I just wanted to focus on this one aspect.