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Land in cities like New York is extremely valuable. Thus it probably makes a great deal of sense to dedicate very little of that land to waste disposal uses like landfills. Using scarce Manhattan land comes at the cost of not using that land for the myriad awesome uses it might otherwise be put to, such as a museum, world class restaurant, or Wall Street investment bank. OK, so scratch that last one, at least until they get out of bed with DC.

New York City therefore exports almost all of its trash to places outside of the city. Proponents of recycling will probably agree that using valuable NYC land as a landfill is inefficient. I’ve seen proponents also make claims that shipping out all of this trash is wasteful and inefficient too, so we should think about recycling a lot of the solid waste we generate. Sounds good, but think about this for a moment.

  1. Recycling solid waste and not shipping it out to landfills requires the construction of facilities within New York City to manage and process the recyclable material. If using these very same resources and plots of land for landfill and disposal is wasteful and inefficient, how could it then be deemed “efficient” to use that very same land and resources for … disposal of solid waste (albeit a different kind of disposal). It cannot be. The point being that dedicating land area in, say, Greenwich Village to either recycling or solid waste disposal would seem to be a poor use of that space. What makes displacement of a museum or restaurant or apartment by a recycling plant (spewing out very pleasant fumes and effluent too!) any better or worse than if it was an incinerator or a disposal site?
  2. Suppose you disagree with the first point above. Further, suppose that 100% of municipal solid waste is recyclable, so that all of the trash generated by New Yorkers is collected in New York and stays in New York and is processed in New York City recycling plants. Further, assume that recycling materials uses no resources, consumes no fuels, emits no pollution, etc. we just magically insert it into a Sneetch Machine and the thing is recycled and ready for its new use. What happens to those materials now? Well, the recycled bottles and cans need to be filled up with more beer, soda, milk and 5-hour energy. The recycled paper needs to be packaged and made into pads, stickies, newspaper, boxes, etc. The recycled plastics and rubber need to be turned into playground mats, car seats, etc. Are these production facilities located in New York City? No. Virtually none of them are in New York City, and so we still need to take all of these materials and ship them all over the world to be put to their final use, and then we’d see them shipped right back into New York for consumption again. Now, so long as prices accurately reflect all costs, I have no problem with this … but proponents of recycling ignore the costs of doing all of this when they popularly support such notions. By not putting MSW into landfills we are not magically saving all of these costs, we are changing where they are felt and perhaps making them a little less easy to see. But they are there. They are real. And they could very well be much larger than the costs of MSW disposal, even without including the environmental and resource costs of the recycling reprocessing processes themselves.
  3. Some will claim that shipping all kinds of “waste” outside of NYC is wasteful and inefficient because it consumes fuel resources and produces pollutants. OK. But then couldn’t one argue that shipping all this “stuff” in in the first place is just as wasteful. Think about it. I buy orange juice that was squeezed and boxed in Florida. People tell me it is wasteful to take the empty carton and send it out of New York City. So wouldn’t the bringing into the city of that very same carton also be wasteful according to this line of thinking? It would have to be. I don’t eat the carton, and there are only so many arts and crafts projects I can do with my children. Thus, if I want orange juice, then this carton will have to be a part of that process. We’ve talked about pricing, the profit motive and property rights elsewhere, but if you want to argue that firms use “too much” cardboard to make their orange juice, what do you think that is telling us about their incentives? If you want to argue that consumers do not consider the cost of the carton when making their OJ purchases, what do you think the source of this “problem” is? And if you want to argue that we are all aware of all of this, but that the disposal is not priced properly, ask what the source of that problem is? And if you want to argue that OJ prices are not high enough to capture all of the external costs imposed on us from evil cardboard juice cartons, then ask, “are there no taxes already?” and how high would taxes have to be in order for you to agree that the “external cost has been paid for?” We’ve addressed all of these in earlier posts.

Generally these questions are asking what the real “disposal” problem is. Is it “not recycling” or is it something else? You may read the above as an “anti-recycling” post if you want, but that would be a poor interpretation of what I am trying to say.

2 Responses to “Costly and Wasteful Shipping and Land Use”

  1. Harry says:

    What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

    Of course you are not anti-recycling nor are any of us.

    Recycling though is not an end in itself, an organizing principle, even though it is commonly treated as such as if it were one of thy Ten Commandments.

    Speaking of New York real estate and trash, isn’t there a big landfill in Staten Island that was eventually going to be real estate, like Troy?

  2. Rod says:

    Here I thought New York’s trash now goes to Pennsylvania, where places like Shenandoah and Mahanoy City welcome trash as fuel for co-generation plants that also burn low-grade coal, or culm, as it’s called. They also welcome such things as prisons up there, so why not let the prisoners sort the trash for aluminum cans and burn the plastics and other organic stuff in the trash incinerators?

    Don’t you have to get permission from the Mob to haul trash in the New Yoik area? At least that’s what I learned from The Sopranos.

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