We need not recount here the very simple economics required to determine whether recycling makes sense. The reality of the recycling world is that most of the “valuable” stuff out there is already being recycled and reused, and the question on residential recycling is about how we deal with low-value or even value-less trash in a way that avoids some perceived problems associated with its disposal. There are better or worse ways to proceed with that question, but the clear lesson from the literature, or even basic armchair theorizing, is that even if recycling residential wastes improves environmental conditions, they do so in such an inconceivably small way as to be totally negligible. It’s just not anything that is going to save the planet.
Obsessing about whether recycling saves fuel, or saves leaching in landfills, or conserves resources is a case of deck-chairism, and if we are actually interested in doing things that are useful to the planet and its people, the conversation ought to be moved in a better direction.
Universities are almost uniquely obsessed with recycling. The amount of resources and energy (intellectual and actual) dedicated to awareness, making bins pretty and noticeable, and so on is a distraction and it harms the environment in two ways, again directly and indirectly (don’t we see that a lot in economics).
The direct harm to the environment is obvious – any bit of energy, teaching, programming, etc. dedicated to recycling is not being dedicated to programming, research, energy on environmental programs that have a vastly greater impact on environmental health and human well-being. If we dedicated every minute of recycling energy even to just sending a few dollars to malaria relief foundations, the world would be a considerably better place, for example.
But here is the bigger problem, as the former problem will always be with us (it just kicks the intellectual can down the road, “e.g. if we spend some resources helping solve malaria, why not spend even more?”. The bigger problem of course is one that is less popular to think about. As you may sense already, almost no one gives a real damn about the environment. I’ve seen surveys where 2 out of 5 people claim they don’t care at all, and the remaining 60% say that the way they help the planet is by recycling and using new lightbulbs. Well, hell. Neither lightbulbs nor recycling is going to do anything about the planet. And remember, we live in a world of perpetual “box checkers” … our school system turned us all into them. Once our enlightened planet savers have “checked the box” by carefully sorting their recyclables, and even washing their recyclable plastic, phew, they’re done. Moving on to the next cause. Meanwhile sea levels continue to rise.
Our attention is limited. Our resources are limited. And most people don’t care about the things the way we wish them too. The gobs of energy dedicated to recycling out not to be cause for celebration, it should make us all ashamed, at least if we care enough about the planet as our bumper stickers suggest we do.