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Well said from a former colleague of mine, John Barry.

On “Earth Day” our children’s schools will be festooned with reminders of the supposed importance of recycling. No one will question the presumed moral imperative that “everyone should recycle.” Education, in short, will yield to indoctrination.

All too often in our schools, recycling is not assessed impartially; it is promoted as a supposedly costless and virtuous deed, to the extent that its practice has come to resemble a religious rite. But whether to recycle is not a sacrament but a personal choice and many of us, to the consternation of “green” zealots, prefer rational inquiry to theology.

Whether to recycle is, after all, a question of resource utilization in a world in which resources are scarce relative to our various competing demands for them. There is a well developed social science designed precisely to address this reality. That science is economics.

Resources can be classified as land (including natural resources), labor (human effort) or capital (factories and equipment). Many environmentalists naively assert that recycling saves resources. Throwing a paper cup in the trash is assumed to be wasteful while recycling is invariably credited with saving trees. Both claims deserve scrutiny.

Does the convenient disposal of a paper cup represent waste in a world of disappearing resources, or is it a sign of growing abundance? When the price of a thing falls so low
that it becomes disposable after a single use (e.g. a paper cup) we have evidence of improved resource efficiency. Prices reflect costs of production, and therefore measure the availability of inputs.

A paper cup requires land (trees to make paper), labor, and capital (machinery to automate processing). Someone has figured out a way to combine those resources so efficiently that the cost of disposing of a cup, relative to the cost of reusing one, has become trivial. If the relevant resources were vanishing as fast as many would have us believe, cups would be instead be growing ever more expensive and their disposal would be unthinkable.

There is no reason to believe recycling is efficient. If it were labor-efficient, someone would pay me to sort my trash. Disposing of a paper cup is one less glass I have to wash, while recycling requires that I spend time sorting garbage. If it were capital-efficient, the recycling industry would be thriving, but it is currently on the ropes. A recent New York Times article pointed out that Harvard University, instead of selling its recyclables, now has to pay $20 per ton to have it hauled away. Recyclables ultimately may wind up as landfill because when the availability of all resources is considered, recycling is an inefficient alternative.

In his classic tome “The Armchair Economist” Steven Landsburg makes short work of the appealing claim that recycling “saves trees.” Recycling reduces the demand for trees. This devaluation of trees pushes their price downward and therefore discourages paper companies from growing them. It is entirely conceivable that recycling could ultimately induce these firms to “grow” condominiums as a more attractive alternative.

Faced with growing landfill costs, many municipalities turn to recycling. But this is a response to a political problem (no one wants a dump nearby), not a dramatic dwindling of available land, per se. Using data from the EPA, Dr. Michael Rizzo of the University of Rochester has estimated that over the next 1,000 years, even if the U.S. were to double its current rate of annual trash output, we could bury all of it in a field no more than 150 feet deep and 80 miles square.

Nevertheless, if political realities have indeed created a landfill “shortage”, why does it follow that we must be subject to moral browbeating or coercive laws requiring that we separate our recyclables? Economics suggests a far less threatening and more resource-efficient approach: charge consumers per pound of trash generated versus the currently used flat rate. This would induce consumers to confront the reality of increasing marginal landfill costs, but in a manner they see fit. Some might choose to recycle, while others might demand goods with less packaging; the power of the purse would spur countless innovations without need of moral exhortation.

Sound science belies environmentalists’ claim to the moral high ground. Compulsory recycling amounts to forced labor for the gratification of others. Let’s hope our schools still teach that slavery has been abolished.

John Barry is president and CEO, American Investment Services, Inc.

3 Responses to “The Science and Sacrament of Recycling”

  1. Patrick says:

    Get this, because I know it’ll annoy you:

    I was just telling one of my friends all of this, and their response was “Interesting opinion, but I’ll keep to recycling”.

    I was just speechless. I guess I didn’t get the memo when believing in supply and demand principles became an “Interesting opinion”.


    I like how you tagged this under “Religion” though, haha. It’s a label that seems more apt by the moment.

  2. Michael says:

    Hey Patrick,
    It doesn’t annoy me at all. The great thing is he is free to recycle all he wants, but the problem is when others force me to recycle things I don’t want to recycle.

    It is interesting to get in a discussion of what is recycling. When I reuse a shirt, is it recycling? After all, I could throw it away after each use. What if I give it to Goodwill? What if I sell it in a garage sale? What if I use it to make a blanket? What if I find a shirt in the garbage? What if I find two halves of shirts and sew them to become a new shirt? The idea behind this is that I claim people really do recycle a lot more than for what they are given credit. But, as the article states, it has to be worthwhile in order for us to do it.

  3. Harry says:

    Having grown up on a dairy farm, and having nurtured many wintercows, winterheifers, and wintercalves, we always recycled everything we could, including manure. It was only on a trip on a bus when I learned from my seatmate, an editor from Organic Gardening, that this was good, only he was horrified to find out that I put 10-20-20 into the grain drill and corn planter.

    Another nine or ten years later I was teaching, on the first Earth Day. I regret I was not better equipped for that public relations extravaganza to rebut what in retrospect was the first volley to change the subject from freedom versus collectivism to Green versus freedom. I do remember telling my English classes not to believe everything they saw in print, and telling them of my background of milking cows and growing corn did not mean we all should surrender to Rachael Carson.

    Looking back, it was a time when elite colleges had abandoned requirements for study of serious science, and when I learned from a cousin that she was studying Ecology in the ninth grade in her free-form public school. “Free-form” meant your school was like a dairy farm that gave cattle Free Choice in selecting how much hay or silage they wished to feed on: mill around, eat whatever tastes good, and when you are milked we’ll give you some grain.

    This is one way to treat cows well, and we did more. If you want happy cows, which I always did, treat them well! Curry them, clip them, keep them cool, feed them what they want at the same time every day, milk them at the same time, give them plenty of water, and sweep the hay they missed into their mangers at night.

    My problem is that the Sierra Club, Henry Waxman, and Rahm Immanuel are goat ropers who want to milk us and stick us with the problem of getting rid of the manure, disallowing the opportunity to recycle it to a productive use.

    In my experience, you never can get enough manure.

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