The whole point is sacrifice

Sunday, August 18th, 2019

Is recycling useful, Michael Munger asks, or is it garbage?

And “recycling” is, after all, not just one homogeneous activity, but a whole collection of possible streams of waste or resources, each of which has to be evaluated separately. Should we recycle aluminum cans? Probably, because the price of recycling aluminum compares very favorably to using virgin materials, the mining and smelting of which are expensive in terms of energy and harmful to the environment.

Should we recycle toilet paper? We could, at some price. But it’s likely not worth it, because it can be composted, it would be awfully hard to clean and sort, and in any case paper products are actually a renewable resource, rather like wheat. You rarely hear someone saying, “Save the wheat! Give up bread!” But that kind of argument is often made for paper, even though the trees grown to produce pulp are simply a fast-growing crop grown on farms expressly for that purpose.

For recycling to be a socially commendable activity, it has to pass one of two tests: the profit test, or the net environmental-savings test. If something passes the profit test, it’s likely already being done. People are already recycling gold or other commodities from the waste stream, if the costs of doing so are less than the amount for which the resource can be sold.

Voluntary “recycling” like scrap iron or aluminum businesses will take care of that on their own. The real question arises with mandatory recycling programs — people recycle because they will be fined if they don’t, not because they expect to make money—or “voluntary” recycling programs such as those at universities or other communities where failure to recycle earns you public shaming.

For coercive or social-pressure recycling to make sense, three things have to be true.

1. Scale. You need substantial amounts of the “input,” or garbage. Hauling small amounts is wasteful. Many suburban neighborhoods in the U.S. have small amounts of recycling out by the curb, and fossil fuel–powered trucks come by spewing greenhouse gases. Part of the reason wheat and pork bellies are valuable is that the average costs of transport and handling are low, because the scale is so large. I once watched a young woman in Vitacura, Chile, wait in line in her idling auto for more than 10 minutes so she could park and put two two-liter plastic bottles into a recycle bin. That’s not economics, that’s a religious ceremony. Without scale, most recycling harms the environment.

2. Convenience. There is one resource we can’t get more of: time. Our lives pass quickly, and we have many things to do. But we are asked to donate our time to recycling, to “save” resources. We are asked to wash out and clean the stuff (I actually know people who run their garbage through the dishwasher, so it will be clean. Think of the time, coal-produced electricity, and hot water that uses.) Then we are supposed to sort the garbage and deliver it to the recycling facility.

Why isn’t this done at the recycling facility? Because the government realizes (correctly) it is too expensive, and the costs would swamp the tiny savings, if there are any, in doing recycling in the first place. But if the costs of cleaning and sorting are too great at scale, with commercial resources, why isn’t the sum of the individual costs of cleaning and sorting, in each household, even greater?

If you add up the time being wasted on recycling rituals, it’s even more expensive to ask each household to do it. The difference is that this is an implicit tax, a donation required of citizens, and doesn’t cost money from the public budget. But time is the least renewable of all resources; demanding that it be donated to a pointless or even harmful ritual such as recycling glass is government malpractice.

3. Environmental savings. For recycling to make any sense, it must cost less to dispose of recycled material than to put the stuff in a landfill. But we have plenty of landfill space, in most of the country. And much of the heaviest material we want to recycle, particularly glass, is chemically inert and will not decompose in a landfill.

Ground “recycled” glass, or “cullet,” is less useful than the virgin silica sand from which glass is made. Cullet has impurities and chemical colorings that make it difficult to use for glass without further processing. To be clear, then: landfilling glass does no environmental harm, and the glass is more expensive than the virgin material it is supposed to replace. Further, glass is heavy, and carting it to distant processing centers, in any but the most urban areas, pollutes the air.

So, is recycling useful? As I said at the outset, for some things it is. Aluminum cans and corrugated cardboard, if they can be collected clean and at scale, are highly recyclable. I myself, on finding an aluminum can in the garbage, will generally take it out and try to find a recycle bin. It seems dumb to waste the aluminum, even though the value of the aluminum in one can is less than 2 cents.

But for most other things, recycling harms the environment. I’m not (just) saying it’s costly. I’m saying recycling is harmful. If you care about the environment, you should put your bottles and other glass in the regular garbage, every time.


Once you begin to think of recycling as a symbol of religious devotion rather than a pragmatic solution to environmental problems, the whole thing makes more sense.

As in any religious ceremony, the whole point is sacrifice: Abraham was ready to slay Isaac; Catholics give up meat during Lent; Muslims fast all day during Ramadan. And a young woman in Chile with two two-liter bottles sits in her car in line, knowing she is publicly visible and that her green moral virtue is apparent to everyone.


  1. Wang Wei Lin says:

    Since civilized countries generally try not to crap in their nests by cleaning up after themselves the ultimate measure of recycling efficiency is cost. It’s that simple.

  2. Mike in Boston says:

    If something passes the profit test, it’s likely already being done.

    Here in eastern Massachusetts, I am told that haulers charge a municipality less to dispose of single stream recycling than to dispose of garbage. So recycling passes, if not a profit test, then at least a cost test. Although it is conceivable that this is due to some other market distortion somewhere.

    All this nonsense would be moot if we had working plasma gasification of garbage, but I haven’t heard much about that since back in 2012. InEnTec, the outfit featured in that link hasn’t had a press release since 2017. Hopefully someone else has picked up the, er, flame.

  3. Dick Illyes says:

    Thermal depolymerization seemed to have great promise but has vanished from the discussion. I followed the test for turkey guts in Missouri and it seemed that it was the victim of unusual governmental interference. Claims of odor problems seemed made up, and the corn ethanol mania overwhelmed everything.

    Commercial hog farms would totally fail the same tests, and probably commercial sized chicken and turkey operations. A favorite comment from that era was that a commercial hog operation announced that they had cut odor emissions in half. What formerly smelled like 60,000 hogs now only smelled like 30,000.

  4. Graham says:

    In future I must remember to offer a submissive hand gesture to Mother Gaia when shoving my plastics into the blue bin.

  5. Graham says:

    Wang Wei Lin,

    Well put, though your first sentence reminded me of that Mad Men episode in which the Draper family picnicked in the park and, at the end, just shook the blanket into the grass with all garbage untended.

    Presumably they assumed some park worker would come by with a stick eventually, or perhaps there were no receptacles then. The 60s is a bit before my time. By the 70s and 80s we had garbage cans in the parks in Toronto. Or maybe they just didn’t care.

    Many people at the time of the episode suggested that’s how it actually was in those times, prior to the anti-littering campaigns of the late 60s and early 70s.

    I remember thinking, wow, there’s a PR-facilitated social transformation I could get behind. When I was a kid in the 70s I was also fascinated by the lingering practice of throwing garbage out of a moving car into the ditch at the side of the highway.

    I’m not exactly a champion of green causes, but I can’t get into the headspace of piggishly [metaphor, no insult to pig hygiene] tossing one’s crap everywhere and moving on. Maybe if I were an outdoorsman, I’d have trouble with the necessity of carting out actual human waste from some environments, but other than that I’m down with tidiness.

    Although, it does occur to me that this sort of concern is largely an artifact of the age of packaged goods, relatively new still in the 60s. If your picnic had consisted entirely of home cooked foods, fruits, and similar organic matter served on non disposable dining ware, as once was the case, then I guess leaving a little organic waste around might still seem gross to us now but is at least biodegradable and in the long human tradition.

    All in all, I’m pleased to have at least one example of social change orchestrated by government and non-profit entities and the media that I can support.

  6. Jay Dee says:

    An outdoorsman respects the environment and disposes of their trash responsibly.

    Part of the issue with recycling is that the government is locked into one mode of thinking. Glass containers must be recycled into glass containers. When this doesn’t work, then the glass is landfilled rather than used in place of gravel in asphalt and concrete.

    Theoretically plastic shopping bags can be recycled into more shopping bags if the originals are clean enough. If.

    Plastic shopping bags can be processed into a lumber substitute which works very well. Another interesting use for plastic shopping bags is asphalt. The bags are slit into long strips and mixed into asphalt. The bags improve the durability of asphalt roadways.

  7. Slovenian Guest says:

    It’s a luxury even, because we are paying for the privilege! I remember we were told how recycling would lover our trash collecting bill, now a few years down the road we pay triple, and the garbage collectors wake me up every day, not just one day out of the week. But the worst are probably the millions of man hours of productivity lost to this.

    I highly recommend watching:

  8. B.J. Dubbs says:

    The right has been saying this for a long time, but it’s interesting that the left is beginning to agree. For a long time the left saw recycling as a kind of consciousness raising that might be practically ineffective but now you’re more likely to hear leftists say “This is bullshit. This is just neoliberal pseudo-politics that pretends to change the world but actually changes nothing.”

Leave a Reply