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May 28, 2007

Timmy Elsewhere

This appears in The Times this morning:

Recycling is based on the near-religious belief that everything has value, everything is worth saving, except your time.

A rather strange belief, given how few of us go into that long, dark night complaining of too much time on our hands while here. Thus, when the acolytes of the faith suggest a new form of Gaia worship, we should have a close look at what this means in terms of our time, as with the latest proposals for recycling domestic waste.

A study into the time spent sorting rubbish to recycle in Seattle showed that for recyclables the average per household was 16 minutes a week. Add in food and garden waste and it rose to 43 minutes. There are 24 million households in the UK, so that adds up to a significant cost – but how should we measure this in monetary terms? We have a law that forbids us from selling our time at less than about £5 an hour: you know it as the minimum wage but it does help us with our calculation, since that is evidently the minimum possible value of our labour. The Worstall Calculator (envelope, 1, pencil, 1) tells us that our time spent in sorting our rubbish by these new rules has a cost of between £1.7 and £4.5 billion.

This might make sense and it might not, depending on what costs we are trying to avoid by employing ourselves in this manner. Fortunately, we again have the Government’s word for this, in a report called   Waste Not Want Not from the Strategy Unit. The concern driving the whole process is that domestic waste disposal costs some £1.6 billion a year and that this will rise to £3.2 billion by 2020.

The solution being proposed is thus that we should spend more money than the cost of the entire waste disposal process in sorting the rubbish, before we spend still more collecting it, recycling or incinerating it and then tipping the remainder into the same holes in the ground that we’ve always used. The system will cost more in total than the old one in the name of saving money.

I called the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to check the figures. How much time had it used in its estimates ? What was the cost in the analysis? The answer was that it had no estimate. Another way to put this is that – according to the Government, as well as the Gaian acolytes – your time is worth nothing.

There is a legitimate concern about methane emissions from food rotting in landfills. Fortunately, as Elliot Morley (at that time a Defra minister) told the Commons in 2004, this has already been solved: all modern landfills collect this greenhouse gas and use it to create energy.

This rather provides an answer to the question of how we are governed today and I hope you won’t accuse me of understatement if I suggest that the answer is “not very well”.

May 28, 2007 in The Blogger Himself | Permalink

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Comments

TW: ¨We have a law that forbids us from selling our time at less than about £5 an hour: you know it as the minimum wage..¨

TW: ¨Another way to put this is that – according to the Government, as well as the Gaian acolytes – your time is worth nothing.¨

Wonderful!

Posted by: APL | May 28, 2007 8:57:20 AM

I'm not sure you can draw the conclusions you do from the Seattle survey showing that there was an average of 16m spent recycling each week. For a start the mean hourly wage in that survey was about $32/hour, implying that the recycling 'cost' each household about $8 per member, so let's say $16 a week. Yet 54% said they would not be willing to spend $2 a week to have the sorting done centrally. Furthermore when asked whether they would rather scrap the scheme (which will save them the money) they said they wouldn't, and 95% would pay $3 a week to keep it going. Furthermore, though the sample sizes were very small, 54% said they would spend up to half an hour longer doing it if it raised the recycling target.

None of these results (and there are a lot more of them) seem that consistent, so I think you would need to do a much more rigourous survey into attitudes to decide whether or not it was worth it in terms of time spent v cost saved. The easiest way, I suppose, would be to grant householders a rebate if they recycle, which can be set at say average wage times 16 mins, and those that don't clearly value their time more highly.

Tim adds: But before we do any of that we need to work out whether recycling is actually a good idea or not, don't we?

Posted by: Matthew | May 28, 2007 3:38:56 PM

Of course, the important difference here is that saving my time doesn't create any more time for anyone else. Saving aluminium, say, or energy resources does.

Tim adds: But in that time you're not recycling you could indeed be creating something for someone else to use.

Posted by: Alex | May 28, 2007 4:25:24 PM

"But before we do any of that we need to work out whether recycling is actually a good idea or not, don't we?"

I thought you were claiming it was the time taken * minimum wage that made it not a good idea?

Tim adds: No, my complaint is that no value is applied to the time taken.

Posted by: Matthew | May 28, 2007 8:26:23 PM

£4.5billion? Nah, Gordon does not get out of bed unless he can rob or waste at least £5billion...

Posted by: Roger Thornhill | May 29, 2007 8:38:10 AM