« Reach Out and Touch Someone. | Main | Gordon Brown. »

February 15, 2006

Recycling Rubbish

People do spout some tosh about recycling at times:

Well, what is wrong with this? Recycling is rather a good idea. Britain produces more than 434 million tonnes of rubbish a year (we each throw out an average half a tonne of domestic waste) and the heap is growing at a rate of three per cent a year. Anything we can do to reduce that can only be to the good.

Not true. Recycling, in and of itself, is not an unadulterated good. There is no merit in recycling if doing so uses more resources than landfill. Paper recycling is one form of this stupidity. Almost all paper is made from trees specifically grown to make paper. The recycling process itself creates toxic waste and uses more energy than making primary paper. It’s a near-religious mumbo jumbo that we should be trying to recycle everything.

What we should be doing is recycling those things where it uses less resources to do so than not. There is indeed a place for green taxes to internalise those external costs which aren’t already incorporated in the price but once that is done simply fuck off and let the market get on with it.

Why do four apples require a specially moulded polystyrene tray, a separate specially moulded plastic cover and plastic cling film, none of which can be recycled? Why does the only way to open virtually anything involve tearing off a plastic/paper strip, which then has to be thrown away? Why are bottles not sold with a deposit, giving you the incentive to return them and get the money back?

Food packaging? Remember that garbologist in the PJ O’Rourke piece? Mexicans use half the packaging and throw away twice the food of Americans? Deposits on bottles? The energy required to collect and wash them is more than that required to make new perhaps? (No, I don’t know that that is true, just a suggestion.)

Why do so many businesses use envelopes with plastic windows, which cannot be recycled?

Because it means that they do not have to print the address on the envelope? Less use of resources you see....and as above, not recycling paper is a very good idea.

February 15, 2006 in Environmentalism | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Recycling Rubbish:


"There is indeed a place for green taxes to internalise those external costs which aren’t already incorporated in the price"

That depends totally on what is done with the money raised by this tax.

Tim adds: No Rob, one of the few cases when it doesn’t. By internalising externalities we are making the whole system more efficient, making markets work better.

Posted by: Rob Read | Feb 15, 2006 10:48:08 AM

There is no merit in recycling if doing so uses more resources than landfill.

Surely that should be: recycling is useful if by doing so one uses less resources than landfill and producing a replacement.

Posted by: Andy | Feb 15, 2006 1:06:00 PM

So can someone tell me what is "worth it" to recycle.

Posted by: andrewf | Feb 15, 2006 1:08:57 PM

"So can someone tell me what is "worth it" to recycle."

Aluminium is one example IIRC.

Tim adds: Aluminium indeed. You can trade futures in the beverage cans in the US if you should so wish. Most metals are worth recycling. Standard part of a demolition contract that whatever is received from selling the scrap metal (cables etc) gets knocked off the final bill. The second hand car market, e-Bay, Oxfam shops, all examples of recycling that’s "worth doing".

Posted by: Bishop Hill | Feb 15, 2006 1:31:42 PM

Some paper recycling is worthwhile. Paper mills are so heterogeneous that it is difficult to say anything general about "paper" as a category.

Posted by: dsquared | Feb 15, 2006 2:07:03 PM

If you don't ringfence the money then the money the government gets from this tax then gets given to say chavs, and in five years time youre burying a mountain of Burberry.

Tim adds: Nah, just reduce other taxes at the same time.

Posted by: Rob Read | Feb 15, 2006 5:55:36 PM

More recycling can be good or bad for the environment. It's not an end in itself, but might be one means to an end. Instead of having Mickey Mouse targets like recycling percentages, we should target identifiable environmental outcomes. My website describes how government can do this, while the market works out how best to achieve these outcomes.

Posted by: Ronnie Horesh | Feb 16, 2006 9:09:21 AM

Get real!

When's that ever happened?

Posted by: Rob Read | Feb 16, 2006 12:42:44 PM

Damn! Must be more than one D-squared, but I got no idea which is the imposter. The other one spouts party-line nonsense at Abiola's and this one says sensible things.

Recycling paper is hardly a model for the benefits of recycling in general. Recycling is always done to the extent feasible (economical)--the market sees to that. But the term "recycling" actually refers, instead, to the MANDATED practice. Obviously, waste streams vary significantly in their amenability to (efficient) re-use. Some, like paper, are so readily (and economically, i.e., profitably) reusable that, by and large, the overwhelming portion recycled today differs not much from the days before recycling became either fashionable or mandatory. I saw some figures not so long ago--maybe 10 years or so--indicating that the difference was about +6%.

I am not entirely opposed to coercive measures to keep the environment clean: the problems caused by externalities (both costs and benefits) seem actually reasonably well handled (though it's difficult to "get a handle" on just how great are those costs in enforcement and diminished productivity). And, we'll likely be saddled with such undemonstrable reasonableness until such time as people come generally to realize that the problem arises simply as a result of the fact that the environment is threatened, not because it's lying around helpless but because it's in no private OWNER's interest to protect it--but I'm not holding my breath until that happens.

Posted by: gene berman | Feb 16, 2006 6:47:30 PM


The idea that gains in efficiency may be made by "internalizing an externality" is completely invalid. Facile, but invalid. Maybe even absolutely necessary in some cases--but nonetheless invalid. Note that I do not maintain that such efficiency is impossible, only that the reasoning underlying it is invalid. My chief criticism is that the costs can never be known with anything like the accuracy routine to markets. Every reason which might be advanced for the protection of public property is an even more powerful reason for the limitation of such property to the barest minimum. The "problem of economic calculation" which has, again and again, spelled the doom of socialist commonwealths, is at work constantly in every such instance; the government (at any level) administrator can never (except accidentally) perform even as well as a barely-numerate street-vendor. Even the concept of "costs" must be bent out of all economic sense--into a type of political term conveying nothing much more than the amount that may be coerced by some from the pockets of others.

To paraphrase, "today, external costs--tomorrow, the world!"

Posted by: gene berman | Feb 16, 2006 10:47:11 PM

What sort of small government is that can apply "green taxes to internalise those external costs"? I spy the thin end of a wedge which may even have a slippery slope......

Posted by: Hughes Views | Feb 16, 2006 11:10:37 PM

@gene :

"My chief criticism [of taxes on externalities] is that the costs can never be known with anything like the accuracy routine to markets"

This criticism, however, applies to *any* attempt to reduce the externalities.

Eg, suppose the govt decides to cut Carbon Pollution by direct action, eg giving subsidies on solar power. They still have to decide how much it's worth paying per ton of CO2 reduction - and this is still just as difficult as if a tax on extrenalities were introduced.

Worse, the govt must decide what direct action gives the best bang for their buck. Eg, is subsidies on solar really best? Or should they give subsidies for home insulation? Fuel additives? LPG? Nuclear?

Back to internalizing extrenalities - after estimates on the cost of the externality have been made (by whatever means one chooses), at least the choice of the cheapest way to meet that cost is left to the market.

Eg, by introducing a congestion charge, the govt leaves it to the individual commuter to decide the best way of dealing with the cost - eg, catch a bus, walk, get a new job or just pay it. Although we still don't know if our charge is the right amount, at least we now know the cheapest way to reduce inner-city congestion by a given amount.

Can you get this latter information any other way?

Posted by: Mike H | May 4, 2010 7:03:33 AM