Volume 3, Number 91
15 December 2003

Mandatory Recycling

by Asa Janney

Dear Friends,

My wife and I have experienced 31 years of blissful marriage. We are quite compatible and get along really well except for a few moments every Thursday evening when we have a big fight over recycling. On Thursday nights I push our trash dumpster up our 100-meter, uphill driveway to the main road. She would have me separate out the aluminum cans, plastics, and paper and come back to make another trip up the driveway. The second trip involves getting out a wheelbarrow, and later putting it away, because of the weight and bulk involved. Some years ago I revolted. I tried explaining to her that newspapers are made of a natural product that won't hurt anyone by rotting in a landfill. Glass is made from sand, one of our most abundant natural resources, and also will sit quietly in a landfill. Besides, no one is paying me to do all this. But she has been unimpressed by my arguments, so I decided to study recycling to see whether the experts could either impress her or convince me that I am wrong.

Recycling is as old as human society. In "Eight Great Myths of Recycling" Daniel Benjamin writes:  "Until recently, decisions about whether to recycle or not were generally left to individuals and firms."  Now rubbish has become a matter of federal regulation.

The modern era of government involvement in waste disposal and recycling began in the spring of 1987 with the odyssey of the Mobro, a garbage barge that set off from New York with 3200 tons of ordinary trash. The barge’s original destination was a landfill in Louisiana, but its captain tried to shorten the trip by negotiating with Jones County, NC while he was under way. When he docked at Morehead City, NC before securing a contract, local officials wondered, "What’s the rush," and refused the deal. Rumors spread that the Mobro’s cargo was hazardous; the original site in Louisiana cancelled its offer; and the Mobro sailed 6000 miles for two months vainly looking for a landfill that would take its load.

The history of recycling is filled with misinformation, beginning with this event. The physical availability of landfill capacity was not an issue here, but that’s how it was reported in the press. A live reporter on the barge said that the situation, "really dramatizes the nationwide crisis we face with garbage disposal."  Three agencies, each actually acting in its own self-interest, stepped forward to save the nation. The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), which had been unsuccessfully pushing household recycling, worked the event for all it was worth. An EDF official commented, "An advertising firm couldn’t have designed a better vehicle than a garbage barge."  The National Solid Waste Management Association (NSWMA), eager to promote the expansion of landfill capacity, said, "landfill capacity in North America continues to decline."  The EPA backed the notion that a crisis was upon us, announcing that the number of landfills in the US was declining.

Then the popular-press science writers got into the act. Al Gore asserted that we were running out of ways to dispose of waste. Isaac Asimov and Frederick Pohl wrote, "almost all the existing landfills are reaching their maximum capacity, and we are running out of places to put new ones."  These statements are simply wrong, but as a result of  these and thousands of similar pronouncements, by 1995 Americans thought trash was our primary environmental problem; 77 percent said the solution was increased recycling of household rubbish.

What is the truth about landfill capacity?  By the mid-1990s landfill capacity was 14 years of fill; that rose to 18 years by 2001. If we permit fills to a typical depth of 255 feet, a single landfill capable of holding all of America’s garbage in the 21st century would be only ten miles on a side. The EPA made its pronouncements even though it had recently caused the efficient scale of landfills to rise by a factor of two to four to deal with new environmental controls and safeguards. Without accounting for the effect of their own regulations, it assumed that the falling count of landfills implied a fall in capacity. In fact, capacity was rising, and EPA later corrected itself.

Government intervention in the market is another feature of this saga. For example, New Jersey decided to regulate waste hauling as a public utility out of concern for claims of price gouging by organized crime. Once the politicians were in charge, they tried to "fix the problem" by fiat and would not allow landfill costs to be passed on to consumers. This made things look better only in the very short run. With the fees that landfills could charge falling below the cost of operation, investment in landfills stopped, and the number of landfills in New Jersey fell from 331 in 1972 to 13 in 1988. New Jersey has been exporting half of its municipal garbage to Pennsylvania alone. In the end, the citizens of New Jersey have had to pay not less but more, lots more, for garbage disposal.

Pennsylvania makes an interesting contrast, as the Commonwealth has not imposed regulation on landfill and incinerator operators. Thus, market competition has kept fees below the national average. In one recent year New Jersey had two pending applications for new landfills while Pennsylvania had 31, despite the fact that New Jersey residents have been paying the highest disposal rates in the country.

Another persistent bit of misinformation is that landfills are a health hazard; the modern ones are not. The technology of sanitary landfills has been worked out since their origins in Great Britain in the 1920s. Incineration reached a peak during World War II, but landfills became the most popular disposal method over the next 25 years. While some older landfills, some of which were built on swamps, may pose some environmental problems, today’s landfills are sited and designed so that little water seeps in, and the leachate that does drain out is captured and sent to wastewater treatment plants. Little biodegradation occurs because so little oxygen gets into the fill. The EPA acknowledges that the risks to humans from modern landfills are virtually nonexistent. They are estimated to cause one case of cancer every 50 years. The estimated cancer rates for celery, pears, and lettuce are all much higher than that.

Despite the facts on landfills, environmentalists and the governments they influenced introduced widespread mandatory recycling. One of their claims was that recycling saves resources. I use the economic method to evaluate this claim — add up the values of the resources saved and subtract the values of the extra resources consumed and see whether the net value is positive. You have to be careful when you sift through the studies that purport to have used this accepted method; some add up the benefits and leave out costs. Particularly in the analysis of curbside recycling many studies leave out important elements, such as state and local subsidies and recycling’s share of overhead. Sometimes only part of the process is examined. For example, aluminum scrap delivered to a factory that makes aluminum cans is quite valuable, but this leaves out the costs of getting the scrap to the factory. Finally, some analyses engage in double-counting. Recycling often uses less energy and raw materials. However, these features are reflected in the price of recyclable materials. Pointing out these features as extra advantages double-counts them.

All the careful studies I found (e.g. Franklin Associates, 1997) determined that the value of the materials recovered from curbside recycling is far less than the extra costs of collection, transportation, sorting, and processing. Thus, selling the aluminum, paper, plastic, glass, etc. that are recoverable from household trash does not pay for recycling them. One factor that determines this result is that the avoided costs of trash disposal are low; even though households that practice curbside recycling send less trash to the landfill, it does not save much. Barbara Stevens found that the average avoided cost of landfill tipping fees was $7.00 per household per year. On the other side of the ledger, the extra cost of picking up households recyclables is high.

Consider the case of New York City, which loses money on its curbside recycling program. It has to pay extra administrators who run a continual public relations campaign to explain what to do with dozens of different products. You can recycle milk jugs but not milk cartons and index cards but not construction paper. The city has enforcement agents inspect garbage and issue tickets. But most of all, recycling requires extra collection crews and trucks. Collecting a ton of recyclable items is three times more expensive than collecting a ton of garbage because the crews pick up less material at each stop. For every ton of glass, plastic and metal that a truck delivers to a private recycler, the city currently spends $200 more than it would spend to bury the material in a landfill. This $200/ton includes paying $40/ton to private recyclers to take the materials because their processing costs exceed the eventual sales price of the recycled materials. More generally, the not-for-profit group Keep America Beautiful estimates that curbside recycling adds fifteen percent to the cost of waste disposal.

Rather than conducting this expensive experiment with curbside recycling, could the result that it is uneconomic have been predicted?  I think so. People and households are economic agents. They reuse and recycle items within the home until their value is low and their cost to recycle is high. Then the item is discarded. So mandatory curbside recycling tries and fails to find value in items that households have declared worthless.

But suppose there were economies of scale so that someone who collected large amounts of a certain type of recyclable could squeeze some value from it?  In that case, the private sector outside of households would have jumped on it. Indeed, it did. Before mandatory recycling was introduced, about ten percent of household trash was recycled. Much more, about 60 percent, of industrial waste was recycled because of the higher concentrations that lower the costs of recycling. This brings to mind another recycling myth:  If recycling were not mandated, it would not happen. But indeed, it happens where it is economical. American industry voluntarily recycles 60 million tons of ferrous metals, seven million tons of nonferrous metals, and 30 million tons of paper, glass, and plastic per year. These amounts tower above the totals from mandatory recycling at all levels of government.

Let’s consider one more issue on curbside recycling. None of these estimates of the cost of recycling is complete because they do not account for the cost of our time to sort our trash and neatly arrange it in color-coded bins at the curb. Even the best private studies I quoted above only mention this cost without putting a value on it; the government studies either do not mention it or imply that we should donate our time as good citizens. John Tierney, author of "Recycling is Garbage," measured the time it takes to comply with New York’s mandatory household recycling rules and put a value of $12/hour on it — "a typical janitorial wage."  At that rate, each ton collected would cost an additional $792. If you add in the rental cost of the space in a New York City home needed to store the sorted materials, the total cost of collection rises to $3000/ton. He concludes, "Recycling may be the most wasteful activity in modern America: a waste of time and money, a waste of human and natural resources."

The claim that recycling always protects the environment is another myth. Again, you have to look at the big picture. Recycling is not just stacking your newspapers at the curb; it also involves a manufacturing process which has environmental consequences. The EPA says that twelve toxic substances are found in both virgin and recycled paper processing. Eleven of these are present at higher levels in the recycling process. Steel and aluminum processing have similar mixed results. Many studies have repeatedly found that recycling can either increase or decrease pollution; it is not uniformly good for the environment.

Add to this the pollution by the extra trucks required for curbside recycling. Los Angeles found that it had to double its trash truck fleet from 400 to 800 to pick up household recycling. Consider not only the fumes those extra 400 truck release but also the pollutants generated by processing the steel, plastics, and other materials required to build the trucks.

Consider the environmental effects of recycling some particular products. Paper is an important one. Recycling newsprint creates more water pollution than making new paper — 5000 gallons more waste water per ton. When old newsprint is recycled, every hundred tons of de-inked fiber also produces 40 tons of toxic sludge that requires special disposal. Jerry Taylor of the Cato Institute said it well:  "Paper is an agricultural product, made from trees grown specifically for paper production. Acting to conserve trees by recycling paper is like acting to conserve cornstalks by cutting back on corn consumption."   Moreover, Canada makes most of our virgin newsprint using clean hydroelectric power while recycling newsprint in this country increases the consumption of fossil fuels.

How about disposable diapers, which the New York Times once called the "symbol of the nation’s garbage crisis"?  Systematic studies have found that disposable diapers make up about one percent of landfill contents, not the estimates of up to 25 percent that have been erroneously reported. Reusable diapers are not better for the environment. Using reusable diapers in favor of disposable consumes more than three times as much energy and produces ten times as much water pollution.

Reusing glass bottles consumes more energy than initial manufacture, because they consume heat for sterilization. Used bottles can be crushed and mixed with other materials to make aggregate, and glass is environmentally neutral in a landfill.

Some recycling supporters criticize nonreusable modern packaging as a big problem in landfills. Packaging makes up one-third of the volume of waste in landfills, but advances in packaging technology have reduced waste, not increased it, by preventing spoilage and breakage. For example, modern packaging and processing handles 1000 chickens with only seventeen pounds of packaging while recycling 2000 pounds of otherwise waste by-products into marketable products such as pet food. Although plastic packaging and fast-food containers seem wasteful, they actually reduce trash and save resources. McDonald’s Restaurant discards an average of less than two ounces of garbage per customer meal; that is less than the waste generated by a typical home meal. In Mexico City the typical household produces one-third more garbage even though it buys fewer packaged goods than an American household. Because Mexicans buy fresh foods in bulk, they throw away a large fraction that becomes spoiled or stale. Even though the number of packages entering landfills has been growing, the total weight is falling significantly. Over a recent twenty-year period the weight of discarded packaging fell by 40 percent.

Amid all the other mandated recycling goals arose a really strange one, "garbage independence."  We started to hear that a community, regardless of its size, should dispose of all its waste locally. Why should we saddle ourselves with a moral obligation to dispose of our garbage near home?  Most of the goods we consume were shipped to us from factories and farms at a distance. What could be  wrong with sending it out to be buried in places with open land?  James DeLong, commented, "With that kind of logic, you'd have to conclude that New York City has a food crisis because it can't grow all the vegetables its people need within the city limits, so it should turn Central Park into a farm and ration New Yorkers' consumption of vegetables to what they can grow there."

The image of high-income Americans picking trash is odd. Throughout history we have had trash pickers whose opportunity costs were so low that they could afford to browse through other peoples’ trash. When books were made from rags, rag picking was the profession of the lowest class. So, the private sector was engaged in voluntary recycling then, and we did not force those with valuable labor skills to engage in it.

To sum up, I believe that curbside recycling is a loser. I will not participate in it because it costs my community money. I compost my leaves and vegetable garbage because it helps my garden. I properly dispose of hazardous wastes, such as old batteries; that is not a recycling but a health-and-safety issue. When I have a worn-out lawn mower or a large amount of scrap aluminum or steel, I take it to the dump. They are accepted without charge into the recycling holding area, and aluminum and steel recycling are economic if they don’t have to bear the cost of collecting and sorting from households. So, I do not go out of my way to participate, because it is such a close call that adding in the cost of much of my time or making a special trip with my car would tip the balance against recycling.

I have read arguments that I should not think like an economist when it comes to deciding how to allocate my time among my civic-minded activities. I cannot see the logic in that. Whether I am thinking about my time at work or at leisure,  I have a limited amount of it, and solving a constrained optimization problem seems like a good model to use. In earthy terms, if I have to choose between sorting my trash and showing up to teach First Day school, the latter will win every time.

I have to cut this off now. It is trash night, and I want to give a copy of this to my wife before I wheel the dumpster up the hill.

Sincerely your friend,

Asa Janney

Readers' Comments

As a lawyer who has spent a fair amount of the last 20 years financing waste disposal facilities both conventional and not (waste to energy, waste to ethanol, pulp deinking, landfills, recycling facilities, landfill gas power plants) I can testify to the accuracy of Asa's economic analysis.

Some recycling is consistently cost effective (corrugated cardboard, municipal leaf composting, composting certain commercial food wastes). Household recycling is invariably subsidized even before the costs Asa mentions, like the extra cost of trucks and the tax (in labor) imposed on citizens. Transportation costs for uncompacted waste are extremely high, as is the resulting pollution from the trucks. I am not particularly happy about landfills, but we are certainly not running out. The "shortage" was actually mostly caused by government regulations being in flux in the late '80s, so that businesses were unwilling for a time to invest in new ones.

— Baird Brown, Central Philadelphia (PA) Meeting.

Poor Asa-in-the-middle-of-a-firestorm. But of course he should have KNOWN that simplistic feel-good environmentalism (recycling, composting, Sierra Club sloganeering, etc.) are at the very heart of many modern Friends' orthodoxy — not Truth, not facts, not data, not real science and certainly not real economics. But Quakers once were widely known as 'lovers of the Truth' and some still are, goodman Asa among them. God bless him and the land-fill operators.

— John Janda, Orange County (CA) Meeting.

THANK YOU! THANK YOU! THANK YOU! It is so refreshing to find someone who can put the lie to this most Politically Correct nonsense. On 6/30/96 an article in the New York Times Sunday magazine said essentially the same thing - recycling is neither environmentally necessary nor economically viable. But the facts will make absolutely no difference. Like so many other urban legends, recycling is 'true" because so many people believe it is true.

— Dick Bellin, Washington (DC) Friends Meeting.

I thought Asa's piece was terrific — loved it!

— John Spears, Princeton (NJ) Friends Meeting.

I thought Asa's piece was wonderful — stimulating, provocative, humorous. I think economic analyses are always worthwhile — even if we should decide to pursue a less "economic" course of action for personal, social, political, or ethical reasons.

Asa's essay is what TQE is all about and what I think we should be about as Quakers — challenging conventional wisdom, trying to consider the facts underlying the issues, looking beyond the rhetoric (regardless of the source), and putting our own assumptions on the table for review — and, if we can do it with a touch of humor, so much the better!  So, thanks, Asa. You did us all a service.

— Norval Reece, Newtown (PA) Friends Meeting.

Recycling is not an economic act anymore, it is a religious ceremony. After working in a plant that turned waste paper into cardboard many years ago, I developed a real jaundiced eye about recycling being good for the environment. Waste paper is dissolved by boiling water and the resulting slush is screened to get the long cellulose fiber out. The remaining slush, with its short cellulose fibers, inks, dyes, mordants, acids, and other things you wouldn't want to drink has to be disposed of. This was strictly a money-making operation that probably did more harm to the "holy" environment than using fresh wood pulp would. Ever since I've been a real fan of plastic bags. They may not be "organic" and dissolve readily but that is the good thing about them.

— Doug Chandler.

Rationality has a tendency to puncture sacred balloons, does it not? I am reminded of a local firm that stores acres (literally) of newsprint, presumably for recycling. They recently had their third major fire (no doubt arson each time). One wonders if any conceivable environmental gain from recycling is sufficient to outweigh the air pollution cause by repeated massive burns. In any case, Asa has added a breath of fresh air to the question.

— Ken Allison, Episcopalian, Paradise Valley, AZ.

Thanks for the great work on attempting to assess the overall impact of curbside recycling. As engineers, but not economists, my father and I have debated this very subject for years, but the opportunity cost of performing this research was not worth our perceived gain! To our view, when we allow government to enforce any activity upon us that cannot be proven to be immediately society-threatening, we are letting various entities limit our choices to those that they deem worthy. As my grandfather said, "A poor man is one who has no choices." Thus choices are good, and ultimately good for society.

— A. Hirzel, Kalamazoo, MI (non-Quaker).

I am late in my response, due to the ridiculous requirement that I sort out my "recyclables". Bravo for speaking truth to power! The absurdity of folks using their $25/hr time to schlep old newspapers and dirty plastic around in order to "save" anything needs more exposure. If you want more trees, buy a live Christmas tree and PLANT it!

— Christopher Viavant, Salt Lake City (UT) Meeting.

The issue of recycling has been pushed by "earth friendly" Quakers in my monthly and yearly meeting for many years. Whenever I try to speak to the concern that often recycling damages the earth more than not recycling, I get very strange looks indeed. Thanks for putting some light on a topic that has been buried underground for way too long.

— Free Polazzo, Anneewaukee Creek Friends Worship Group, Douglasville, GA.

Bravo! You make very clearly and succinctly the most important of points. Unless we can think clearly about costs, wishful thinking in favor of social behavior we think is preferable is unhelpful.

— C.L. Kincannon, Goose Creek Meeting (VA) and St. James Church.

Once again you have effectively and logically disposed of another politically-correct shibboleth. Aside from the point, I spoke to Ed Crane [Director of the Cato Insitute] today and he said he can not longer discern ANY difference between the Democrats and the Republicans. I suggested that the only imperative is to get rid of this particular Republican!

— Dick Wolf, Coral Gables, FL.

Clearly the environmental benefits of private trash recycling are dubious in the US where the alternative is safe cheap land fills. In Japan, in the cities they are crazy about recycling, because each town must handle its own waste, so there are many modern (clean) incinerators in downtown areas (Tokyo consists of some 28 towns). But in the countryside they use landfills and no recycling.

— Kruskal Hewitt, Media (PA) Meeting (sojourning Tokyo Meeting).

Nicely done. I will be interested to see if the vitriol regarding healthcare (in the present TQE) is as venemous as that regarding recycling. It will shed light on the political correctness of caring for the medically indigent (such as me and my family) vs. the political correctness of appearing to care for a planet not in need of that form of care.

— Boulder Barbie (aka Valerie Ireland), Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends.

A technical note: When TQE is written by someone other than Jack Powelson, the email sent out should say that it is from that author. I did a double take when I started reading this email, and I thought Jack was telling me that he and Robin had had 31 years of blissful marriage. What, so the other 19 years weren't as blissful?

— Larry Powelson, Seattle, WA.

Note: Larry is Robin's and my son. — Jack

The sorry joke here about Pennsylvania is that the only thing we know how to do is to bury other peoples' trash. Pennsylvania is about the last state in any indicators of wealth, business and education. Saying we're a really good dump is emblematic of our economic health. Keep slinging the trash, New Jersey. We're here for you. Personally, seeing huge acres of garbage piling high just makes me sick about the waste inherent in our society. The relative expense of it doesn't make that sight any happier.

— Signe Wilkinson, Chestnut Hill (PA) Meeting.

Note: I got my MBA from the University of Pennsylvania. A great university! — Jack

Asa Janney's muddled analysis of recycling is far below TQE's usual high standard. Your 100-word limit does not permit full counter-analysis here, but two important errors need to be noted: Janney pays no attention to the external costs associated with obtaining virgin raw materials, and he makes the standard but erroneous assumption that the resource stream can be treated as endless. Recycling is only incidentally related to landfill space. Janney should read my book.

— William Ashworth, South Mountain Friends Meeting, Ashland, Oregon.

Editor's Note: William Ashworth is a well-known author of at least a dozen books. In this comment he is probably referring to The Economy of Nature: Rethinking the Connections between Ecology and Economics (Houghton Mifflin, 1995). — Loren Cobb, 21 Feb 2005.

You shouldn't put an economic value on natural resources. They have a scientific value that shouldn't be given a monetary evaluation. Also, the exercise you are getting is probably good for your health.

— Sharon Leon, Spokane, WA.

If one of our Quaker testimonies is "stewardship of the environment", can recycling be looked at solely on the basis of economics, or cost versus benefit? Don't we have a different obligation?

— Ken Woerthwein, Harrisburg (PA) Meeting.

Howard and Eugene Odum studied energy input and output of systems. Donella Meadows also documented efficiency in biologic and human systems in energetic terms. Their work is very worth studying, before anecdotes about efficiency of markets with regard to recycling are cited. It is in terms of these intensive studies of energy cycling in systems that I still recycle, though the current $$ efficiency may not 'appear to' support it.

— Charlie Thomas, Cascabel Worship Group, Tucson, AZ.

On December 10, The Scranton (PA) Times reported that 1,100 students were evacuated as "a potentially fatal gas" spread through local school buildings. Schools were closed after exposure to hydrogen sulfide, which the PA Department of Environmental Protection found emanating from the nearby ERSI landfill. Guess what Pennsylvanians are demanding: regulation of landfills!

— Bill Shade, Philadelphia, PA.

There is more than one way to recycle. Normal, Illinois, has bins in shopping centers where those so inclined can bring their paper and containers. The cost per ton collected is about half that in nearby Decatur, which uses curbside collection.

— Allen Treadway, Xenia, OH.

I will not presume to teach Jack or anyone else economics. But I do know something about the protocols for legitimate and credible argument. And TQE #92 was full of unsupported statements about "many studies" said this and that, and that is not good enough for me. I want the sources and the links, to check things out for myself.

Without that, the piece is no more than what we call online a "rant," or more politely a pure opinion piece.

— Chuck Fager, Director, Friends House, Fayetteville (NC).

Chuck: In popular literature, which TQE is, one generally depends on the credibility of the author (Paul Krugman, William Safire, Nicholas Kristol, etc.) References are needed only in scholarly literature. If you wish to check them out yourself, go ahead and do it. You don't need us to tell you what to read. — Jack

City crews haul trash from my building to the dump ONLY, but I would like to recycle (by dropping off materials at a collection point ~3 miles away) those items for which it would make economic sense to do so. Please give estimates you may have for these factors:

  1. Cost/mile (including detrimental impact of pollution generated) to operate a car of average fuel efficiency
  2. Net benefit/pound (or per cu. foot) of recycling vs. manufacturing from scratch, for: glass, newspaper, mixed paper, boxboard, corrugated cardboard, metal cans, plastics
  3. Any other relevant factors (besides my time, which I will factor in)

— Jennifer Mukhtiar, Salt Lake (UT) Meeting (now in Chicago).

My personal form of recycling is to shop almost exclusively at thrift shops, yard sales & the like. I also donate my unwanted clothing/appliances to them. I also save the backs of flyers or other papers I would otherwise discard, & use them for printing the few things I prefer to read in hard copy rather than off the screen.

— Ms. Mouse (Dorothy Nathan), United Church of Christ, New York (NY).

Last night, I also have done a critique of the letter, bit by bit. If any of you want to do a better job of writing your opinions, I would be glad to send that to you. I don't mind someone disagreeing with me. It is just that when they stand behind the "science" of economics, I expect their thinking to be crisper, and not fraught with illogical comparisons, and factual inaccuracies. That doesn't contribute to a healthy discovery of what to do about complex issues.

— Barbara Seidel, Gwynedd (PA) Friends Meeting.

A well known theorem in economics is that without a complete set of markets, including futures markets for all resources, current prices and costs do not represent scarcity values. With global warming a scientific fact, there should be a significant price to pay for generating carbon dioxide. Recycling reduces CO2 emissions in a number of ways. I hate the current regime which knows the price of everything and the value of nothing, so the time I spend in recycling has a higher value to me than alternatives, as one way to oppose the Administration. It is my article of faith that with perfect markets recycling would be cost effective at the current level.

— Bill Rhoads, Germantown PA Friends Meeting.

Perhaps you fail to measure the full costs because you are not the animal in the forest that is displaced or murdered when its home is destroyed, or the mountain that is ripped open to bleed toxic metals forever into the streams draining it (forever is a long time..put that into your costs calculations), or the natural beauty that is destroyed by mindless destruction for extraction of natural resources.

— Rich Andrews, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends.

The value and cost of something is based in a large part on scarcity. By the time the supply and demand model forces the cost of a recycled good to be worth recycling, supplies of the commodity have already diminished for current consumers. That is, unless people consider saving said commodity for one, two, or fifteen more generations worthy of the price paid for recycling. Considered in this light, perhaps sorting your trash is worth the opportunity cost, whatever your income.

— Rick Brooks, Green Country Friends Meeting, Tulsa, OK.

Is this guy for real? What idiot would think a ten square mile hole would hold all of this nations' trash in perpetuity — especially if we don't recycle? To suggest that it is cheaper to throw it in the dump than to pay the recyclers no doubt doesn't take into consideration the loss in revenue on all of the businesses in the recycling chain who have found it profitable to use recycled products, nor the cost savings to municipalities who have switched to make large purchases of recycled products at a lower cost than wood products, e.g., park benches, fencing, road surfaces, and other building products.

Let's just ignore the cost of unmanaged waste to future generations since we can't even begin to calculate that. Besides, the future is not our problem. I recently heard that San Diego was being charged $10,000 per day by the State because their landfills were filling up too quickly — even though they aggressively promote their recycling program. I'm amazed a publication with the word "Economist" in its name would let such shallow thinking get published.

— Mary Mead.

Whenever I see the term "opportunity cost" it immediately triggers in my mind one of my favorite stories, which I always told to my students in the Engineering Economics courses I used to teach. I think it illustrates the weakness of the concept as well as anything.

Husband comes home panting, all out of breath. Wife asks, "What happened?" Husband [gasping for breath] "I ran home behind the bus and saved a dollar." Wife says, "You rummy, why didn't you run home behind a taxi and save ten dollars!"

— Dick Bellin, Washington (DC) Meeting.

There is a large scale goal to convert our entire economic system to a sustainable one, wherein all human activity can be absorbed by the earth indefinitely, as expressed in recent books by Hawkins and Lovins. In the slow process of changing our social/economic patterns from their current state to the sustainable economy, there are many many steps. I wonder if curbside recycling appeals to people because they are excited by the overall goal of a sustainable economy, and that excitement is creating the sea change of social attitudes which is making the conversion possible. So while it doesn't make sense in today's economy, it still may be a necessary social step towards future economic sense.

— Ian Ford, Albuquerque (NM) Meeting.

Asa Janney Resigns

Asa has resigned as my assistant editor, because he did not like the controversy raised by readers [in response to this TQE] and their sometimes venomous language. One called him an "idiot," when in fact he is an established scientist. I will miss him sorely. Asa was to have replaced me when I die (I am now 83). If that should happen tomorrow, TQE would shut down. — Jack

I continue to be shocked and appalled by the un-Quakerly response so many of your readers have to opinions and arguments with which they don't agree. This is very similar to what happened to Jack when he attempted to lead a workshop at Friends General Conference in 1989. How can we expect to influence world events and make our voices heard when we can't even be civil and courteous to ourselves? It makes me ashamed to call myself a member of the Society of Friends, when we are so unFriendly that Asa felt it necessary to resign.

I call on all of those who have been personally insulting and vilifying to Asa, to Jack, and to others on this list to step forward and apologize. I trust I haven't been one of them, but if I have, it was not intentional. Maybe if enough of us do so, Asa may be persuaded to change his mind.

— Dick Bellin, Washington (DC) Friends Meeting.

Note: I sorely miss Asa but I am not trying to persuade him to change his mind. — Jack

I have heard many of the arguments concerning recycling over the years and, like the author, have tried to get the facts. I was fortunate to have been introduced to Bjorn Lomborg's book The Skeptical Environmentalist. TQE #91 reminded me of Mr. Lomborg's book with its presentation of facts and economic argument, as well as the controversy over its publication. I like the analysis and believe it's necessary to be skeptical about anything until a logical review of all the facts is completed. It's too bad that someone thought to call Mr. Janney an idiot, since the person using the term is truly uninformed and in thrall to the "religion of recycling."

— Ted Shaw, Tokyo, Japan [24 July 2005].

Thank you so much for your article. I stumbled upon it while trying to prove to my son ( a sixth grader) that what he has been learning about curbside recycling (at least in our area) should be taken with a grain of salt.

I have someone close to me who is employed at our local landfill. His experience has opened our eyes to the results of our efforts of washing, smashing, delabeling  and sorting items. Namely, that it really just ends up in the same place as our other garbage.

— Sara Burns. [8 August 2006]


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