Big Picture News, Informed Analysis

This blog is written by Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Posts appear Monday & Wednesday.

Recycling: Wasting Your Time & Your Money

Spending scarce resources on a separate collection system for material no one wants isn’t sensible.

Two weeks ago, my community elected a new mayor. Six of our eight councilors are also new. I’m therefore looking forward to some welcome change at City Hall. Yet even at this most hopeful of moments, I have little faith that a significant albatross will get addressed: our costly and wasteful recycling programs.

Recycling is wildly popular with voters. In the Ontario county in which I live, 87% of residents don’t merely support the idea of household recycling, they regularly participate in this activity.

That’s an astonishing number. It’s more than double the percentage of voters who cast ballots in the election two weeks ago (41%). It’s triple the percentage of Canadians who attend religious services at least once a month (27%).

Recycling is now government-sponsored religion. Everyone believes it’s the moral thing to do. No matter matter how high the rate of compliance, we’re convinced that more is still better.

Apparently never having heard of the law of diminishing returns, our outgoing mayor thought that trying to coax “the missing 13% to begin recycling” was a smart use of City Hall’s resources.

He further encouraged me and my neighbors to download a Recycle Coach telephone app which was supposed to lead to “increased recycling rates.” Its level of success is unclear, but in a demonstration of the law of unintended consequences, the developer suffered a data breach earlier this year. Rather than being rewarded by the universe, the keenest recyclers had their private e-mail addresses exposed to hackers.

Despite its popularity, household recycling suffers from a longstanding and well-known problem: the market for recycled materials has always been precarious. No one wants much of this stuff. Collecting it, sorting it, cleaning it, and finding someone to buy it afterward costs tons of money. In many cases, those costs exceed the price of buying the same material brand new.

Recycling programs like the one in my community make voters feel virtuous, but their biggest accomplishment is having turned nations such as China into refuse heaps. The contents of our blue boxes are merely shipped out of sight and out of mind.

The truth is that it would be cheaper, easier, faster – and far more honest – to toss every bit of our household trash into properly managed landfills, or high-tech incinerators. Continuing to spend scarce resources on a separate collection system for material no one wants is wasteful. It’s not a sensible thing to keep doing.

This past August, our outgoing council made an “emergency payment of $50,000” to the company that takes recyclables off our hands. Under the headline, “Norfolk tops up recycling firm,” a local newspaper told us “the market for recyclable materials has taken a serious downturn. It’s to the point where achieving profitability is a struggle.” Paraphrasing our public works manager, the article explained that “the recycling market is challenging now that China – the main buyer of recyclable materials from North America – has tightened up the rules on what it will accept.”

City Hall thinks the recycling company provides “good service.” So taxpayers wrote a fat cheque to this private firm. Presumably to keep it afloat. A firm that, only a year earlier, had expanded its reach by buying a competing company.

In addition to the financial insanity at work here, recycling is a waste of everyone’s time. As Tim Worstall observes, “Of all the resources we have at our disposal, our time is the scarcest of all. Our lifespans are not something we can stockpile, we can’t save them up for later…”

If each household spends 15 minutes a week dealing with tasks connected to recycling, that’s 13 hours per year. Fast forward a decade and you’ve spent 130 hours – more than three, 40-hour work weeks – on this pointless activity.

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This entry was posted on November 7, 2018 by in ethical & philosophical and tagged .
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