The Econ Talk episode Munger On Recycling argues that most recycling efforts are a form of religious expression and not environmentally productive. Some interesting points:

  • As humans, we usually value our time. Yet we squander a lot of recycling when we would not waste it on other activities that did not improve our lives.
  • Many recycling efforts squander more resources than simply discarding items
  • Many recycling costs are imposed on the homeowner. How much energy, water, and time is wasted washing recycles in your dishwasher?

In Central Saanich, BC there is municipal recycling pickup, but residents must arrange for their own garbage removal. So here we have an economic incentive to recycle. This week I a plan to recycle about 100 pounds of textbooks I recently inherited. I frequently try and give other garbage away on Victoria Freecyle. For bulkier things, it is frequently worth my time to use Victoria Freecycle because it costs less time than trying to arrange for hauling away of excess garbage. Most of the things I give away on freecycle someone would pay me for, but the transaction costs are too high (even with free ads available on usedvictoria.com).

Anything I give away on freecycle, I just leave outside in my yard and tell the “purchaser” to come and get them, so the transaction costs are low. (If you are interested in the freecycle service, you can set up your subscription so you can post the trash quality items you have to dispose of, but you don’t receive notices regarding other peoples items).
After listening to “Munger on Recycling” I am tempted to stop using my dishwasher to wash items for recycling. However, the volume of stuff I currently recycle may not fit in the weekly garbage pickup we have contracted for. Washing these items does seem like a conspicuous waste of resources (primarily hot water and time) to enjoy the moral pleasure of recycling.

A particularly bizarre situation in our area is the recycling of deposit bottles. I know of no single person amongst my neighbors, friends, or acquaintances who returns deposit bottles for a refund (though I suspect my sister does and if you visit the return depot it is always busy). To take a car load to the return depot would cost 10 minutes to load the car, an additional 10km of driving during my errand route, 10 minutes to wait and sort deposit bottles in a very noisy environment, yielding $12. Every single person I have talked to about this puts their deposit bottles our for curbside recycling. In more central parts of Victoria some entrepreneurs do salvage deposit bottles, but not in the subburbs. The deposits are no longer an incentive — they appear to be a tax.
Finally, I am tempted to see if there is a business case for accepting all plastic from the local authority and burning it to produce electricity or hot water for an institution. Burned cleanly this should have a similar environmental output to burning natural gas. This would also save energy as people would stop washing their recycling. This may be the most environmentally effective use of waste plastic.

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One thought on “Recycling: Religious Expression or Environmentally Productive?

  1. p.s. I need a different blog editor. I am not having much luck with the built in wordpress editor in having paragraph marks entered where I want them – paragraph seperators just seem to dissappear when I save my post. Grr.

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