Might be a little dust on the bottle…

… but vintage Carolina Review only gets better with time! Here’s an article from the September 2008 edition that I hope you’ll enjoy:

Every so often, thinking people get together to question the previously unchallenged assumptions of society. One of these assumptions is that recycling is a great and wonderful thing.

As the environmentalist movement continues to take hold in American life (not to mention UNC), this is a question most people seem to take for granted.

World savior or waste of space?

Municipal recycling is seen as part of being a responsible citizen and “saving the Earth.” By recycling we are extending the life of precious natural resources and preventing the citizenry from being buried in its own trash.

A more detailed analysis reveals that it is not that simple. If the goal is “saving the Earth,” defined as reducing greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, then the whole business of locally mandated recycling could reasonably be seen as destroying the Earth.

Recycling certainly has some benefits. Indeed, recycling has been practiced in some form since antiquity, and not without good reason.

For one, it reduces space taken up by landfills (and in ages past, the amount of trash in the streets). The landfill where trash is dumped by Orange County was originally estimated to fill up by 2007. That date has been extended to 2011. The credit for extending the life of this landfill by roughly 30% is attributed to recycling and waste reduction efforts.

Another benefit of recycling is that it is sometimes much cheaper than obtaining the raw materials from nature. For example, copper and aluminum are valuable as recycled metals, which is why recycling companies are willing to pay for such resources.  According to Bryan Joslin of Motive magazine, obtaining aluminum from used cans uses 95% less energy than obtaining it in a mining operation.

Also, with rising fuel prices, certain materials have become more profitable to recycle than before. Restaurants have gone from paying to have their used cooking oil disposed of to having individuals pay them to take it away for use as biodiesel. This is market-based recycling, and it has been practiced for millennia to the great benefit of society.

In times past, however, a society never coerced people into recycling.  In this historical anomaly peculiar to our time, we have to pay people to take it away rather than recycling firms buying it at market prices from us. In Orange County, it costs over $3.5 million to run the recycling operation.

A sea turtle that, unfortunately, was not saved by recycling.

Some of these losses are made up by selling the recycled product. For fiscal year 2007-2008, the revenues generated by selling recycled material at market prices were about $627,000. The rest of the recycling budget comes from fees charged on a per-household basis. At this rate, we are getting a negative 80% return on our investment.

Upon first examining these figures, it looks like the town is throwing money away. For the most part, it is. The cost of recycling arises from the astounding inefficiency of collecting, sorting, and processing waste materials. For many materials, it is far easier and more efficient to obtain the products from their original sources.

Take, for instance, green glass. To recycle it, it must be hauled away from residential areas, sorted out from the other waste, and crushed into little bits called cullet. At this point it is either given away for next to nothing or we pay people to take it away even after we’ve paid all the labor costs for preparing it. This is because it still has to be melted down and have the toxic impurities (especially abundant in green glass) removed.

It would be much more efficient to make new glass from sand and let the old green glass go to a landfill.

According to the Recycling Business Assistance Center, the market price for one ton of delivered crushed green glass in eastern North Carolina for July 2008 was about $-8. For central North Carolina, the price is a little better at a positive $2 per delivered crushed ton. Of course, this still represents a loss since we have to pay the high labor, energy, and transportation costs of producing each ton of crushed glass.

Other recycled products have a higher return on investment, but none of them high enough to cover the huge cost.

At this point, proponents of recycling will object that there are other costs and benefits not taken into account by this bottom-line analysis. For instance, if we put all of our recyclables into the regular waste, then we will have the increased cost of filling up landfills faster.

However, at a tipping cost (cost of dumping 1 ton of garbage into the landfill, which takes into account the cost of building the landfill) of $49, the 15,374 tons of recycled materials in fiscal 2006-2007 could be disposed of in the landfill at a cost of only $753,326. This is a net savings of approximately $2.1 million (budget minus market revenues minus cost of landfill use) for the county.

Recycling proponents will again object: this is filling up the landfill and we don’t have an infinite amount of space. This is of course true, but it misses the point. Land in North Carolina is relatively cheap and abundant, which is why states from up North pay to use our landfills.

The main obstacle to starting new landfills in North Carolina is our state politicians, who recently placed a moratorium upon two new landfills that would have made N.C. the nation’s largest importer of garbage, a somewhat dubious yet lucrative distinction. It is not that we lack land, we just lack guts.

Most importantly, if you consider that the extra money and energy that we expend to have people running a fleet of trucks and collecting and separating and processing and distributing our recycled materials, we are also adding unnecessary carbon to the atmosphere. If we stopped mandating recycling in favor of using the more efficiently produced original products, we would most likely be putting less carbon into the atmosphere.

Sadly, a full analysis of the carbon footprint of recycling versus the production of new product is beyond the scope of this article. However, given the enormous difference in the cost of production between new and recycled materials, it is not unreasonable to conclude that the energy used in recycling (collecting, sorting, processing, delivering) is much higher the energy used to deliver new materials. This also seems reasonable in light of the fact that the original producers have huge advantages in terms of economies-of-scale (i.e. there are lots of cost advantages in producing lots of something all at once).

If this is true, then recycling contributes to the destruction of the Earth just as much as, if not more than, gas-guzzling SUV’s (if CO2 is, in fact, destroying the Earth). Thus, recycling is destroying the Earth.

None of this is to say that trash is good or recycling is always bad. As Ms. Muriel Williman of Orange Community Recycling so axiomatically pointed out, “waste is wasteful.” No matter how waste is disposed of, someone has to pay to get rid of it. Recycling just costs more.

Furthermore, if it is worth your time to earn the dollar you would receive for collecting and delivering a pound of aluminum cans, go for it.

But it is highly objectionable for Orange County to waste its citizens’ time and money (and potentially its climate) when it could be putting those resources towards more constructive and valuable things, such as promoting gay tourism, which currently accounts for only $10,000 of Chapel Hill’s budget.

UPDATE: Be sure to check out this lecture on recycling from the Ludwig von Mises Institute. It’s a bit long (about 25 minutes) but worth checking out if you haven’t heard this side of the story before.

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