Tuesday, July 20, 2004

"The garbage will soon, like, take over the whole world and, like, kill everybody"

The Newcastle golf course in Seattle. A former landfill site.
Hat-tip for picture: andriki

An New York Times article by John Tierney, Recycling Is Garbage, is one of the best fallacy-buster that I have read in some time.   In the article he starts describing an environmental talk in a local school in New York. One of the millions of me-save-the-world pundits was scaring a bunch of shool kids into recycling obedience. "The garbage will soon, like, take over the whole world and, like, kill everybody". Well, this is something you can tell 10 year olds, and add a slide show full of half-truths and misconceptions, you have won the day.   The lecture she held, and many other similar talks all have one thing in common. They only count the benefits and forget much or all of the costs. It is easy to say, hey, if we had not recycled, then we would not have this bottle and this paper that we can use again. This is of course true. If you recycle something, chances are that it will be of some use to someone.   The catch is that recycling costs. It costs time, energy and manpower, and thus has some economic costs.

Every time a sanitation department crew picks up a load of bottles and cans from the curb, New York City loses money. The recycling program consumes resources. It requires extra administrators and a continual public relations campaign explaining what to do with dozens of different products- recycle milk jugs but not milk cartons, index cards but not construction paper. (Most New Yorkers still don't know the rules.) It requires enforcement agents to inspect garbage and issue tickets. Most of all, it 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 the truck delivers to a private recycler, the city currently spends $200 more than it would spend to bury the material in a landfill. City officials hoped to recover this extra cost by selling the material but the market price of a ton has never been anywhere near $200. In fact, it has rarely risen as high as zero. Private recyclers usually demand a fee because their processing costs exceed the eventual sales price of the recycled materials. So the city, having already lost $200 collecting the ton of material typically has to pay another $40 to get rid of it.

Good economics is a difficult to achieve, but it is a start to count the costs as well as the benefits. But there is always an mental escape for believers, an high ranking Scandinavian official was heard saying that when it comes to the environment then economics do not mater.   

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