Opposition to a proposed trash pickup cooperative in Wichita focuses mostly on two issues: the free market, and specific problems with the program.
Conservative city council members — Paul Gray and Sue Schlapp in this case — advocate for a free market in trash collection. I appreciate that. But it is confusing to hear them advocate for a free market in trash collection when at the same time they vote for big-spending economic development programs that don’t work.
Brent Wistrom’s Wichita Eagle article Questions pile up as Wichita eyes trash plan does a fine job of laying out the unanswered questions and issues left to be resolved — if they can be solved.
These issues are important. But here’s the biggest reason to oppose this plan: it’s a gateway to mandatory recycling in Wichita.
Recycling, while held up by its supporters as a moral imperative if we care anything about the planet, is a gigantic waste of resources. There are only a few settings in which recycling makes any sense at all. Automobiles and commercial cardboard are two such situations.
In almost any other area, recycling uses more resources than it saves, despite the claims of its proponents.
We need to look no farther than economics to learn the true value of an activity or a resource. In the case of recycling — except for the narrow examples mentioned above — most people have to pay to have their recycled goods hauled away. Or, they must incur costs themselves in hauling them somewhere that will accept them.
Yes, Waste Connections in Wichita has a recycling program that pays people to recycle. Or does it? The program works this way: First, people pay $3.75 per month for recycling bins and their pickup twice monthly. By filling the recycling bin people can earn points which they may redeem for rewards.
The roundabout approach to paying people to recycle only highlights the unfavorable economics of recycling. Why doesn’t Waste Management simply pay people for their recycled goods? Or why don’t they pick them up for free?
The fact that Waste Management won’t engage in a straightforward transaction with its recycling customers allows the company to appear to be politically correct towards recycling, while at the same time escaping the fact that household recycling simply does not pay. Here’s Daniel K. Benjamin explaining the economics of curbside recycling in Eight Great Myths of Recycling:
The numbers I have presented here avoid these problems and make clear that, far from saving resources, curbside recycling typically wastes resources — resources that could be used productively elsewhere in society.
Indeed, a moment’s reflection will suggest why this finding must be true. In the ordinary course of everyday living, we reuse (and sometimes recycle) almost everything that plays a role in our daily consumption activities. The only things that intentionally end up in municipal solid waste — the trash — are both low in value and costly to reuse or recycle. Yet these are the items that municipal recycling programs are targeting, the very things that people have already decided are too worthless or too costly to deal with further. This simple fact that means that the vast bulk of all curbside recycling programs must waste resources: All of the profitable, socially productive, wealth-enhancing opportunities for recycling were long ago co-opted by the private sector.
Commercial and industrial recycling is a vibrant, profitable market that turns discards and scraps into marketable products. But collecting from consumers is far more costly, and it results in the collection of items that are far less valuable. Only disguised subsidies and accounting tricks can prevent the municipal systems from looking as bad as they are.
That’s right: The sober assessment of the price system is that in the context of households, recycling is a waste of resources. Although if people want to pursue it as a pastime or hobby, I have no objection.
Nonetheless, supporters of recycling such as Wichita City Council member Janet Miller still believe in the false moral imperative of recycling. At last week’s workshop on Wichita trash, she said “There is only a finite amount of space on earth to bury stuff. At some point there’s not going to be any more room to bury stuff.”
The fact is that landfills occupy a minuscule fraction of available space. We have plenty of space for trash.
But the misinformed or uninformed attitude of Miller and a few others on the council — and maybe some bureaucrats too — is that recycling activity by Wichitans must increase, no matter how much of a waste of time it is.
Answer this question: once Wichita has a mandatory, city-controlled and city-regulated trash pickup process in place, what’s to stop city hall from mandating that we recycle?
Nothing, as far as I can tell.
That’s the best reason for opposing takeover of our trash system by the city.