Tag Archives: Recycling

Recycling debate short on reason

Responses to a news story on recycling indicate that the issue is driven more by emotion and misinformation than reason.

Children recycling

Recently I was interviewed by Carla Eckels of KMUW radio for a story titled Recycling: Is It Really Necessary? (Audio is available at that link.)

The story was based on my research and opinion that in some cases, recycling is an economically beneficial activity. But for the household setting, it is not.

(One point I meant to make, but forgot to, was that how wonderful it is that we have enough wealth that we don’t have to recycle household waste. We are free to recycle if we want, but also free to make a personal decision to spend time on activities other than recycling.)

Comments left to the story illustrate just how difficult it is to think about and debate issues of public policy. Here’s one example:

It takes absolutely no extra water to rinse cans for recycling. Just rinse them in your dishwater after washing your last dish. After all, if one is truly concerned about water conservation, handwashing uses less water than a dishwasher. As for the abundant landfill space, I suggest we open a landfill in Mr. Weeks’ backyard. Most people would object to a landfill next door, but apparently Mr. Weeks would welcome it.

This writer has a good idea — if you want to wash dishes by hand. For me, a dishwashing machine is a sign of tremendous progress by civilization, reducing drudgery and producing cleaner dishes. And, it’s a machine that nearly everyone can afford.

After that, the writer makes a ridiculous argument about landfill space. I note that this writer uses a profile name that is anonymous. While anonymous speech is important, it leads to people making patently ridiculous statements that they probably wouldn’t make if their friends and neighbors knew they said that.

Here’s another comment:

I would have to disagree with Mr Weeks. The benefits far outweigh the “costs” he was mentioning. It only take a moment to look up evidence that recycling is not only beneficial for our planet but also as a business model. Single stream recycling has made this process very easy.

A point I made in the article is that households have to pay for people to collect their recyclables. Using scare quotes around “costs” is inappropriate, as the costs are real and large. This is a clue as to the economic value of recycling, which is that it works in certain instances, but not for households.

Part of another comment is this:

And Mr. Weeks’ comments this morning on the air regarding having plenty of landfill space in places like Kansas just made me angry. Landfills the size of Sedgwick County? —- Seriously.

In the article, I mentioned that someone calculated that a landfill 100 yards tall and 30 miles on a side could hold all trash for the entire country for the next 1,000 years. How someone makes a leap from that to multiple landfills the size of Sedgwick County shows that people just aren’t thinking closely.

Wichita trash cooperative: gateway to mandatory recycling?

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.

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Monday November 22, 2010

Wichita city council this week. This week is workshop only, meaning that legislative action is limited to consent items. These items are voted on in bulk, unless a council member wants to “pull” an item for separate discussion and voting. Generally consent items are thought to be non-controversial, at least by the person who creates the agenda. This week one consent item may cause a bar to lose its license, as Hurst Laviana reports in the Wichita Eagle. Start time is 9:30 am instead of the usual 9:00 am.

Workshop to discuss Wichita trash. Tuesday’s Wichita city council meeting will have a workshop discussing a plan for a Wichita trash haulers’ cooperative and for a recycling plan. Brent Wistrom and Deb Gruver report in the Wichita Eagle. Conservatives on the council who favor big government — Jeff Longwell, Jim Skelton, and Sue Schlapp — seem to favor the proposal. I guess it is inevitable. But I worry that if we start relying on government to manage a simple thing like trash for us, the danger is that government will want to expand its realm of responsibility to providing things like water, jobs and economic development, employee training for business, housing for low-income people, golf courses, art museums and culture, transit, ice skating rinks, airports, dances for seniors, planning services, education, retirement plans, and health care.

Candidate for Wichita mayor noticed. Bob Nelson describes himself this way: “I am a 36 year old lawyer, technical consultant, and aviation industry professional. I am a long time Republican and conservative.” His website –maybe still in developmental state, but nonetheless visible to the world — is Bob Nelson for Mayor.

Former Wichita school chief in news. Former USD 259, the Wichita public school district superintendent Winston Brooks, now head of Albuquerque public schools, is in the news. An administrator alleges a hostile work environment and has been placed on leave with pay. It’s not the first time highly-paid administrators have been placed on paid leave for long periods since Brooks took over. The meaning of this to Wichita? Many of the current members of the Wichita school board loved Brooks and were sorry to see him leave Wichita.

Charter school studies examined. Carl Bialik, in a “The Numbers Guy” article in the Wall Street Journal, writes about the “confusing report cards” that charter schools have received in various studies. Some studies report glowing results for charters, and other report poor results as compared to regular public schools. Bailik does report one finding: “There is some consensus among these studies. Researchers generally have found that charter schools in low-income, urban areas boost test scores, while suburban charter schools in wealthier areas don’t.” Mentioned by one source quoted in the article is one of the best attributes of charter schools: they can’t force students to attend, so poor ones close down, unlike poor public schools.

Rasmussen polls from last week. “Talk about low expectations” was the start of the email message from Rasmussen Reports. Examples: “Just 26% of voters now think the country is heading in the right direction. This finding continues to fall since Election Day and is the lowest reading since mid-March, largely because Democrats are down but sentiments among Republicans and unaffiliated voters haven’t moved.” (Right Direction or Wrong Track) … “A plurality (47%) of voters believes America’s best days have come and gone, a number that has remained fairly constant since the beginning of the year.” … “Thirty percent (30%) of homeowners say the value of their home is less than what they still own on their mortgage.” … “Belief that a home is a good buy for a family remains at an 18-month low.” It’s all at What They Told Us: Reviewing Last Week’s Key Polls .

If this is recycling profit, let’s skip it

A letter-writer to the Wichita Eagle states “In Washington state, we participate in a nearly effortless, profitable and environmentally important recycling program.”

A paragraph later she writes “The cost of recycling is $5 a month on our refuse bill.”

I don’t know: Do these statements contradict each other?

The writer also states: “Most important, we take pride in knowing that our recycled items do not end up in some community dump.”

I say: “In Wichita, it’s nice that we aren’t yet required by government to spend our precious time handling dirty trash that has no profitable market just to save a little land in a state where we have more land than we know what to do with.”

Sedgwick County solid waste fee criticized

Today’s Wichita Eagle column by Rhonda Holman is a two-fer. Two issues for the price of one column, and two issues she’s wrong on. The first issue is explained in Wichita water economics.

She criticizes Commissioner Karl Peterjohn and Board Chairman Kelly Parks for the opposition of a solid waste management fee that would add a relatively small amount to property tax bills.

(When writing about Peterjohn, do I need to disclose that he and I are friends, and that I helped manage his campaign last year? I’d feel more compelled to do so if Holman would start writing editorials using her entire name.)

Holman pokes fun at Peterjohn and Parks for “operating on anti-tax autopilot” and at Peterjohn specifically for fulfilling a campaign pledge.

Anti-tax ought to be the first instinct of politicians. To me, that’s axiomatic and not a basis for criticism. There are always plenty of people in government like Commissioner Dave Unruh who are nuanced enough to recognize — as Holman reports — “with an admirable lack of exasperation: ‘It’s 69 cents.'”

The problem is that little amounts here and there add up to real money. I think that’s something like the argument Wichita City Council members used in rejecting a $2.00 per month increase in water and sewer bills. Holman supported that action.

Then, keeping a campaign pledge — what a novel concept! How refreshing!

We should also look at the public policy aspects of this waste management fee. One of the things it was used for is to fund a Christmas tree recycling program. Here’s a few questions: Is it wise economics to fund recycling projects? Specifically, if natural Christmas trees as such an environmental nuisance that they must be recycled, shouldn’t people who buy them pay for their recycling? Perhaps through a tax — wait, let’s call it a “surcharge” or a “pre-paid environmental mitigation fee” — levied at the corner tree lot?

Here are comments left to this post that were lost and then reconstructed:

Wichitatator: What is Rhonda Holman’s legal name? Why doesn’t she use it when she signs her editorials? The Eagle should not have mystery editorial writers without fully disclosing this salient fact.

Ms. “Holman” could be married to an attorney who is suing the state over school finance or some other public issue. Ms. “Holman” is a public person who wants to enjoy the perks of her editorial position in influencing public policy in this community without assuming the responsibility of publicly disclosing her name.

For an editorial board that regularly fulminates about “full disclosure” this is an odd position to take. The Eagle regularly criticizes folks who do not fully disclose a lot more than their names in their paper.

LonnythePlumber: What is her entire name? You imply mystery and wrong motivation if revealed.

Wichita Eagle letter: coal and recycling

A letter in the Wichita Eagle by a Mr. Steve Otto of Wichita (March 16, 2009) makes a few claims that require critical examination.

The letter claims that “the rest of the nation is staying away from coal-burning plants.” Actual figures present a different story.

In the document Tracking New Coal-Fired Power Plants from the National Energy Technology Laboratory, we see there are 28 coal plants under construction, 7 near construction, and 13 that have been permitted. That’s a total of 48 plants. Additionally, 47 plants have been announced.

Otto also laments Wichita’s low participation in recycling, and refers to a study in Wichita comes in last. Ranking last in this regard, however, would be something to be ashamed of if it was actually bad to not recycle.

My posts Recycle, If You Wish and No Recycling Mandates in Sedgwick County, Please shows some ways in recycling is harmful and a waste of time.

The price system tells us all we need to know about the relative merits of recycling. In some cases the price system tells us that recycling is a beneficial use of resources. About 75% of automobiles are recycled, and used cardboard is often recycled in commercial settings. That’s because the price paid for these recycled items is high enough that, in these contexts, recycling can be profitable. That’s the price system at work. It tells us that the best use of an old car is to recycle it, and the same goes for cardboard boxes at the grocery store.

A household setting is different. Households usually have to pay to engage in recycling. The prices that recyclers can get for these recycled goods doesn’t cover the cost of collecting them from households, as evidenced by the fact that in Wichita households must pay someone to pick up recyclables (although this may have recently changed as described in the news story Get paid to recycle. Residents pay a monthly fee, but earn points based on how much they recycle.). That’s the price system at work again. Its sober assessment is that in the context of households, recycling is a waste of resources.

There is also the loss of personal liberty. With forced recycling, people have to give up activities that they value more than recycling to comply with the mandate. Additionally, we have to pay recycling fees or additional taxes to cover the costs of money-losing recycling efforts.

So I’ll have to disagree with Otto that Wichita ranking last on this last is a bad thing.

No Recycling Mandates in Sedgwick County, Please

Remarks delivered at a public hearing for the Sedgwick County solid waste management plan, April 24, 2008. Sedgwick County, Kansas, home to the City of Wichita, is considering a mandatory household recycling program. Or, perhaps people won’t be forced to recycle, but they will be required to pay for the cost burden that recycling places on communities.

You may listen to this article in audio form by clicking here.

The economist Frederich Hayek tells us that the price system communicates all the information we need to know about the relative value of things. The price system allows people who don’t know each other to coordinate their activities in the most effective and efficient way possible. The price system is truly a miracle.

If you want to see what happens when the price system is not allowed to work, usually because a government attempts to manage prices, just look at the former Soviet Union and other planned economies. The economist Thomas Sowell relates this story:

The last premiere of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, is said to have asked British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher: How do you see to it that people get food? The answer was that she didn’t. Prices did that. And the British people were better fed than those in the Soviet Union, even though the British have never grown enough food to feed themselves in more than a century. Prices bring them food from other countries.

The price system can do its work only when free people trade with each other freely under a system where property rights are respected. Any attempt by governments to manage prices leads to inefficiencies that manifest themselves as shortages, waiting lines, surpluses, and black markets. The emergence of these problems lead to calls for even more government interventionism to fix the very problem the government caused by interfering with the price system. It can be a never-ending cycle.

How does this apply to recycling in Sedgwick County?

In some cases the price system tells us that recycling is a beneficial use of resources. About 75% of automobiles are recycled, and used cardboard is often recycled in commercial settings. That’s because the price paid for these recycled items is high enough that, in these contexts, recycling can be profitable. That’s the price system at work. It tells us that the best use of an old car is to recycle it, and the same goes for cardboard boxes at the grocery store.

A household setting is different. Households usually have to pay to engage in recycling. The prices that recyclers can get for these recycled goods doesn’t cover the cost of collecting them from households, as evidenced by the fact that in Wichita households must pay someone to pick up recyclables. That’s the price system at work again. Its sober assessment is that in the context of households, recycling is a waste of resources. That waste can be tremendous. Orange County, Florida, for example, spends roughly $3 million per year to collect recyclable goods from households, but sells them for only $56,000.

What about running out of landfill space? If landfill space were truly scarce, the price system would tell us so, because landfill operators — if there is a free market for landfills — could charge high prices for accepting trash. But evidently, they can’t.

So the price system tells us sometimes recycling is a good use of resources, and sometimes it isn’t.

A mandatory recycling program or one where people have to pay fees even if they don’t actually recycle their household goods amounts to the government attempting to override the price system. It is attempting to manage the price system through government interventionism. These policies, should Sedgwick County implement them, will cause citizens to suffer the same inefficiencies that all planned economies have demonstrated, if on a smaller scale.

Recycle, if you wish

Should we in Wichita or Sedgwick County be forced to recycle?

Prices for commodities and goods represent the best available information about the worth of them — that is, unless the government is manipulating prices. The prices people are willing to pay for recycled goods, therefore, tell us everything we need to know about their worth. These prices tell us that there isn’t much worth in most recycled goods.

It’s not that there aren’t markets for recycled goods. About 75% of automobiles are recycled, and used cardboard is often recycled in commercial settings. That’s because the price paid for these recycled items is high enough that, in the proper context, recycling can be profitable.

A household setting is different. Recycling of household goods, mostly newsprint, plastics, and glass, (aluminum cans being a possible exception) doesn’t pay very well. In fact, it costs households to recycle. The prices that recyclers can get for these recycled goods doesn’t even cover the cost of collecting them from households, as evidenced by the fact that in Wichita households must pay someone to pick up recyclables. People can deliver these items to recycling centers, but that involves significant cost to the household.

How much does recycling cost? Orange County in Florida spends roughly $3 million per year to collect recyclables, but sells them for only $56,000.

What about saving the environment through recycling? The contribution of household recycling towards this goal is not certain, once you look beyond the usual recycling propaganda and realize the role that prices play.

Running out of landfill space? If landfill space were truly scarce, landfill operators could charge high prices for trash disposal. But evidently, they don’t.

Running out of raw materials? That’s not happening. If raw materials were scarce, the price of recycled alternatives would increase. Instead, prices for most recycled goods are low and not increasing. We should be happy that raw materials are inexpensive and that manufacturing processes are efficient.

What this means is that household recycling doesn’t pay. Instead, it costs, and costs a lot.

If recycling is voluntary, each person can exercise their own judgment as to the value of recycling versus other activities. With forced recycling, people have to give up activities that they value more than recycling to comply with the mandate. Additionally, we have to pay recycling fees or additional taxes to cover the costs of money-losing recycling efforts.

Then there’s the recycling police. We have violent crimes that actually hurt people being committed daily. I think most people would rather have police focusing their attention on those crimes rather than inspecting our trash looking for the wayward aluminum can or newspaper.