Recycled Wisdom


A group of Swedish environmentalists, including Valfrid Paulsson, a former director of its environmental protection agency, have turned on recycling, reports the British Telegraph. An excerpt: The Swedish group said that the "vision of a recycling market booming by 2010 was a dream 40 years ago and is still just a dream".

The use of incineration to burn household waste—including packaging and food—"is best for the environment, the economy and the management of natural resources", they wrote in an article for the newspaper Dagens Nyheter.

Technological improvements had made incineration cleaner and the process could be used to generate electricity, cutting dependency on oil.

Mr Paulsson and his co-campaigners said that collecting household cartons was "very unprofitable". Used bottles and glass cost glass companies twice as much as the raw materials, and recycling plastics was uneconomical, they said. "Plastics are made from oil and can quite simply be incinerated."

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  1. Ya THINK?!?!?!?

    If recycling was profitable, it would be a huge industry by now. Transportation cost alone has mde glass recycling terribly unprofitable.

    File this one under “No S***”.

  2. Recycling doesn’t have to be profitable. It just has to cost less than the other disposal alternatives.

    Steel and aluminum, though, are money makers, even now.

  3. I just e-mailed a copy of the article to my wife. Yesterday I got browbeat (again) into standing out in 20 below sorting out junk. Maybe some of this European wisdom will sink in.

  4. Joe,

    If waste management is completely privatized, then the lowest cost alternative would be the profitable one – whether recyling or not. Clearly from the experience in Europe, it’s not the lowest cost alternative.

  5. From what I’ve heard, much of the excess recyclable material is buried in a landfill as well.

    I’d be skeptical of the trash burning power plant concept. In Columbus Ohio they had a relatively modern one that was shut down by the EPA because it was spewing dioxins and they couldn’t find a way to make it safe.

    This also solved the problem of the garbage collection centers exploding.

    Apparently the garbage needed to be ground up in order to be burned. Inevitably people would throw out propane tanks or what not and once a week the roof would be blown off one of the facilities.

    In my city, I must rent a reycling bin for $60/year. Twice in the past months they have skipped my pickup altogether.

    For what it’s worth, I take the garbage can out to the street once a month or so.

  6. “I must rent a reycling bin for $60/year.”

    Who says recycling isn’t profitable?

  7. Jim,

    The problem is, the “lowest cost alternative” is to dump the stuff any damn place, groundwater be damned. If we have to spend some money to protect our health and ecosystems, so be it.

  8. Say it with me people…
    If everybody was held accountable for their own waste management, we would quickly find the most economical means of disposal.

  9. There are certain calibres of brass I recycle.. just doing my part. And organizations will come and get the aluminum cans, some profit exists there. Waste oil heaters at gas stations turn your used motor oil into warm mechanics.

    These are examples of recycling that works, and require no law. The rest of recycling is more about people control than the environment. Try Peter Huber’s Hard Green.

  10. I get the feeling that recycling mainly exists to make people feel better, and keep their kids from bugging them unmercifully. The little runts might not learn reading or math at school, but they have recycling and other environmental stuff of dubious coherence drilled into them.

  11. In PA we have had mandatory curbside pickup for over a decade.

    I enjoy seeing the 10-ton, diesel-belching garbage truck stopping by my house to pick up the 2 lbs of plastic in my recycle bin. Makes sense.

    Other than that, the only thing recycling has created in our state is massive landfill space that now allows us to host truck after truck of trash from the green-loving liberals in New York and New Jersey who are too lazy to build their own landfills as long as some sucker will take it.

  12. I have fond memories of going around to construction sites, empty feilds, etc collecting scapr metal when I was in middleschool. It was a great way to earn spending money, since there’s not much else to do at that age. Part of the problem is the labor costs of collecting and processing the the materials, that’s why it’s only homeless people and kids who bother to do it, unless a goverment forces people to recycle.

  13. Madog, you’d be surprised. In a work environment, it’s not labor intensive at all to collect aluminum cans. To get people to recycle (economics of it aside), it has to be no more difficult that throwing it in the trash can. For example, the aluminum can bin is right next to the trash can in the shop. It works. Litter is a different story.

  14. Right on, Warren!

    When I lived in a rent house with access to garden space, I used almost all my newspaper for mulch, my yard waste for green manure, and composted my kitchen waste. Since the sanitation company charged by the bag, it saved me a fair amount of money on bags–one bag every three weeks, as opposed to one or more a week if I hadn’t done these things.

    Now I live in Fayetteville, Ark., where the city issues 104 bags per household per year, and then charges for extra when you run out. A lot of people complain that “it’s not fair,” or “it’s so hard” to get by on so few bags. And yet, driving around, I see houses with six or eight of those bags out front, and absolutely no effort whatsoever even to pack the trash tightly in them–they’re usually little better than half-full.

    Why should I have to pay higher garbage rates to subsidize some lazy slob who can’t be bothered to minimize waste or even to pack his bags full? All services should be funded voluntarily, with price assessed according to the cost of providing them. In a free market, when you pay the real cost of what you use, you can make rational decisions about how much to use.

  15. I’d be all for recycling the old fashioned way–turning in the soda bottles to be refilled.

  16. Not to mention the warehouses full of paper waiting to be recycled…

  17. Regarding Joe’s previous comment, I never meant to imply that reasonable protections against other people’s property rights (i.e. ground water supply, which currently is a tragedy of the commons type affair) shouldn’t be enforced vis a vis landfills and such. I agree that in cases where it makes economic sense to recycle as the cheapest disposal cost, recycling will occur if waste disposal is left to the free market.

    In some cases, such as paper recycling, the popularity of it due to people’s good will has destroyed the business. I used to recycle newspapers for money back in high school. I used to get $1.00/hundred pounds, once as much as $2.00/hundred and all I had to do was drive around and pick up people’s newspapers (usually separated and stacked, probably because they take up the least space in garbage cans that way) from the trash for free. However once it caught on, within a year or two you couldn’t even give the stuff away. Problem is, newsprint is the lowest grade of paper, you can only resuse about 30% of it, and most if it is made from better quality paper that has already been recycled.

    Also, some companies are deceptive about their ‘recycling’ programs. At a company my wife used to work for, the employees found out while working late one evening that the janitors dumped the recycle bins into the same trash bin as the regular trash. The company (a moderate sized Japanese automaker owned by GM but shall otherwize remain nameless to protect the innocent) stopped utilizing recycling bins after the deception was discovered. Truth is, however, they probably can’t give the stuff away anymore.

  18. By far the most interesting thread here is the Jim vs. Joe debate… What the rest of you are missing is that the issue here isn’t simply financial cost. It’s also energy efficiency/conservation.

    Perhaps it’s more expensive to recycle, but if that means less resources are used in order to produce future products, is that so bad? If it’s not profitable to recycle, why does that *necessarily* mean it’s not worth recycling?

    If recycling can produce goods in a way that conserves energy, and keeps trash out of landfills, in a relatively cost-efficient way, maybe government should step in.

    Recycling may be a losing-money venture (did anyone ever see this as a way for government to make money?), but spending money to recycle some products might be a small price to pay to conserve resources and protect the environment.

    (And yes, I do realize I’m posting this on a libertarian web site.)

  19. Thanks for taking up the torch, skeptic! πŸ™‚

    But your analysis is incomplete. Why choose a particular method, ie recycling, to effect conservation? In lieu of concrete externalities, the market best is the best means of allocating resources. It might take half an Econ 101 class to fully explain why, but basically the most freely chosen alternatives are generally the most efficient.

    Actually, I don’t think recycling can really lay a claim to conserving energy, only resources. (Perhaps that’s what you meant?) And so the question arises, are there externalities to using resources? Only if you can determine that the resource will run out before a cheaper alternative is found via technological advances. Unfortunately, this is probably impossible to determine in most cases.

    Of course, if you simply like the idea of saving trees and reducing the incentive to damage forests, you have your own incentive to recycle paper. But unless there’s a greater danger than to one’s own aesthetic preference, I don’t see a role for the government.

  20. Thanks fyodor, and you’re right to parse out the difference between energy and resource allocation…

    “And so the question arises, are there externalities to using resources?”

    I think a lot of people would argue that there are…. and have good reason for doing so… the externalities of coal mining and forest clearing are particularly notable…

  21. whoops, coal-mining comment was a dumb one… my bad…

  22. I always try to recycle the lumps of coal I get at Halloween! πŸ™‚

    As for forest clearing, sigh, you have my sympathies on a personal aesthetic level, but the case for concrete externalities is a tough sell. To a certain degree, I recognize a partial right to shared ownership of the natural world, since after all, no one made it. But I’m wary of taxing people to pay for personal preferences if there’s no greater harm than simply, “I don’t like that!”

    Maybe we should cut taxes and give the money to the Nature Conservancy!

  23. Three weeks ago my company implemented a recycling program. The bins are to be emptied every Thursday.

    They’re getting kind of full now. I wonder what happened.

    On a side note, my employer is one of the largest polluters in the area (according to the ScoreCard site).

    I once emailed the person in charge of EPA filings to find out if the ScoreCard stats were accurate. On two separate occasions I didn’t hear a peep back.

    Maybe ScoreCard is right.

  24. The only justification I could see for subsidizing recycling is if there’s society wide externalities resulting from what the free market would wrought. If Joe would like to expound on those environmental issues, he might convert me, though I can’t vouch for these other purists! πŸ™‚

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