The Debate over the Economic Viability of Recycling
The general view about recycling is that it is extremely beneficial to the environment. The majority of websites pertaining to environmental policies, be it private agency or government, say that a good citizen with moral credibility must do three things:
- Recycle everything
- Sort the waste
- Wash the waste
Contrary to popular belief, it is now essential to critically examine and ensure that we are recycling with a purpose because not all products are beneficial to nature when they are recycled. For example, in the case of green glass wine bottles, simply crushing them and using the cullet for manufacturing more glass is an expensive affair and causes more pollution. It would be more beneficial to nature and our economy to simply throw those bottles in landfills and use sand to manufacture fresh bottles. Reusing the bottles would be the best alternative, but they are usually just thrown away because they could easily break and cut someone and they are very difficult to clean and sanitize. However, products such as aluminium, most types of paper, and cardboard still have tons of value in the recycling world.
True Cost of Landfill and Recycling
Landfilling prices are artificially maintained to promote waste management and recycling is subsidized to promote environmental friendliness among the citizens. At the same time, this makes it difficult to evaluate the true profit or loss in landfilling and recycling. Recycling is heavily subsidized and there are special color-coded bins, work crews, and unique trucks to collect garbage as if it were gold. Since the general belief is that recycling brings a significant amount of value to the community, desired expectations continue to be set at high governmental levels. However, since there is no set definition of “desired expectations”no one can truly be aware of the true costs involved.
What is Waste?
The general public generally refuses to throw glass bottles in the landfill trash because they believe it can be put to good use. Over the past two decades the concept of waste has been greatly magnified and endlessly debated. Different parts of the country have different views and regulations in regards to waste. For example, California encourages its citizens to simply use the wet waste for making compost. However, the residents of Durham, North Carolina pay $60/month to have their wet waste collected at a central compost factory. (Not only is that expensive, but that plan backfired when it caught fire and cost the city over $1 million dollars to relocate the compost)
Economics of Recycling
Recycling is justified economically if it costs less than that of landfill disposal. By under-pricing landfill space, we are simply persuading people to divert waste to recycling. Those who argue that unaided markets can manage the problem arising from the artificial pricing are partly wrong as prices have to be right for the markets to function. Therefore, to arrive at the true cost of recycling, we must first analyze the price being paid. People can sell some recyclable products such as aluminium because it has a market and there is value attached to it.
If recycling and landfilling are the only alternatives for waste management, then landfilling should be priced at the sum of the opportunity cost of the space used for the landfill and the externalities and costs of managing pollution resulting from landfill disposal.