18 January 2007

Objectivist: Against Recycling

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
10 January 2007

Recently at SUNY Fredonia, students and faculty met with college administrators. They handed over a petition with over 1,000 signatures that requested a comprehensive recycling policy and an environmental policy coordinator. This is mindless preening.

Recycling already occurs in the marketplace. According to Pierre Desrochers, scrap-recycling industries already recycle massive amounts of materials (on one estimate, 60 million tons of ferrous metal, 30 million tons of waste, paper, and glass, and 7 million tons of nonferrous metals are recycled). The issue is not whether recycling should occur, the issue is whether it should be mandated or subsidized. One way to approach this issue is to ask whether doing so makes the world a better place.

Recycling isn't clearly environmentally friendly. One reason for this is that trash that isn't recycled is dumped in landfills and they are environmentally safe. Daniel Benjamin, an economist at Clemson University, argues that according to the studies that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) relies on, landfills pose virtually no risk to humans. According to Benjamin, the EPA concluded that landfills constructed according to EPA regulations cause one cancer-related death every 50 years. That makes them less dangerous than celery, pears, and lettuce. According to a 1992 article by Jerry Taylor of the Cato Institute, 83% of America's solid waste landfills pose a lifetime cancer risk of less than one in one million which, he claims, is about the same risk as drinking a glass of tap water.

Even the older landfills aren't dangerous. According to Benjamin, studies by William Rathje and Cullen Murphy found that trash in landfills undergoes little biodegradation and those materials that do biodegrade pose little danger. There is a problem with the improper and illegal dumping of industrial wastes, but this has nothing to do with recycling.

A second reason is that recycling isn't clearly environmentally friendly is that it doesn't always use less toxic substances. Some recycling processes use toxic substances not found in virgin processes and vice versa. In addition, the recycling process sometimes requires more capital goods. For example, a 1995 Wall Street Journal article pointed out that in Los Angeles, recycling programs have resulted in its fleet of trucks being twice as large as it otherwise would be (requiring an extra 400 trucks).

John Tierney, writing for the New York Times Magazine, points out that recycling paper creates more water pollution than making new paper. Goods that are favored because they can be reused are not always environmentally friendly. For example, Benjamin notes that reusable diapers are less environmentally friendly than disposable diapers. He also points out that when it comes to packing it isn't clear whether paper is more environmentally friendly than the widely opposed polystyrene, since the former generates more water pollution and the latter more petroleum-related pollution.

Recycling doesn't always conserve scarce resources. There's no shortage of landfill space. According to Benjamin, citing a 2002 EPA report, the nationwide landfill capacity is more than 18 years. According to A. Clark Wiseman, Gonzaga University economist, all of the trash that Americans produce over the next 1,000 years could be put into a landfill that is 120 yards high (or deep if you dig down) and 44 miles on each side (0.1% of the continental U.S.). This landfill would be covered with grass and is small compared to the 150,000 miles of parkland in this country.

Nor is it clear that recycling results in there being more trees. According to Bjorn Lomborg, cited in Benjamin, the amount of new growth that occurs in forests exceeds by a factor of twenty the amount of wood and paper that is consumed by the world each year. This might explain why the temperate forests have expanded over the last 40 years. According to Jerry Taylor of Cato, America had three-and-one-half times more forest land in 1992 than in 1920. Even if the temperate forest stock weren't expanding, it's unclear why recycling paper would result in there being more trees. If we recycled cars or pigs (don't ask me how we'd do the latter), we'd have less cars and pigs. I can't see why trees are subject to a distinct set of economic rules. Indeed the economic value of trees will likely protect forests against other valued uses of the land.

Recycling is inefficient. As a general rule, the free market price reflects the costs and benefits of various options. In so doing it incorporates the costs of raw materials, capital goods, and labor. Except in the case of harmful effects on third parties, the cheaper option is usually more efficient. When recycling has to be mandated, subsidized, or both, it's likely inefficient. For example, in his 1997 article, John Tierney pointed that by recycling New York City pays $240 per ton of trash more than it would if it were to dump it in a landfill. Even the $240 greatly underestimates the inefficiency because it leaves out labor and space costs, which in New York City are significant. Similarly, he points out that mandatory bottle collection programs that require a five-cent deposit ($500 per ton) are inefficient compared to hired clean-up crews, which pick up more than cans and bottles. At Fredonia spending $69,000 for an environmental administrator (the cost of a low-level administrator is probably around $60,000 plus 15% benefits) will almost undoubtedly eat up any efficiency gains that recycling might miraculously produce.

The recycling crowd is backing a policy that is not clearly environmentally friendly, probably does not preserve scarce resources, and is inefficient. Moral posturing and self-congratulation are no substitute for thought.

[Update: Mystery Guest offers a refutation.]

1 comment:

The Objectivist said...

Dear C:
Wouldn't an important way to protect the environment in the continental U.S. be to reduce or eliminate third-world immigration? If you agree with this, I wonder how much weight you assign to this as a reason for controlling illegal and legal immigration.