The only resource that has been getting consistently more expensive is human time: the cost of labor has been rising for centuries. An hour of labor today buys a larger quantity of energy or raw materials than ever before. To economists, it’s wasteful to expend human labor to save raw materials that are cheap today and will probably be cheaper tomorrow. Even the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental group that strongly favors recycling and has often issued warnings about the earth’s dwindling resources, has been persuaded that there are no foreseeable shortages of most minerals. “In retrospect,” a Worldwatch report notes, “the question of scarcity may never have been the most important one.”
It is better to recycle than to throw away. This is the most enduring myth, the one that remains popular even among those who don’t believe in the garbage crisis anymore. By now, many experts and public officials acknowledge that America could simply bury its garbage, but they object to this option because it diverts trash from recycling programs. Recycling, which was originally justified as the only solution to a desperate national problem, has become a goal in itself — a goal so important that we must preserve the original problem. It’s as if the protagonist of “Pilgrim’s Progress,” upon being informed that he could drop his sinful burden right there on the road, insisted on clinging to it just so he could continue the pilgrimage to get rid of it.
Why is it better to recycle? The usual justifications are that it saves money and protects the environment. These sound reasonable until you actually start handling garbage.
The Muckrakers’ Discoveries
The 1992 Plan projected that the City would realize net savings from recycling. The Department’s experience to date in implementing the recycling program diverges from the assumptions of the Plan.
— 1996 Comprehensive Solid Waste Management Plan of the New York City Department of Sanitation.
EVERY TIME A SANITATION DEPARTMENT CREW PICKS UP A load of bottles and cans from the curb, New York City loses money. The recycling program consumes resources. It requires extra administrators and a continual public relations campaign explaining what to do with dozens of different products — recycle milk jugs but not milk cartons, index cards but not construction paper. (Most New Yorkers still don’t know the rules.) It requires enforcement agents to inspect garbage and issue tickets. Most of all, it requires extra collection crews and trucks. Collecting a ton of recyclable items is three times more expensive than collecting a ton of garbage because the crews pick up less material at each stop. For every ton of glass, plastic and metal that the truck delivers to a private recycler, the city currently spends $200 more than it would spend to bury the material in a landfill.
Officials hoped to recover this extra cost by selling the material, but the market price of a ton has never been anywhere near $200. In fact, it has rarely risen as high as zero. Private recyclers usually demand a fee because their processing costs exceed the eventual sales price of the recycled materials. So the city, having already lost $200 collecting the ton of material, typically has to pay another $40 to get rid of it.
The recycling program has been costing $50 million to $100 million annually, and that’s just the money coming directly out of the municipal budget. There’s also the labor involved: the garbage-sorting that millions of New Yorkers do at home every week. How much would the city have to spend if it couldn’t rely on forced labor? True, some people would probably be glad to do the work for free because they regard garbage-sorting as a morally uplifting activity for the whole family. But many others have refused to follow the law. They seem to have a more traditional view of garbage-sorting: an activity done only for money, and then only by the most destitute members of society.
I tried to estimate the value of New Yorkers’ garbage-sorting by financing an experiment by a neutral observer (a Columbia University student with no strong feelings about recycling). He kept a record of the work he did during one week complying with New York’s recycling laws. It took him eight minutes during the week to sort, rinse and deliver four pounds of cans and bottles to the basement of his building. If the city paid for that work at a typical janitorial wage ($12 per hour), it would pay $792 in home labor costs for each ton of cans and bottles collected. And what about the extra space occupied by that recycling receptacle in the kitchen? It must take up at least a square foot, which in New York costs at least $4 a week to rent. If the city had to pay for this space, the cost per ton of recyclables would be about $2,000. That figure plus the home labor costs, added to what the city already spends on its collection program, totals more than $3,000 for a ton of scrap metal, glass and plastic. For that price, you could find a one-ton collection of those materials at a used-car lot — a Toyota Tercel, for instance — and drive home in it.