Good news seems to be in short supply during the COVID-19 pandemic. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that April 8 was the final local recycling pickup for a while. As surprising as it may seem, I think this is actually a (small) step toward a (slightly) healthier society, a (slightly) more robust economy, and (surprisingly) a cleaner environment.
Holding everything else constant, I expect a slight improvement in public health with the suspension of curbside recycling for several reasons. First, there are the emissions associated with curbside recycling. Fewer recycling trucks on the roads mean fewer emissions from those trucks and smoother traffic–though of course this might be canceled out if enough people drive their recyclables to recycling locations.
Second, recyclables themselves are disease vectors. As I write this, I am drinking seltzer water from an aluminum can that is now contaminated with my germs. Once it is in the garbage, it won’t be touched again. When the garbage bag is full, I’ll pull it out by the drawstrings, tie it closed, and toss the whole impermeable plastic bag of trash in the outside garbage can that I’ll haul to the curb the next time the garbage is to be picked up.
On garbage day, the bag of trash will be dumped in the back of the garbage truck and then eventually dumped in a landfill, where it will await an enterprising entrepreneur who at some point in the future will figure out how to quickly and cheaply recover aluminum and all sorts of other things from landfills the same way innovations in mining have made it easier to obtain coal, iron ore, and other valuable commodities.
Will I feel a twinge of guilt when I throw the can in the garbage? Of course I will: I was raised in the environmentally-conscious 80s and 90s when we were told that we’re running out of landfill space. Deeply-ingrained beliefs are pretty hard to shake. It will only be a twinge, though, because my next thought will be “but what about recyclables as disease vectors?”
Right now, the can–and I crushed it with my bare hands, which is actually no great feat in this day and age where cans have a lot less aluminum in them than they used to–sits harmlessly in a garbage bag rather than (potentially) harmfully in a bin, where it might spill its contaminated contents on a pair of careless hands that might come in contact with it next. It’s a very small risk, probably, but it’s compounded by the number of recyclables that pass through our hands every day and that might otherwise sit in space-hogging bins in the kitchen or on the porch or in the yard. When we subsidize recycling, we might be subsidizing environmental cleanup, but we’re subsidizing potential contamination and contagion.
There might be positive spillover benefits to recycling that aren’t captured in market prices and which might, therefore, justify government subsidies. The mere existence of these externalities is not a slam-dunk case for subsidies, however, as it remains to be shown that the environmental costs of recycling don’t outweigh the benefits, environmental and otherwise.
These costs are many, from the construction and maintenance of recycling facilities to the recycling processes themselves, the land taken up to store sorted recyclables to the value of the labor consumed by recycling to the added air pollution from having another fleet of trucks roaming the city every week. If we are, in fact, taxing ourselves and paying people to waste resources, then we are making ourselves poorer. While there is obviously a lot more to life than material success and comfort, current events underscore just how important wealth is if we want to deal with public health emergencies swiftly and safely. This, of course, is assuming the recyclables are actually recycled and don’t simply end up in the landfill they would have occupied had they just been thrown in the garbage in the first place.
Even then, the major benefit of the recycling shutdown may be environmental. Michael Munger pointed out this past summer, “For Most Things, Recycling Harms the Environment.” He chronicles, in a manner that will be familiar to readers conversant with the Mungerian oeuvre, his experience as a “tethered goat” at the “Australia Recycles!” conference. Someone, he notes, had heard the classic EconTalk episode in which he and Russell Roberts discussed recycling and perhaps read his essay “Think Globally, Act Irrationally.” Munger is more sanguine about recycling aluminum cans than I am, but I remember learning from him in the aforementioned EconTalk episode that recycling glass is unambiguously bad for the environment.
Munger’s experience in Australia was remarkable. The people in the crowd agreed with him but argued that the point wasn’t the environmental effect but “enlisting people to care about the symbol of the environment.” In the words of one of the people in the audience, “Recycling is still worth doing, regardless of its effects.”
His experience, I think, speaks to the real, underlying motivation for recycling. Criticizing recycling because it’s actually bad for the environment is like criticizing someone for taking communion at church because it’s not particularly nutritious, even as a morning snack. It misses the point completely. As Munger puts it, “Once you begin to think of recycling as a symbol of religious devotion rather than a pragmatic solution to environmental problems, the whole thing makes sense. … the recycling industry is selling indulgences.”
Fortunately, there are people who are working on effective, non-symbolic solutions to serious environmental problems. For the most part, they work in the tech sector. In a 2015 episode of EconTalk, Rockefeller University’s Jesse Ausubel explained how rising agricultural productivity largely due to better technology “has reduced many of the dimensions of the human footprint even as population rises.” More recently, Andrew McAfee of MIT has explained how we are getting More from Less even as we prosper in no small part due to the profit motive. In this episode of the Harvard Business Review IdeaCast, he makes the rather obvious observation that it is in the interests of business people to find ways to use less and less to make more and more. Aluminum cans, as I’ve mentioned, contain a lot less aluminum than they used to.
Packaging is becoming lighter, too. Why? Packaging is expensive. Amazon specifically and online commerce more generally are changing the way firms package their wares. Walmart and other firms are putting constant pressure on their suppliers to use less and less and less shelf-space-consuming packaging, and Walmart’s insistence on improved packaging is why underarm deodorant no longer comes in boxes. We haven’t quite yet reached “peak stuff,” according to McAfee, but we’re getting there.
To the extent that there are solutions to serious environmental problems, they will come from innovation rather than symbolic gestures. Just think about how technology has changed in the last ten or fifteen years. The first article I wrote for Forbes.com was back in what seems like the technological dark ages. USB drives were eliminating the demand for a lot of paper, and cloud storage was on the verge of eliminating the demand for a lot of USB drives. I had an iPod and therefore didn’t need to buy and store compact discs when I wanted to listen to music, but when we wanted to watch movies we still did so by renting or buying DVDs. This all changed with online streaming services and Amazon Prime. When I was a kid, our Nintendo Entertainment system had bulky cartridges. Our kids’ first video game system used discs. The system they got for Christmas doesn’t even have a slot for discs: everything is digital.
And so I was pleasantly surprised that curbside recycling has been suspended–for explicitly environmental and epidemiological reasons. Maybe curbside recycling is gone for good, which would free up resources that would then be available to expand the kinds of operations that actually help the environment. It’s probably not likely, but one can hope.