Recycling: Can It Be Wrong, When It Feels So Right?

Almost everything that’s said about recycling is wrong. At the very least, none of the conventional wisdom is completely true. Let me start with two of the most common claims, each quite false:

1. Everything that can be recycled should be recycled. So that should be the goal of regulation: zero waste.

2. If recycling made economic sense, the market system would take care of it. So no regulation is necessary, and in fact state action is harmful.

If either of those two claims were true, then the debate would be over. The truth is more complicated than almost anyone admits.

There are two general kinds of arguments in favor of recycling. The first is that “this stuff is too valuable to throw away!” In almost all cases, this argument is false, and when it is correct recycling will be voluntary; very little state action is necessary. The second is that recycling is cheaper than landfilling the waste. This argument may well be correct, but it is difficult to judge because officials need keep landfill prices artificially low to discourage illegal dumping and burning. Empirically, recycling is almost always substantially more expensive than disposing in the landfill.


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