I Recycle

by Don Boudreaux on September 28, 2006

in Environment

I recycle a lot — I really and truly do.

Here are some paragraphs from a recently published essay of mine explaining my recycling:

I awaken, I shower and dry myself with a towel that I’ve had for a few
years. I don’t discard it after one use. When it gets dirty, I
rejuvenate it by processing it through recycling machines that my wife
and I own: a washing machine and clothes dryer.

Then I brew coffee and fix breakfast. Each day, I use the same coffee
maker that I used the day before. I clean it after each use, recycling
it for the next brew. My wife and I drink the coffee from mugs that
have been used many times in the past. (One set of our coffee mugs was
handed down to us after my wife’s parents used them for several years.)
We also eat our breakfasts using dishes and utensils that are recycled
from countless past uses. After breakfast, we recycle our mugs, dishes,
and utensils with the help of another recycling machine: an automatic

After breakfast, I dress in clothes that I’ve worn before and that I
will wear again. My underwear, my pants, my shirt, my necktie, my belt,
my coat, my shoes – all are recycled from previous uses. Indeed, I take
my suits and coats to a store specializing in recycling such garments:
my local dry-cleaner.

In fact, the very house we live in is recycled. It was built in 1993 by
the Van Brocklins who, when they moved out of the area in 2001, didn’t
abandon the house or trash it; they sold it to us.

My family and I recycle a lot. Everyone recycles a lot.

Indeed, I recycle even my ideas.

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Randy September 28, 2006 at 5:29 pm

My advice to the student who walked out;

The best way to be environmentally friendly is to leave a small footprint. Live a simple life. Don't own too much. Don't eat too much. Live in a small space. And you don't need a college education in order to do this. In fact, the only reason I can think of why one would need a college degree is to obtain the necessary skills by which to obtain more resources. Honestly, I question your committment.

Rex Pjesky September 28, 2006 at 6:22 pm

Randy, while this is fairly clever, I'd submit that by obtaining a higher education, a student would create at least as many resources as he aquired because of his extra income and spending.

The pie ain't fixed.

CalcaMutin September 28, 2006 at 8:41 pm

We need a new theory of "economic re-cycles".

Randy September 28, 2006 at 8:46 pm

Rex – good point.

Adam September 28, 2006 at 9:35 pm

Prof. Boudreaux: we had a brief discussion on this at the Cato seminar in Quebec City a couple of years back. I didn't feel then, and I don't feel now, that this is one of your strongest points.

First, what you're describing isn't actually recycling: it's reusing. Recycling is turning something into something else (e.g. meting down glass bottles and turning them into another glass product). Reusing is making use of the same thing more than once.

Second, I think the point of the students is that if we all only looked at the bottom line in determining how we treat the environment, we're liable to destroy it. The unspoken assumption – in fact, they're probably unaware that they're thinking this way – is that the price of a given behaviour in a given way is unlikely to reflect the true cost to the environment of such behaviour. If we had perfect knowledge, we might be able to internalize all costs and thus minimize the likelihood of environmental degradation.

Your point about blind recycling without even trying to weigh the cost of disposal versus the cost of recycling is well taken.

Recycling is, unfortunately, more of a religion than something people do because they've thought it through and really think it's better for the environment. But I think that making a valid point – that recycling can sometimes actually be worse for the environment than other methods of dealing with waste (incineration, landfill, etc.) – is undermined by refuting straw man arguments, which to be honest I feel you're doing when you say that you recycle your appliances, clothes, and so on.

Swimmy September 29, 2006 at 2:25 am

I agree with Adam.

Personally, faced with the guilt of not recycling, I've taken to simply not consuming nearly as many recyclable materials. Faced with throwing a soft drink can away and searching out a decent recycling bin, I've chosen to not drink soft drinks. I guess you can call me part of the brainwashed generation.

Stephen September 29, 2006 at 2:53 am

It seems that by this logic shouldn't I just litter whenever and whereever I want since the effort (cost) required to find a garbage can may be too great for me, assuming that there is no one else around when I do the littering.

Does prof Boudreaux really believe there is no such thing as a negative externality or that they are so insignificant that they shouldn't be dealt with?

Max September 29, 2006 at 5:39 am

Well, there is one product which is worth recycling:


Since the energy needed to produce this product is higher than to recycle it, it is one of those branches of the recycling industry, that existed BEFORE all the other crappy things came on (f.e. to "recycle" copper is also a good idea!).

Also, littering on private grounds (if they are not your private grounds), whould result in you getting punished OR forced to pay the cleaning up.

And yes, it is cheaper to tell somebody to collect your garbage, sort it and dump it somewhere, than to recycle. Also, land fills may be ugly and stinky like hell, but they are no environmental disasters.

eddie September 29, 2006 at 9:58 am

Stephen: externalities don't enter into the recycle-vs-discard question. Discarding consumes space in landfills – the costs are born by the owners of the landfills, who pass them on to the garbage haulers, who pass them on to the people who discard things.

There are some externalities involved in the create-from-new vs. recycle question. Creating something takes energy, and energy generation creates pollution, the costs of which are not fully internalized. However, since in many cases the cost of recycling is so much higher than the cost of discarding and creating-from-new, even a fully internalized cost of pollution is unlikely to make recycling the better choice. This is especially true when you consider that a significant part of the cost of recycling is also energy – trucking, melting, cleaning, etc. – so that internalizing the pollution cost of energy might make recycling an even *worse* choice.

Rex Pjesy September 29, 2006 at 10:44 am

As was said, recycling is a religion to some people. You will never make them understand that recycling take resources and is not always better than throwing away.

Ivan Kirigin September 29, 2006 at 10:44 am

The cost of a good is proportional to the resources used to make it, so I don't get why people say energy costs aren't externalized.

I work in automation & robotics, and it makes no sense for me to waste my time filtering recycled goods.

Having a separate truck remove the goods is probably far more of a waste of resources than the difference between creating new goods and recycling the old. Add my time and space, and the picture is very clear.

We shouldn't have to sort the trash. Experts, human or machine, should be sorting it.

I started to recycle because I can't stand having this conversation the umpteenth time at a dinner party — AND my city (Somerville MA) already has a curbside recycling program.

I've asked them to stop the program, and I take advantage of the already wasted resources.

It’s amazing to me how many people can get so upset about recycling, and the same folks don’t flinch in the face of massive waste from government programs and regulations. Talk about saving resources!

Freethinker September 29, 2006 at 11:09 am

Max said: "Also, land fills may be ugly and stinky like hell, but they are no environmental disasters."

Actually, virtually every landfill "leaks", which has deleterious effects such as contaminating water supplies. I'm not disagreeing with your basic argument, I just want to point out that landfills can and often do pose environmental problems.

ps I base most of this knowledge off of conversations I've had with an environmental economist who worked for the government doing cost-benefit analyses on whether or not to clean up/fix landfill seepage. He wasn't an environmentalist.

Michael F. Cannon September 29, 2006 at 11:59 am

According to the Law of Conservation of Mass, it is impossible NOT to recycle.

The only question is, do you sort?

Scotch Drinker September 29, 2006 at 12:41 pm

As another commenter pointed out, reuse != recycling. I'm not sure how you could possibly support the opposite. It seems to me to be a fairly silly argument.

While it may be true in certain instances recycling takes more energy than it saves, I'd guess that as a whole, it doesn't. And much like people who buy hybrid vehicles, the total cost isn't always so easy to compute by just adding up the basics. People who recycle (and I'm definitely one of them) gain a great deal of benefit from just knowing they are trying to make a difference.

beeper September 29, 2006 at 1:00 pm

And what a wonderful difference you are making rumaging through your trash!

dearieme September 29, 2006 at 1:58 pm

I suspect that "recycle" entered general use in English from the technical vocabulary of Chemical Engineering, where recycle actually means something like "send it back to be processed again", and so is close to "re-use". I admit to bafflement that anyone would try to draw a moral distinction between deciding that an old shirt might be re-used, by wearing it for gardening, say, or recycled, by having it torn up for rags or pulped for paper-making.

Randy September 29, 2006 at 2:13 pm

Perhaps its a question of responsibility. While living in base housing I was required to sort my trash. But the base also provided free containers for recyclables. It seems to me that those who want to require recyling should make it economically feasible for me to participate.

sushil_yadav October 15, 2006 at 1:26 am

The link between Mind and Social / Environmental-Issues.

The fast-paced, consumerist lifestyle of Industrial Society is causing exponential rise in psychological problems besides destroying the environment. All issues are interlinked. Our Minds cannot be peaceful when attention-spans are down to nanoseconds, microseconds and milliseconds. Our Minds cannot be peaceful if we destroy Nature.

Industrial Society Destroys Mind and Environment.

Subject : In a fast society slow emotions become extinct.
Subject : A thinking mind cannot feel.
Subject : Scientific/ Industrial/ Financial thinking destroys the planet.
Subject : Environment can never be saved as long as cities exist.

Emotion is what we experience during gaps in our thinking.

If there are no gaps there is no emotion.

Today people are thinking all the time and are mistaking thought (words/ language) for emotion.

When society switches-over from physical work (agriculture) to mental work (scientific/ industrial/ financial/ fast visuals/ fast words ) the speed of thinking keeps on accelerating and the gaps between thinking go on decreasing.

There comes a time when there are almost no gaps.

People become incapable of experiencing/ tolerating gaps.

Emotion ends.

Man becomes machine.

A society that speeds up mentally experiences every mental slowing-down as Depression / Anxiety.

A ( travelling )society that speeds up physically experiences every physical slowing-down as Depression / Anxiety.

A society that entertains itself daily experiences every non-entertaining moment as Depression / Anxiety.





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