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The Wages of Recycling

Here’s a letter to “Proudly Progressive” – for me a first-time correspondent, and one who does not like my recent column in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:

Mr. or Ms. Progressive:

Thanks for your e-mail.

I’m sorry that you’re “sickened” by what you describe as my “opposition” to the recycling of low-value items such as newsprint and soup cans.  But you mistake me: I do not oppose such recycling.  If you or anyone else chooses to recycle such things, I’ve no wish to stop you from doing so.  I do, however, oppose the spread of misinformation that the recycling of low-value items is worthwhile for humanity; I oppose also any government efforts to compel or to subsidize such recycling.

Recycling itself consumes resources.  Therefore, if no private markets exist to encourage the recycling of the likes of cans and plastic bags, a good presumption is that the value of the resources consumed in the recycling of such items is greater than is the value of the recycled outputs.  And remember that one of the resources consumed in recycling is human time and effort – time and effort that, for most Americans, are too valuable to spend recycling low-value items.

You’ll protest that the time and effort humans spend on recycling shouldn’t be reckoned in such narrow, materialistic terms; you’ll insist that we should be pleased to recycle despite the very low material payoff to each of us who does so.  But in response I would ask you this: How do you square your and other Progressives’ demands for minimum wages with your support for recycling that has virtually no payoff to persons who recycle?

If, as you believe, it is unacceptable for people to voluntarily agree to work to earn incomes for pay that Progressives have determined is too low, why do you believe that it is not only acceptable, but morally commendable, for people to be shamed – or perhaps even forced – into working to recycle for pay (typically $0!) that is much lower than are legislatively imposed minimum wages?

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA  22030


I cannot recall from whom I learned the above point about the wage rate of recycling.  To him or her I apologize for not giving you here the credit that you deserve.