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Recycle – When It’s Not Wasteful To Do So

Here’s a letter to a junior at Oregon State University who plans to write a long paper next semester on recycling:

Mr. S__:

Thanks for your e-mail.

You ask where I “stand on recycling.”

My answer is easy: I’m all for recycling when it doesn’t waste resources. Trouble is, most of what is today called “recycling” is wasteful and, thus, I counsel against it. I recycle only when it’s worthwhile to do so.

As I write to you I’m wearing clothing that I’ve worn before; I recycled my jeans and underwear in the recycling machines at my home known as “washers and dryers.” I recycled the shirt and jacket now on my back by bringing them a few days ago, after previous wearings, to a recycling service known as a “dry cleaner.” Likewise, the dishes and silverware in my home are regularly recycled with the help of a machined called “electric dishwasher.”

I live in a home that’s been recycled. Its original owner did not discard it when she moved to another town; instead, she refurbished it a bit and then sold it to me. Likewise, whenever I buy a new car, I recycle my older one by sprucing it up and then selling it to a willing buyer.

The above are examples of recycling that is not wasteful. The cost to me of recycling my clothing by washing them is lower than would be the cost to me of always wearing never-before-worn clothing.

But I don’t recycle the likes of paper, plastic, or cans. My time and labor are scarce resources. If the value of recycled paper, plastic, and cans were high enough to justify my spending my time and labor to recycle these items – as I spend my time and labor to recycle my clothing and cars – the market would price these items in such a way as to compensate me for recycling them. But the market price for recycling such items is virtually zero. This fact assures me that the value of such recycled items is less than is the cost of recycling them – meaning that time and effort spent to recycle such item are worth more than the result. Recycling such items, in short, wastes resources.

If recycling the likes of paper, plastic, or cans gives you gratification, by all means do so. But recognize that the market for those recycled items is signaling to you daily that there is very little value of your recycling to your fellow human beings.

By the way, as John Tierney recently reported, even Greenpeace has finally admitted that recycling of plastic is – to use Tierney’s descriptor from an earlier piece of his on recycling – garbage.

Good luck with your paper, and have a great holiday and 2023.

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

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