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Americans like to recycle, and recycling is indeed an important part of our integrated waste management system. This system recognizes that some portions of our waste are most efficiently recycled, some are most efficiently placed in landfills, and some should be burned in incinerators. The key is finding the mix of options that conserves the most resources, while protecting the environment. Market-driven competition is the best way to achieve this goal. Each option represents its costs to society: the value of the water, energy, land, labor, and other resources that the disposal option requires. Hence, by allowing competition between disposal options, we enable the most resource-efficient (the least expensive) option to win in any given case. Yet state and local governments do not follow this advice. They try to manage their waste with plans similar to the economic plans of the former socialist nations, creating a host of economic and environmental problems.
For the most part, state and local laws govern waste management. However, federal law has an important effect on how they operate. The federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) sets voluntary guidelines for states to develop solid waste management plans. When devising these plans, state and local officials estimate how much waste they expect each community to create over a 5- to 30-year period; then they plan ways to manage that waste. Because the federal government provides financial assistance to state bureaucracies that gain approval of their plans from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), nearly all states and localities use waste management planning.
Relying on 30-year waste management plans presents serious problems. Public officials cannot possibly estimate future waste generation, nor can they envision future disposal technology. As a result, they often make poor decisions, invest in the wrong technologies, and choose less efficient disposal options.
In addition, with more government involvement, waste management increasingly serves politically popular goals at the expense of safe and efficient disposal. In particular, the EPA’s system of politically preferred waste disposal options, called the waste management hierarchy, governs most state and local waste management plans. According to the hierarchy, waste policy should first focus on reducing the amount of trash that people make—so-called source reduction. Second, it should emphasize recycling. And wastes that we cannot reduce or recycle should go to the politically unpopular options: to the landfill (third on the list) or to an incinerator (fourth on the list). By relying on this political formula, bureaucrats often work to promote source reduction and recycling at any cost to the environment and consumers.
In contrast, private sector recycling is always driven toward the most efficient mix of disposal options. Professor Pierre Desrochers documents that recycling and reuse of materials have always been a part of industrial processes because wasting resources does not make economic sense. It is also true that private markets promote recycling only when it makes sense, whereas the government regulates recycling even when it requires more resources than it saves.