“America Recycles Day” Should Recognize Markets as the Key to Prosperity and Environmental Protection

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Today is “America Recycles Day,” which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) explains recognizes that recycling contributes to “prosperity and the protection of our environment.” With its own holiday, recycling is almost a religion to some, with success hinged on its followers faithfully sorting and cleaning their trash for collection through government programs. Yet truth be told: The keys to successful recycling lie in the free marketplace, not in strict adherence to government recycling programs.

According to the EPA website:

To build on our progress, EPA encourages every American to contribute by recycling right, not only on every annual America Recycles Day, but all year. This means checking with your local recycling provider [most of which are local governments] to be certain that they will accept everything you place in your recycling bin. Items like cardboard, metal cans and paper are commonly accepted by local curbside programs, and items like plastic bags, electronics and batteries can NEVER go in the curbside recycling bin.

Surely, if you want to recycle, sorting materials correctly is very helpful, but that alone won’t necessarily result in beneficial recycling. Government recycling programs are often needlessly expensive and inefficient because they are run by local governments rather than guided by market disciplines. In some localities, governments own and operate trash collection and sometimes disposal, in others they heavily regulate it. Because their incentives are generally political rather than economic, local government officials commonly make bad waste disposal investments and set policies that promote waste rather than efficiency. In addition, without proper market incentives, the public often loses faith and does not continue to “recycle right.”

For example, in efforts to achieve lofty recycling aspirations, local governments often require sorting and collecting recyclables without consideration of whether there are markets for the materials. As a result, some jurisdictions have stockpiled “recyclables” hoping to find markets for them, creating environmental hazards in the meantime. Other times, governments have spent money to collect recyclables separately only to send them to landfills anyway, because they could not find markets for them.

Local officials willingly continue such failed programs, as long as they can claim credit for recycling while the public remains unaware of the costs. Such incentives have even led local governments to export waste to China “for recycling.” But the quality of the waste has often been poor, which is one reason China has refused to accept U.S. “recyclables” in the past several years. Some of the waste that U.S. local governments sent to China in the past may have ended up in open dumps, where it could flow out into rivers.

In some cases, governments collect waste and recycle it in ways that are more environmentally damaging than landfilling or burning it for energy. That’s because government-subsidized, or forced, recycling can use more energy and water and emit more pollution than other disposal options. Such programs often become an expensive drain on government coffers, leading many cities and counties into a vicious cycle whereby they start and stop recycling operations based on annual budgetary impacts. When costs get too high, they halt recycling operations to meet budgetary objectives, but then relaunch them a few years later to serve the public recycling religion.  

Policy makers should step aside and allow well-functioning waste management markets—including privatization of all aspects of collection and disposal—to function. Rather than try to manage wastes and turn recycling into a sacred cow, governments should ensure property rights, the rule of law, police and punish illegal dumping, and allow competition for collection and disposal services.

In that case, garbage haulers compete for business from consumers, charging a fee for their services. Then the haulers would select from among competing disposal companies to manage the waste, and price signals would determine how much is recycled, landfilled, or incinerated at waste-to-energy facilities.

The price for each option represents its costs to society: the value of the water, energy, land, labor, and other resources that the disposal option requires. Hence, allowing competition between disposal options enables the most resource-efficient—least expensive—option to prevail in any given case.

For example, if recycling some portion of the waste saves resources, it would be more affordable for the haulers to divert that portion to recyclers, who can charge less to consumers who properly sort waste for that purpose. That way consumers will have the right incentives, and haulers will pursue recycling when it makes sense.

Allowing market forces to govern waste disposal will also advance technologies that would expand recycling. For example, technologies now emerging promise to address some existing challenges to plastics recycling.

Traditional recycling that involves recycling plastic products back into their original products is difficult for several reasons. For one thing, collecting, sorting, and melting plastics to recycle them back into similar products can require more resources than making virgin products. In addition, recycled content can compromise product quality and, in some cases, raises concerns about contamination for plastics used to contain food. Rather than melt down plastics and use them to make the same product, new and developing recycling processes known as “advanced recycling” can convert plastics waste back into their original chemical components. Recyclers can then use those chemicals to make virgin plastic resins, fuels, and other products, without having to compromise the integrity of the final product.

Some advanced recycling technologies can process various types of plastics together, reducing the sorting costs that otherwise might make plastics recycling too expensive. The many different advanced recycling processes under development are promising, and, eventually, could ensure much higher plastic recycling rates.

Ironically, advanced recycling’s biggest enemy appears to be government programs that demand the public to slavishly comply with the traditional—and unworkable—form of recycling for plastics. In addition, members of Congress have introduced legislation to halt all permits for advanced recycling plants, basically killing off this emerging industry, and undermining promising methods of plastics recycling.

It’s time for the government to relinquish its role as the recycling guru and allow market forces to take the lead. While big government and even socialism may be popular today among some, freedom and markets actually produce the best results for all.