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Markets, Not Mandates, Best Way to Manage Trash Disposal

In a May 30th post for The Spectator’s blog, University of Helsinki professor Mikko Paunio makes some excellent points regarding problems caused by government-mandated recycling. Governments around the world often mandate recycling when there’s no market for the materials collected. Oftentimes, markets don’t exist simply because recycling certain materials requires more energy, water, and labor than making products from raw materials. If left to the private marketplace, these “recyclables” could easily be managed other ways such as via landfilling or incineration.

Yet a blind adherence to a pro-recycling ideology has led to cleaning and sorting materials for which there are no markets—leaving these items to pile up. According to Paunio, the situation in Europe has intensified because China and other nations are no longer interested in taking these “recyclables.” 

We are now seeing a “global congestion in waste management systems,” says Paunio, leading to “a rapid increase of piles of plastic scrap in rich countries.” And it’s highly unlikely that Europe will be able to meet all its government recycling targets, so trash will continue to pile up. Neither governments nor the greens who advocate recycling at any cost will admit that the problem stems from their foolish policies, Paunio points out.

Paunio maintains that some of these recyclables are even contributing to the problem of plastics in the ocean. He laments that a recent UK government report on ocean pollution “overlooks the share of the blame that can be put on the recycling industry” for exporting waste to China and other nations that are ill equipped to manage it properly.

It’s not clear how much of the waste in the oceans are from recyclables exported around the world. What is clear is the fact that government-driven mismanagement of waste is a huge problem.  Lawmakers and environmental activists who push unreasonable recycling—and even subsidize it—should bear the blame.

In the end, the issue isn’t even about garbage disposal or recycling; it’s about politics. While many people like to blame “market failure” for such problems, it’s really government failure and the failure to have markets.

Trash is a commodity, and like any commodity it can be easily managed in the marketplace. Market prices for disposal options—be it recycling, landfilling, or incineration—should determine what portion of waste is recycled or disposed another way. If we allowed solid waste markets to function properly, disposal options would grow to meet demand, and that might include shipping waste to countries with ample landfill space or development of incinerators where land is in short supply.

But such rational markets are impossible when trash management is political. When activists and politicians decide how to dispose of trash based on political preferences, we get overly expensive recycling that can lead to increases in local taxes, oversupply of recyclables resulting in stockpiling, and litter on land and in waterways. Add corrupt and socialist governments that don’t allow private property, disregard human rights, and don’t care about free-markets, and things get really bad.

Getting places like China to engage in better disposal practices is certainly a huge challenge. However, policymakers in developed market economies can and should change the way they operate by getting government and politics out of the waste disposal business. Allowing markets to operate unfettered by political ideologies is the answer.