Recycling – a waste of time?

February 26, 2009

There’s a fascinating report in the Guardian today on Recycling, which is free from the usual liberal-left moralising. Some impressions:

1. Prices paid for recycled commodities are pitifully low. £50 for 300kg of PET plastic. £30-£50 for a ton of steel. The most profitable remains paper, at £280 per ton.

2. The only reason recycling is economically viable is because of forced distortions on the market. The recycling firm implies the only reason recycling isn’t landfilled is because of high landfill gate rates of £50-£60 per ton (and, which the report does not mention, fines levied by central on local government for failing to meet recycling targets). The price per ton of PET and steel are even below these rates. If you factored in the unpaid labour of householders (which is effectively corvee labour, policed by an increasingly coercive bureaucracy and systems of fines), most recycling would become economically unviable. WRAP’s pleas for people not to get curry sauce on their plastic tubs in the recycling bin indicates how little it takes to ‘contaminate’ recycling and make it economically unviable.

By contrast, the recycling firm wants to collect all recycling together and get machines to sort it. Unsurprisingly, this would massively increase recycling rates (by a fifth) and recycling plants’ output, which will only increase over time as technology improves. Arguably, the current reliance on householders is holding back technological development in this field, which, logically speaking, would advance if firms were in direct competition with each other without having to rely on forced labour. Moreover, mechanising the process will clearly have benefits in terms of the specialisation and division of labour.

3. Right now, incineration seems economically worthwhile. One plant burns 1,500 tons of rubbish a day, producing enough electricity to power Maidstone – a town of 140,000 people. The ash is also recycled. And pollution is extremely low. Sounds very good to me. Of course, there is no reason

4. What the report misses is – ironically – the moral dimension of the current craze for recycling. Household recycling is not really meant to be economically viable. It is meant to ‘raise awareness’ of individuals as to how much waste they are generating, how large their carbon footprint is, etc, and to encourage people to ‘do their bit’ in a pale imitation of the wartime spirit of recycling (which was also pointless, with scrap metal sitting idle in depots – again, developed to make people feel part of a collective struggle). Despite various good suggestions in the article about how recycling could be made more rational and productive, these suggestions are unlikely to take hold as quickly as they should, because greens will resist the loss of this entree into people’s homes, into people’s every day lives and thoughts. Currently the ‘educative’ value of recycling is its main ‘benefit’ to society.

posted in environmentalism, recycling by Lee

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