The Myth and Cost of Recycling

TRACKSIDE © by John D’Aloia Jr.

December 23, 2003

Recycling makes sense when the market place says it makes sense. In our society, the value of something is represented by the price assigned to it in the market place. When it costs more to recycle a material than it does to dispose of it, the market place is telling us that we are wasting our resources, in effect, we are sending our dollars down a rat hole. For government to do this with tax dollars tells us that government does not understand its fiduciary duty nor does it value the hard work of its citizens. It demonstrates the belief that taxpayers are but tax slaves, that The Guardians have first call on the fruits of their labor, able to hand out tax dollars to special interest groups for favored programs, no matter their value or nexus to why we have a government.

The good news - our county commissioners decided to stop using our tax dollars to subsidize the county-wide recycling program. The neutral news - a group of citizens who believe in recycling organized to voluntarily keep the program going and are out attempting to raise the funds necessary to make it happen. The bad news - they are approaching local governments asking for tax-dollar subsidies, apparently unable to find people who want to throw their dollars away.

Recycling has taken on a life of its own, and in the popular culture, has become a lesser god in the pantheon of environmental gods. As the gods of antiquity have their mythology, so has a mythology developed surrounding recycling. Daniel K. Benjamin’s "Eight Great Myths of Recycling" does not have the literary quality of Bulfinch’s Mythology, but does present compelling information putting the recycling myths in perspective. Space prevents examining each myth in depth, but a brief explanation is possible. Myth One - Our garbage will bury us. Fact - landfill capacity is increasing, not decreasing; 100 sections will handle the U.S. trash disposal for the next 100 years. Myth Two - Our garbage will poison us. Fact - EPA acknowledges that the risks to humans from modern landfills are virtually nonexistent. Myth Three - Packaging is our problem. Fact - Modern packaging saves breakage and waste, reducing disposal requirements; advances in packaging have drastically reduced the volume of a given package. Myth Four - We must achieve trash independence. Fact - Trade in trash raises our nation’s wealth by as much as $4 billion; most of the benefit accrues to citizens of areas that import trash. Myth Five - We squander irreplaceable resources when we don’t recycle. Fact - Price controls the use of resources. Resources are used but remain available; human ingenuity is the reason. Myth Six - Recycling always protects the environment. Fact - The U.S. Office of Technology Assessment stated that recycling changes the nature of pollution, sometimes increasing it and sometimes decreasing it. Myth Seven - Recycling saves resources. Fact - Municipal recycling programs waste resources, evidenced by the need to subsidize them. Myth Eight - Without forced recycling mandates, there wouldn’t be recycling. Fact - When the price is right, the private sector recycles, a phenomenon that Benjamin points out is "as old as trash itself."

Regarding myths seven and eight, Benjamin concludes: "Such programs force people to squander valuable resources in a quixotic quest to save what they would sensibly discard. On balance, mandatory recycling programs lower our wealth." When a government subsidizes a recycling program, the program, no matter who is running it, is forced upon all taxpayers, whether they want to participate or not.

It will cost the City of St. Marys $18.00 per ton to dispose of refuse in 2004 but would cost $50.00 per ton to get a recycler to accept it - the transportation costs are about equal. (That you have to pay a person to take "recyclable" material, rather than being paid for it, tells you immediately the value of the effort.) It was estimated by the refuse department head that about 20 tons of recyclable material are collected in the recycling trailer each year. The disposal cost: $360.00, the recycling cost: $1,000.00. With the recycling committee’s subsidy request given as $1,100.00 at a recent city commission meeting, this would amount to the city wasting $740.00 worth of tax dollars. A possible option? The city could pay the recycling committee $18.00 per ton of material hauled off in the recycling trailer. And if the recycling committee asks the city to operate the recycling trailer? Reduce the per ton payment as necessary to cover the direct costs to the city’s tax payers of watching over the privately operated recycling trailer.

See you Trackside.


"Eight Great Myths of Recycling," Daniel K. Benjamin, PERC Policy Series PS-28, 2003, ISSN 1094-655. The paper is available at and a copy is available for review at the STAR office.


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