The recycler’s dilemma

1st October, 2005

Dear Economist,
Our local council does not collect cardboard and plastics for recycling, presumably for economic reasons. Yet in our household we have felt it our moral duty to separate those items and deliver them each weekend to our local recycling centre for processing. If a centralised collection system is unworkable, does that mean our individual effort is detrimental to the global environment?
Ju-Yen Tan, west London

Dear Mr Tan,

Governments do many things that are economically wasteful and neglect to do others that would be economically efficient. So I wouldn’t take your local council’s behaviour as a guide to your own.

In fact, recycling can sometimes be financially viable even before considering the environmental benefits: companies have been profitably recycling office paper, aluminium and steel for more than 20 years. But such recycling programmes enjoy economies of scale that you do not.

As for sorting and delivering the rubbish yourself, the sad – or perhaps relieving – fact is that the case for home recycling is tenuous. It would be all very well if you walked past the plastics bank on your way to the tube station every morning, but if you are making an additional car journey to the recycling centre you are using energy, causing congestion and consuming scarce fossil fuels. The net environmental benefits of your trip are small, and may even be negative.

The economic benefits are lower. The most significant cost is the value of your time. Do not underestimate this. If you get a kick out of sorting through your rubbish, don’t let me stop you, but this has not traditionally been seen as an inspiring task. Don’t forget that the price of most commodities has been falling for decades, if not centuries, with one clear exception: the price of labour.

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