Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Recycling is Rubbish

The notion that recycling makes economic sense is rubbish.

Some things are profitable to recycle, some things only make sense to recycle when we consider the environmental effects, some things we would be crazy even to try to recycle. Working out what falls into each category should be done by cost-benefit analysis. Add up all the costs, then all the benefits, and see which outweighs the other.

However, there is one cost that no one acknowledges: the time spent preparing items for recycling. No one mentions it because it's done by you, free, in your own home.

Tim Worstall

Englishman's Castle blog points out that, "The
sorting of rubbish can actually now be done very efficiently by large machines at centralized factories. But the green movement insists we do it at home as a penance for our consumerism, almost as if when we needed pins we were forced to make them at home. It is this forbidding of the division of labour that makes us poorer and is symptomatic of the green movement."

See related, classic article "
Recycling is Garbage" by John Tierney in the NY Times Sunday Magazine (June 30, 1996).


At 8/12/2008 3:22 PM, Blogger eric said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 8/12/2008 4:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting post especially John Tierney's article from 1996.
Only one minor downside with his proposed solution, pay-as-you-throw. Illegal dumping and garbage burning increased when a fee was introduced at our local landfill site.

There will always be folks that like to dump old tires in local streams as well as certain types of garbage that get illegally dumped, ie. soil from a marajuana grow-op. Most people just pay the nominal fee.

Safety Tip of the Day:
Always wear natural fibres like cotton or wool when burning anything. A local resident had his nylon slacks catch fire while burning garbage. The fire was so intense it fused his keys together. He was fortunate to survive thanks to a neighbour who put out the fire with a blanket and called 911.

At 8/12/2008 4:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very few items are cost effective to recycle, such as high carbon steel. Aluminum you might break even, but things like paper and plastic is just a waste of money. Moreover, the process of recycle to protect the environment actually hurts it by emitting so-called green house gases.

At 8/12/2008 4:55 PM, Blogger juandos said...


Something some semi-clever bureaucrat came up with to justify his or her continued feeding at the taxpayer financed trough...

If people think not enough recyling is a problem today just wait until that inane mandate of using compact fluorescent light bulbs is in full swing... Does anyone think that the average person is going to spend the money and time deal with them when they burn out?

Well tree huggers, root kissers, and 'algore acolytes' are probably commiserating over steaming cups of herbal tea today...

Via the National Journal: Waning Warming Debate

At 8/12/2008 5:28 PM, Blogger yamahaeleven said...

The cable television show,"Penn and Teller's Bullsh*t," does a hilarious and wickedly accurate skewering of recycling.

I don't recycle anything, unless someone pays me.

At 8/12/2008 7:24 PM, Blogger OBloodyHell said...

> The cable television show,"Penn and Teller's Bullsh*t," does a hilarious and wickedly accurate skewering of recycling.

Season 2, Ep 5, for those of you interested in renting it from Netflix or whatever.

At 8/12/2008 7:48 PM, Blogger K T Cat said...

I thought this was an over-the-top, stupid post and then I went and watched the Penn and Teller video on recycling.

Aluminum only for me from now on. Maybe plastic. Definitely not paper.

At 8/12/2008 8:17 PM, Blogger juandos said...

OR you can watch it on YouTube and see just how blindingly stupid people can be, the crap they will swallow and the nonsense they'll utter just because they think they are saving mother earth or some such crapola...

Penn & Teller Bullshit Recycling Part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=onDbTL9DFpA&feature=related

Penn & Teller Bullshit Recycling Part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b0mq9skLurY&feature=related

Penn & Teller Bullshit Recycling Part 3: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DfwE5y_GOIQ&feature=related

BUT WAIT it only gets better:

Penn & Teller Being Green Part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JAu68OsFggw&feature=related

Penn & Teller Being Green Part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5weG9IllCpo&feature=related

Penn & Teller Being Green Part 3: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ictpPrle3EQ&feature=related

At 8/12/2008 9:58 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

There was a recent article in the San Antonio Express news about their conversion to automated recycling. You get two bins, one for trash and one for recyclables. It costs the city $80/ton to pick up garbage and recyclables. They then have to pay $20/ton to landfill the garbage. However they get to sell the recyclables for $20/ton. So while it does not pay for itself, it does cost $40/ton to recycle than to landfill.

Been on this system for a couple of months now. I am by no means a tree hugger, but this does make good economic sense.

At 8/12/2008 11:25 PM, Blogger Shawn said...

...whenever you try to have a conversation with someone about the topic, you'll get farther pointing out that it often actually wastes resources to recycle. If you say "it costs more," they'll likely miss the point that cost is a proxy for materials usage.

Just a bit o' info that's helped me in these discussions.

At 8/13/2008 2:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We get a small trash container and a larger one for recycling. I like to refer to the small bin as the unsorted trash and the large one the sorted trash. I think Prof. Munger summed it up when he said that people will pay you for a resource not the other way around. I heard in my state here that the transportation department wanted to use glass as fill for roads, but it would violate the state recycling mandate.

At 8/13/2008 6:50 AM, Blogger Tim Worstall said...

f course crib a lot of my information from both Tierney's piece and Penn and Teller. Also Jerry Taylor at Cato has written a lot on this.

At 8/13/2008 12:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

At one time I spent a few months building recycling economics models for a large recycling company.

In general, what kills the economics is the cost of running a truck with 2 employees out to customer's houses. Once the product is at the MRF, it more than pays to sort it and bundle it.

Residential routes can actually come pretty close to paying for themselves under certain circumstances. What you need is a high participation rate, a high set out per customer, a good quality set out (i.e. lots of aluminum - which tends to be correlated with affluence) and a relatively short distance to the nearest MRF.

Sometumes you could greatly improve the economics by decreasing the frequency of the routes. If you could get the same amount of material but used a 80 gallon trash can and picked up once a month, for example, you would save a lot of truck time. But participation and set-outs go down dramatically when this is tried. People have been conditioned to weekly service. They want to save the world but only if it is reasonably convenient.

As an aside, an operation like a Walmart will get paid by recyclers for the right to collect its recylables. When you aggregate enough material in one place, it does become an asset.

At 8/13/2008 5:30 PM, Blogger OBloodyHell said...

> OR you can watch it on YouTube

Well, MY own response was to use EMule and download it... I was tempted to post THAT link here, but decided it was too close to the borderline of problematic given the current state of Copywrong Law (you can get it from TVunderground, if you want).

As a result of that, it never occurred to me to use YouTube and watch it in a dinky little 1x1.5" vidcap.



At 8/13/2008 6:27 PM, Blogger OBloodyHell said...

> They want to save the world but only if it is reasonably convenient.

It sounds like it needs to be completely roboticized, with a robot truck running around snagging trashcans out of fixed locations that people at each "foursome" (i.e., neighbor-neighbor on each side of the road) dump their recycle bins into. That way they can dump stuff whenever they take out the trash, but it doesn't matter if it gets picked up that same day. The robot truck would save having people with salaries involved.

Give it time. We should have robot trucks already.

At 8/14/2008 9:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I live in a college town. Lots of apartment complexes, with lots of beer drinking and soda swilling going on, and at least a moderate level of social-responsibility types who would deal with their recycleables. So you'd think that those high-density locations would all be obvious targets of the city/county recycling efforts.

I think you are mistaking the key drivers. The focus of "city/county recycling efforts" is keeping voters happy not collecting recyclables. They will typically pass on the $1 or $2 per month a recycling company will charge to do a residential pickup. They will make the passionate people happy the service exists, and the rest won't notice or care that much.

The more interesting question is why your apartment complexes wouldn't be targeted by recycling companies motivated purely by profit. I don't know the answer for this as these sorts of services are subject to all sorts of different business models. Some municipalities collect it with city employees, some bid out the the entire municipality as a franchise (including the solid waste), some bid out the recycling franchise seprately, some leave individual subdivisions to contract for service, and some even allow direct competition where multiple firms might run trucks throught the same neighborhood.

But, in general, you are right. Bigger bins and fewer truck trips ought to make the business more profitable. I don't know that robotics is necessarily a quantum improvement. At least not compared to simply lowering the number of truck miles, truck stops and bin lifts by having a bigger bin and less frequent pickups.

At 8/14/2008 1:30 PM, Blogger OBloodyHell said...

> At least not compared to simply lowering the number of truck miles, truck stops and bin lifts by having a bigger bin and less frequent pickups.

Well, my argument in this perspective is that by having a fixed, mutual bin for recycling that collects the recylcables as convenient, rather than on a fixed cycle, the people aren't disrupted from doing it as a regular chore, hence improving compliance, yet it can be done with fewer trips and you eliminate one or two salaries for drivers which, as Anon 12:44 (might've been you) noted, was a big chunk of the offsetting expenses.

The bins can be bigger (presumably 2-3 large waste cans, which may or may not be filled), the actual placement and design of them can be done in such a way as to be the least intrusive into the neighborhood (since they're out 24/7) appearance -- also an issue.

Further, you can even do a certain amount of design to take advantage of local features -- powering by solar power, for example, in those areas, such as Arizona or Florida, where the sun is out a lot. Or methane powered if there is a local methane plant. All sorts of possibilities can be applied to improve local efficiencies.

The chief problem with this task is that, as constituted, it's labor intensive, as well as moderately energy intensive in terms of actually collecting the things to be recycled. Anything which reduces that contributes to its effectiveness.

At 8/14/2008 6:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The chief problem with this task is that, as constituted, it's labor intensive, as well as moderately energy intensive in terms of actually collecting the things to be recycled. Anything which reduces that contributes to its effectiveness.

First, yes I am responsible for the last few anonymous posts...

I don't recall the exact breakout of costs, but it is basically labor, fuel and truck maintenance and depreciation. They have relatively short lives.

When you cost out the service, there are a few basic elements.

- lift time (that is, the time it takes to stop and empty a bin in the truck)
- drive time between customers (obviously more if you are in a more rural setting.)
- transit time (a function of the distance from the truck yard to the route (and to the route to the MRF, and MRF to the yard if they are not the same place. Also, in some cases you will need to empty the truck more than once per day. If you have to drive an hour to the MRF, this significantly limits the number of houses you can collect in a day.)

Anyway, we did some basica analysis on these sorts of parameters and could estimate the number of houses you could collect on a shift, and the cost per house.

You could then offset this with the value of whatever you collected, which is a function of:

- the percentage of people that participate
- the amount of materal they leave out (remember, though, more pounds = more trips to unload = more costs.)
- the mix of material (aluminum good, glass bad)
- the various prices of the material net of the MRF costs.

My recollection is that these parameters vary enormously across different residential recycling programs. Costs in one area can be 4 or 5 times as much per house as in another. But the value of the materials was not enough to cover the cost in all but the most favorable circumstances.

Anyway, the cost of a truck-day is relatively fixed. So, if you can collect more on that truck-day you bring the cost down. You also save some of the transit time when you drive the route less frequently. This steers you toward bigger bins and less frequent pickups. (All other things being equal, though they don't tend to be...)

The extreme case in the waste business is the "roll-off". You have seen these big bins on wheels at commercial accoutns. They are essentiall a bin that is a full trailer on the back of a truck. When the roll-off bin is full, a driver come out with an empty bin, rolls it off the back of his truck then uses a winch to pull the new one on to the back of his truck and drives away with a full load. You could have everyone in an area dump all their recyclables in a roll-off, and then pick it up when full. I'm sure the companies would be happy to come get the material.

You do actually see bins where people can bring their newspapers in church parking lots, etc. that operate on this model.

However, emprical evidence suggests you will see an enormous drop in participation if you use this approach.

In reality, you have also simply shifted (and hidden) a lot of the cost back to the consumer who now must spend his time and energy bringing the materials to the one big bin.


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