Monday, January 25, 2010

Thoughts on Recycling

Beer bottle chandelier.
Beer bottle solar water heater.

Beer bottle furniture.
Beer bottle house.

More than three-quarters (77%) of American adults claim they "recycle" and slightly less than one-quarter (23%) of American adults "recycle nothing at all," according to a Harris Interactive poll in 2007.

GMU economist Don Boudreaux made an important point in his 2002 Freeman article "
I Recycle" that even though he and others might be part of the 23% who tell pollsters that they don't officially "recycle," they still do a lot of "unofficial recycling" every day, e.g. re-using many household items like towels, coffee mugs, dishes, utensils, clothes, shoes, appliances, CDs, furniture, and books.

Don concludes: "Reflecting on the impressive amount of recycling that actually takes place daily casts doubt on the prevailing misperception that people are naturally wasteful and mindlessly irresponsible. In fact, market prices compel us to recycle when recycling is appropriate—and to not recycle when recycling is inappropriate."

I've been thinking about recycling lately and Don's article, and have a few thoughts:

1. Even for the 77% of Americans who claim to regularly "recycle," they usually only recycle a very narrow and limited number of items like newspapers, bottles and cans. Don Boudreaux uses the example of paper plates, and suggests that it would be possible, but too costly, in terms of the time involved compared to the benefits, to re-use paper plates. Therefore, most people, even the most dedicated, religious "recyclers," do not bother to recycle their paper plates.

Likewise, there are many other items that even the most committed and devoted "recyclers" don't usually bother to re-use a second time: coffee filters, paper cups, dental floss, paper towels, paper napkins, Q-tips, toothpicks, plastic utensils, and Kleenex tissues.

2. Even when 77% of Americans say they recycle items like newspapers, bottles and cans, what they almost always mean is that they recycle using the "lazy approach," and they actually have somebody else do the actual work of recycling their discarded items (usually after a single use). The "lazy approach" means that instead of actually re-using those items themselves, they put their newspapers, bottles and cans in a special green bin instead of their regular garbage can, and send those items off for somebody else to do the actual, real work of re-using those items.

For example, there are lots of ways for "real recyclers" to actually recycle their own newspapers, instead of being "lazy recyclers" and having somebody else do their work. There are lots of websites (including
here and here) that provide great ideas on how to recycle newspaper including:

"Recycle newspaper into new paper by tearing it up, soaking it in warm water until it becomes pulp, then spread the pulp on an old window screen covered in a piece of fabric. When it dries, you have great recycled card stock for projects and gifts."

And there are some great ways to be a non-lazy "active recycler" of bottles, for example go
here and here to see pictures of the many items that can be made with bottles including light fixtures, Christmas trees, chandeliers, houses, entire temples, and solar water heaters (see photos above).

Bottom Line: 1) The 23% of American "non-recyclers" actually do a lot of recycling, especially when the benefits outweigh the costs (clothes, silverware, plates, towels, etc.).

2) The 77% of American "recyclers" are actually most often "lazy recyclers" and don't do their own recycling. Instead, they have somebody else do the recycling for them, and they don't for example use their bottles to make furniture or their newspaper to make paper.

3) The active "recyclers" limit their recycling very narrowly to select items like cans, bottles and newspapers, and even these religious recyclers don't recycle many potentially reusable items like toothpicks and coffee filters.


At 1/25/2010 9:57 PM, Blogger juandos said...

More than three-quarters (77%) of American adults claim they "recycle something in their own home," and less than one-quarter (23%) of American adults "recycle nothing at all," according to a Harris Interactive poll in 2007....

Count me among that 23% or that Boudreaux recycling crowd...

That 77% should pay attention to Penn & Teller's Recycling Is B.S.!...

At 1/25/2010 10:47 PM, Anonymous Bacer said...

I visited a house being sold by a real estate company specializing in "green" houses.

They had kitchen counters made of recycled glass. The counters seemed fairly durable and even more colorful than granite. I thought it was a great idea, but when I looked into how much they would cost to put in my home they were incredibly expensive - nearly as much as granite.

The "green" doesn't refer to the effect on the environment but what they plan to separate from you.

At 1/25/2010 11:35 PM, Blogger Marko said...

Count me in to the 23%, as long as it is clear that I am not doing the other stuff either. I do reuse metal silverware as silverware, and I don't throw out a sponge after the first use, but lets not confuse avoiding being wasteful with 'recycling' per se. Reusing seems very different than recycling. In my town, the coercive force of the government requires that we place our paper, plastic and aluminum in bins so that the local government can waste money and energy and padding the pockets of their cronies. I don't do that for heavens sake. If they ever come after me, my defense will be that you can't prosecute me for saving the county money.

At 1/26/2010 12:29 AM, Blogger misterjosh said...

Watching bullshit now. I am irritated by the brainwashing that we give our children (the brainwashing that I myself received) about... well... just about everything, but specifically the environmental BS.

I'm a little bit concerned that the negative externality of garbage generation is not correctly priced. I haven't been able to find studies that takes into account the long-term costs of trash storage going into the future.

I have to admit that I recycle my cardboard, cans, & water bottles, but hopefully it doesn't incur too much extra price in logistics because I live in a high-rise.

At 1/26/2010 12:29 AM, Blogger misterjosh said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 1/26/2010 12:46 AM, Blogger Shawn said...

I wrote a slightly pejorative, but relatively even-handed paper for a class with Dan Klein last semester, critiquing published economists' opinions on recycling, and providing some of my own suggestions on how to get a robust recycling market that actually deals with valuable materials.

For instance: Paper, glass, steel cans, and plastics are virtually worthless as currently existing in the waste stream (some plastics could be good, but they're swamped by the junk plastics), but consumers do not receive the signals to move toward more recyclable materials because of recycling targets (called "diversion rates") enacted by municipalities--you get what you measure, and when all you care about is getting stuff into a recycling bin and out of a trash can, there's no provision for more-or-less-valuable material substitutions.

Glass is particularly crap, and I've got some first hand evidence of what happens to "recycled" glass in Orlando, Florida: It's shipped to the local Orlando landfill, ground up into a mixture of sand-fine material, paper scraps, and little bits of metal, and then shipped across county lines to be used in road-beds in an adjacent county's landfills (I assume that that county shipped their glass to Orlando, but I forgot to ask when I was there getting the tour). Why not simply use it in Orlando's landfill? Oh, because then it would not meet the arbitrarily defined notion of 'recycling' that would count towards Orlando's diversion rates.

Should anyone want to learn what economists have to say about recycling, and read an econ grad student's ideas on the topic, I'd of course be glad to send them my paper. :) This is a topic I'm particularly interested in, and would welcome any comments, particularly from non-economists to make it more accessible to everyone.

At 1/26/2010 5:57 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

A very precious resource is "common sense" and it is being wasted at an alarming rate.
However, the intellectual garbage can is overflowing.

At 1/26/2010 10:27 AM, Anonymous richard said...

The best way to recycle a newspaper is by selling it to your neighbors.

Just my 2c's

At 1/26/2010 11:16 AM, Anonymous Andy Graham said...

I go to countries like Nepal, India, Thailand etc often, I have been to 88, I want to learn how this Beer Bottle solar heater works. Where is this located?

This would be perfect for Kathmandu, Nepal.

Top Travel Blog

At 1/26/2010 12:10 PM, Blogger QT said...

What most people also fail to realize is how much packaging has been reduced over the last 20 years.

In the fall, we have a community roadside garbage cleanup. From the waste I collected, I had 2 bins of flattened pop cans and water bottles. The weight was neglible...really a surprise.


Much of the economics of recycling is little changed since John Tierney wrote Recycling is garbage. Recycling happens when it makes economic sense as it does in many areas ie. recycling scrap metal.


You got it...all of these green gimmicks cost greenbacks. Beyond the gimmickry of bamboo floors and solar panels: Prioritizing's the energy stupid

At 1/26/2010 12:21 PM, Blogger QT said...

BTW, how many footcandles get out of that fixture and would I have to install a steel I-beam to hold it up? How comfortable is it to sit on glass bottles unless your idea of comfort is a wooden park bench? How energy efficient is a wall of glass bottles when glass provides about R2 in insulation...guess that's not in Canada, eh??

Without the moral obligation, are any of these really good design? Do they offer what Vetruvius referred to as "firmness, commodity and delight"?

At 1/26/2010 2:09 PM, Blogger juandos said...

Hey QT:

How would you like to feel good about being 'green' with some serious status symbol power at the sametime?...:-)

Consider the following: Coming Soon: Hybrid Porsche Cayenne (And Volkswagen Touareg Too)

At 1/26/2010 5:41 PM, Blogger cliffwarren said...

I like the "bottle house", but I'd hate to be in an earthquake in one...

At 1/26/2010 5:53 PM, Blogger QT said...


I watch Top Gear. I've seen electric sports cars...unfortunately, they run out of power if you drive them like a sports car. Turbo charged diesel is a lot more practical and just as fuel efficient without the premium price tag.

Flanders & Swann summed up a lot of the woolie green thinking in Design for Living

At 1/27/2010 1:02 AM, Anonymous Ristra said...

Most recycling gets dumped in landfills anyway because the collections exceed the recycling capacity.

This is the part that the "green" politicians don't want you to know about.

Steel, aluminum, and bricks are all recycled in high percentages by the free market because they are cheaper to reuse/recycle than to create new product.

The items we have to be FORCED to recycle are the products where it is not cost-effective to do so.

California charges a recycling tax on every new computer. That money goes straight to favored non-profits for recycling efforts, but no one is monitoring what they do with the computers or the money.


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