Over the years, I have been convinced that even the recycling that I do is more for my own feel-good benefits than for anything else. I blog often, like here, that I am a hypocrite for worrying about the environment. I have joked often with students, and even noted once in an op-ed, that my annual flights to visit with the people in the old country contributes immensely more to pollution than I could ever pay for through the recycling. Yet, the world too is way more impressed with my recycling, instead of being concerned that I take too many trips that are fueled by carbon-based energy sources.
All these are why I did not take any offense with this op-ed in the NY Times, in which the author writes:
To offset the greenhouse impact of one passenger’s round-trip flight between New York and London, you’d have to recycle roughly 40,000 plastic bottles, assuming you fly coach. If you sit in business- or first-class, where each passenger takes up more space, it could be more like 100,000.
Even those statistics might be misleading.
For the ease of argument, let us suppose that a round-trip flight between Eugene and Chennai will be about 60,000 plastic bottles. (Of course, I don't fly business class. Not anymore!) So, if I recycle about 500 plastic bottles a year (that's a stretch!) I have not achieved anything by recycling, have I?
But then you are thinking, "hey, lots of Americans don't fly that much." My travel pattern is an outlier, I could claim. For a regular John Doe, wouldn't recycling help? And given that the John Doe numbers are far greater than the Srirams, surely recycling helps, right? Well, it does not:
Despite decades of exhortations and mandates, it’s still typically more expensive for municipalities to recycle household waste than to send it to a landfill. Prices for recyclable materials have plummeted because of lower oil prices and reduced demand for them overseas. The slump has forced some recycling companies to shut plants and cancel plans for new technologies.
Recycling is a huge money loser. Last week, one of the local trash hauling services announced an increase in the rate for curbside recycling! The NY Times op-ed suggests that this is not the local company's fault:
The future for recycling looks even worse. As cities move beyond recycling paper and metals, and into glass, food scraps and assorted plastics, the costs rise sharply while the environmental benefits decline and sometimes vanish. “If you believe recycling is good for the planet and that we need to do more of it, then there’s a crisis to confront,” says David P. Steiner, the chief executive officer of Waste Management, the largest recycler of household trash in the United States. “Trying to turn garbage into gold costs a lot more than expected. We need to ask ourselves: What is the goal here?”
In a country like India, recycling can be a profitable venture, which is why the rag-pickers even search through the public trash piles. But, as societies get more affluent, the relative cost of recycling climbs up rapidly.
As a business, recycling is on the wrong side of two long-term global economic trends. For centuries, the real cost of labor has been increasing while the real cost of raw materials has been declining. That’s why we can afford to buy so much more stuff than our ancestors could. As a labor-intensive activity, recycling is an increasingly expensive way to produce materials that are less and less valuable.
I am especially drawn to issues like this because we are forced to think through the complications and question our own preferred ideas on how to make this world a better place for tomorrow. A constant examination, a Socratic questioning, in which there is no sacred cow, so to speak.
But then we have this urge to do something. Climate change is for real. We know we have to reduce our carbon footprint. Can we do anything at all? We need to travel a different route for that:
It would be much simpler and more effective to impose the equivalent of a carbon tax on garbage, as Thomas C. Kinnaman has proposed after conducting what is probably the most thorough comparison of the social costs of recycling, landfilling and incineration. Dr. Kinnaman, an economist at Bucknell University, considered everything from environmental damage to the pleasure that some people take in recycling (the “warm glow” that makes them willing to pay extra to do it).
He concludes that the social good would be optimized by subsidizing the recycling of some metals, and by imposing a $15 tax on each ton of trash that goes to the landfill. That tax would offset the environmental costs, chiefly the greenhouse impact, and allow each municipality to make a guilt-free choice based on local economics and its citizens’ wishes. The result, Dr. Kinnaman predicts, would be a lot less recycling than there is today.
As you know very well, this is a road that politicians do not, and will not, take. Whether it is in the context of trash, or the fossil-fuels that we burn, the incorrect price for carbon is the real problem. Carbon tax, anyone?
Oh, btw, the op-ed's author, John Tierney, was following up on his own lengthy report for the NY Times from twenty years ago. The title of that report? Recycling is garbage.