Everyone’s talking about the environment these days, whether it’s Al Gore’s army of global warming slide show presenters or billionaire Richard Branson’s quest for alternative fuels. I’m nostalgic for the old days when all the environmentalists wanted was for us to recycle.
In class a few years ago I was lecturing on the economics of environmental protection. As I described the market’s surprisingly robust ability to conserve natural resources, one student asked me “Do you recycle?”
“No,” I answered.
“Thanks for the effort,” he replied sarcastically.
He then angrily marched from the room. I detected that most of the remaining students shared his sentiments, and that day’s lecture was awkward and unsuccessful.
Only later did I realize that I’d given the wrong answer. In fact, I do recycle.
Consider a typical day.
After I awaken, I shower and dry myself with a towel that I’ve had for a few years. I don’t discard it after one use. When it gets dirty, I rejuvenate it by processing it through recycling machines that my wife and I own: a washing machine and clothes dryer.
Then I brew coffee and fix breakfast. Each day, I use the same coffee maker that I used the day before. I clean it after each use, recycling it for the next brew. My wife and I drink the coffee from mugs that have been used many times in the past. (One set of our coffee mugs was handed down to us after my wife’s parents used them for several years.) We also eat our breakfasts using dishes and utensils that are recycled from countless past uses. After breakfast, we recycle our mugs, dishes, and utensils with the help of another recycling machine: an automatic dishwasher.
After breakfast, I dress in clothes that I’ve worn before and that I will wear again. My underwear, my pants, my shirt, my necktie, my belt, my coat, my shoes – all are recycled from previous uses. Indeed, I take my suits and coats to a store specializing in recycling such garments: my local dry-cleaner.
In fact, the very house we live in is recycled. It was built in 1993 by the Van Brocklins who, when they moved out of the area in 2001, didn’t abandon the house or trash it; they sold it to us.
My family and I recycle a lot. Everyone recycles a lot.
If I’d responded in this way to that student, he probably would have asserted, “That’s not recycling. Real recycling is re-using things that many people think of as garbage.”
That student, like most people, thinks of recycling as dealing with a handful of items that are wrongly thought to be semi-precious: cans, bottles, plastic containers and newspapers.
But why do I treat clothing and dinner dishes differently than I treat empty beer cans and old newspapers? The student who walked out on me sees that as a moral failing. I don’t.
No moral issue turns on recycling. It might be immoral to waste things, but contrary to popular misconception, failure to recycle every physical item is not wasteful. Real waste happens when someone recycles without weighing the benefits against the cost, especially the time required to recycle.
If it’s immoral to waste, then it’s immoral to recycle when the benefits of doing so are less than the value of the time it takes to do so. It would indeed be wasteful for me to discard my fine china after each use. So I don’t do it.
But I do discard paper plates – for the same reason I recycle my china rather than discard it: it would be wasteful to do otherwise. After all, I could recycle paper plates. Careful washing would enable me to reuse each paper plate two or three times. But valuable time and labor would be wasted. Time I could spend playing with my son, reading a book or fixing a leaky faucet would be wasted cleaning paper plates. And to what purpose? Paper plates are expendable precisely because the materials used to manufacture them are so abundant. This abundance is reflected in their low price.
If the materials used to manufacture any items become sufficiently scarce, the prices of those materials will rise. These higher input prices will raise the prices paid by consumers for these items, giving consumers greater incentives to recycle them.
Reflecting on the impressive amount of recycling that actually takes place daily casts doubt on the prevailing misperception that Americans 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’d like to see that logic applied to all environmental pursuits.
Donald J. Boudreaux, an adviser to the Media Research Center’s Business & Media Institute, is chairman of the Department of Economics at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.