MUNGER: The recycling-industrial complex

Mandatory recycling laws are a violation of the Constitutional separation of church and state. The law cannot force us to worship landfills, but that’s what mandatory recycling does.

I’m not talking about voluntary recycling. I voluntarily reuse my car, every day. After I wear a suit to work, I don’t throw it away; I send it to the dry cleaners. Because it’s cheaper. In a market economy price tells us which course of action uses more resources. The higher the price, the more energy and resources that action uses. No one has to order me to do what’s cheaper; I just do it voluntarily.

Mandatory recycling means that I am being required, with threats of fines or punishment, to divert things from the landfill and use them in some other way. Because — for reasons that escape me — landfills are sacred. I have (immodestly) proposed the “Munger Test” in this situation: You have in your hand an item. Is it garbage, or a resource? The answer is that if it’s a resource, someone will pay you for it. If it’s garbage, you have to pay someone to take it. The cheapest place to pay them to take it is the landfill.

Let’s try that out. Do we need mandatory recycling of aluminum? Nope. Those cans in the garbage are worth money; recycling saves resources. Many people recycle them voluntarily. But even if they don’t, other people will voluntarily go through the trash and pull them out. So, aluminum is a resource; it won’t go to the landfill.

What about glass, plastic, or mixed paper? Those are all garbage, folks. Many N.C. cities have suspended their glass recycling programs, because there is no market for garbage. Virgin sand costs less, because it requires less energy, and does less harm to the environment. The problem is that people have a religious commitment: anything we send to the landfill is a sign of moral evil. They want to be able to recycle glass, because it makes them feel good.

Much the same is true for plastic containers. It’s illegal to put “recyclable rigid plastic containers that have a neck smaller than the body of the container” in landfills in North Carolina. Of course, these containers have food waste in them, making recycling expensive, wasting energy and water in cleaning. So recycling “information” sites suggest using time and heated, purified water to wash garbage in dishwashers. For this to make sense, one of two things must be true: 1) recycling garbage saves money, or 2) the time and resources spent by consumers are not costs, but benefits.

The first claim is common, but mistaken. I have been told by several city employees (in the tone usually addressed to a child): “Sir, recycling always saves money, no matter how much it costs.” That “insight” lies at the heart of recycling zealotry: you aren’t saving resources, you are saving the Earth! And who could put a price on that?

Which leads directly to the second claim: costs are benefits, because sacrifice is a sign of piety. If I wash garbage and put it in the recycle bin, my neighbors can see I love my landfill. It’s a secular communion. Instead of the Eucharist, I display sacred items, so they can then be picked up and taken... where? I don’t know or care, as long as it’s not the landfill.

Recycling costs money, harms the environment, and uses the one resource — time — that is truly non-renewable. But it gives folks a way to show publicly how much they love the Earth. That’s fine, but making landfill-worship mandatory violates the separation of church and state.

Michael Munger is a professor of and director of the Philosophy, Politics, and Economics Program at Duke University.

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