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Trash can

13 Mar 2019 | News Roundup

The Atlantic reports that Americans are finally joining the church of recycling. Regrettably there’s now nowhere to put the stuff, since China stopped accepting it and doing whatever they did when no one was looking. Seems climate change isn’t the only topic where green sentiment overwhelms common sense.

Recycling has very little to do with climate change directly, of course. Except perhaps for concerns about methane emissions from landfills which, the story does note, are “the third-largest source of methane emissions in the country”. But for precisely that reason the topic is instructive.

First, the weary tone of the Atlantic about the deplorables “finally recycling”. Second, the notion of a crisis in which the continental United States was going to run out of holes in the ground in which to put rubbish until somebody got clever enough about processing it that doing so became commercially viable. Third, the fact that there was far more virtue-signaling than actual benefit to putting plastic bottles in ships and burning fossil fuels to send them to just about the world’s worst environmental villain then looking the other way as the stuff contaminated the landscape and, surprisingly often, wound up in Chinese landfills. And fourth, the bogus economics.

See, just when Americans have at last been hectored into sticking their heads into the blue bin, towns are having to tell residents that it costs $125 a ton to recycle or $68 a ton to incinerate their trash instead of the $6 original price tag (these figures are from Franklin, New Hampshire, whose city manager was quoted “We are doing our best to be environmentally responsible, but we can’t afford it”).

There are several important lessons here. First, politicians and activists should tell the truth because if people find out you’ve been deceiving them they stop trusting you. Second, prices do tell the truth. If recycling is more efficient than burying the net cost of doing so will be less than the net cost of acquiring landfill space. If recycling costs too much, it’s because it’s not a sensible solution to the problem of waste. And thus, third, the goal here is sensible solutions to real problems. Or at least it should be.

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