Recycling and Waste

I’ve met many people committed to recycling. I recycle. My recycling is based on my opposition to waste, which I take to be a “process wherein something useful becomes less useful and that produces less benefit than is lost” or “the result of such a process” (see my 2010, 256). I recycle, that is, to reduce lost value. If something can be made useful (again) without causing other loss, great. Recycling, though, does not necessarily reduce loss. Unfortunately, many act as if recycling is always and necessarily a worthy act. This post is meant to promote a more reasonable view, one attentive to costs and benefits.

Say you have a bicycle you no longer use and decide it shouldn’t take up your space anymore. You advertise it for sale for $50. You get multiple requests to see it, schedule them, and the first person to look at it buys it. Great. It’s out of your space. Why were you able to charge $50 for the bicycle? Because someone else had a use for it that was worth at least that $50 to them.

Now say you have an old beat-up tricycle taking up space. You advertise it for sale for $20. You get one request to see it, schedule that, but the visitor declines to buy it. Why were you unable to charge $20 for the tricycle? Because no one had a use for it that was worth at least that $20 to them. (Indeed, you probably would have taken less, but no one thought it worth any amount.)

Now let’s say that instead of a bicycle, it was a large bag of used metal cans. And instead of a tricycle, it was a large box of used batteries (or styrofoam or…). You get an offer for the former but not the latter. Why? Because the former can be used by a recycler in a way that profits them while the latter cannot. Someone looking at the batteries, might say “I’ll take them off your hands, but it will cost you $10.” What does that suggest? It suggests that it is possible to make use of the batteries—via recycling or otherwise—but not in a cost-effective way. It suggests, in fact, that making use of the batteries would cost $10.

What does it mean that it would cost $10 to recycle the batteries? That they would need to pay for something else—perhaps labor to take them apart, energy to melt (parts of) the batteries, chemicals to neutralize those in the batteries, or other such goods and services. Notice that using those things not only costs money, but may also negatively impact the environment. Perhaps the generation of energy used contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. Perhaps the chemicals used are bad for the environment or perhaps their use results in a byproduct that is. The labor, of course, could have been used in other ways—perhaps on work meant to reduce greenhouse gas emissions!* In short, that you must pay to recycle the batteries suggests that doing so may not be the best thing to do.

Lest anyone think I am secretly anti-recycling, I am not. I simply think we should be attentive to the costs and benefits. If the overall benefits of recycling something are higher than the costs, on my view, we should recycle it. I even admit that one of the possible benefits of recycling is the emotional satisfaction one gets from contributing to improving (or at least not damaging) the environment—but, of course, if that emotional satisfaction is due only to falsely believing one is helping, one should improve one’s beliefs. There are, after all, alternatives to recycling. Reuse is obviously better, for example. Reducing use is also often better (though, again, one ought to be reasonable: plastic bags, for example, make life far easier, so not using them at all, as some propose, seems costly). And, for better or worse, some things should probably just be put in a landfill.

Added: At the end of the day, it’s simply not clear to me why anyone would assume any particular industrial process would necessarily be good for the environment—and recycling is an industrial process.


*I am not an expert about recycling. If it turns out that there are cost effective ways to recycle batteries (or styrofoam or …), I would retract the objection to doing so. I take it that if there were, we would not have to pay more for doing so than for putting them in a landfill.

Thanks to Connor Kianpour for suggestions on an earlier draft of this post.