Recycling and Rational Choices: Who Decides?

Midland Volunteers for Recycling members at work.
Midland Volunteers for Recycling members work to fill a truck with recyclable polystyrene foam.

What are the factors in the decision to recycle one product, and not another?

As recycling became a popular part of American culture, it diverged along two distinct lines—markets and mandates. Aluminum cans, which are less expensive to recycle than many other products represent a recycling solution with built-in market incentives. Glass, paper, and certain plastic products are recycled too, but to a large degree, they are recycled because of government mandates instead of market incentives.

Privatization plays a vital role in this debate. There are several forms of privatization, and each is dependent upon the degree to which government maintains a role in the delivery of a product or service. Should the decision to recycle be privatized, that is, left up to citizens? Are voluntary, market-based recycling efforts more effective than mandated programs?

Should the decision to recycle be privatized, that is, left up to citizens?

Consumers drive the majority of U.S. economic activity with about two-thirds of total spending while government spending accounts for the rest. This leverage places Americans in the driver’s seat to influence important economic decisions, including what to recycle, effecting our lives and future.

Recycling burst into the national consciousness over two decades ago. Interest groups and concerned citizens began pushing a pro-recycling agenda for many reasons, including the conservation of the earth’s resources and a perceived lack of landfill space.

Much criticism of our modern society is aimed at practices which have developed with the fast pace of life. A "throwaway society" driven by the ever-increasing demand for convenience has created a widespread belief that we do not use our resources wisely. Currently, more than 11.5 million tons of trash are dropped in Michigan landfills each year.

Soft drinks are a daily consumption item for many Americans and are usually contained in what has become a packaging staple: aluminum cans. By embracing the aluminum can, private business has adopted a sound economic practice, while providing responsible environmental stewardship and virtually eliminating one type of inefficient throwaway container—the steel can for soft drinks.

There is a strong market incentive for producers to recycle aluminum cans. Transforming ore into aluminum requires ten percent more energy than recycling aluminum efficiently. Despite such a clear market incentive, Michigan and most New England states have mandated recycling incentives via deposits paid by consumers on a per can basis. These can deposits may encourage consumers to save and return used containers to their local supermarket. We should ask ourselves, however, whether the government needs to be involved in recycling a product that provides its own recycling incentives in the first place. Perhaps the decision should be left to producers, who have a financial incentive to conserve resources, and consumers, who may wish to recycle for economic or personal reasons.

Consider the following examples of products which some people consider to be environmentally unsound:

  • Disposable aseptic juice cartons, a popular item demanded by parents and children, require half the landfill space of their alternative, glass bottles. Regardless, juice cartons remain a target for criticism even though it requires 15 times as many trucks (which use fuel and emit pollution) to haul empty glass bottles. Maine outlawed the use of these cartons.

  • Disposable diapers are quick and clean alternatives to cloth diapers, and absorb only 0.17 percent of landfill space. Furthermore, cities in the southwest which have relatively scarce water resources may be doing the environment a disservice by washing cloth diapers. Regardless, several states have discussed banning disposable diapers to encourage the use and recycling of cloth diapers.

  • Disposable polystyrene cups are a sanitary, convenient, and inexpensive alternative to glass and ceramic mugs which are preferred by many environmentalists. Polystyrene cups require much less energy to produce than ceramic mugs, and do not require cleaning which puts waste water and possibly harmful detergents into the ecosystem. One study indicated that it takes less of the earth’s resources to use 1,000 disposable cups than to use a single ceramic mug.

Should recycling and the use of environmentally sound products be promoted by markets or mandates? When price, or the "cost" of an item is determined by the market, decisions to recycle or not to recycle automatically take into account the total resources required to produce, use, or re-use that item. Businesses and private citizens work to avoid the waste of resources because it costs money. When government mandates recycling, the true cost is harder to determine and often results in a waste of resources instead of conservation.