Sunday, December 18, 2005

Garbage in, more Garbage in

MarkM has argued for years that the polically correct focus on recycling was seriously misguided. It has been driven as much by a belief that we're running out of room as by the belief that plastics, being petroleum-based, are a non-renewable resource, and that trees aren't renewable at the speed we're using them up. MarkM argued that the free market will respond with rising prices if there's a shortage of raw materials and find new sources, or send us price signals that will tell us what materials to use as substitutes. And there's plenty of space to dispose of rubbish, and it won't be long before we figure out how to use new technology to harvest useful feed stocks out of the dumps more cheaply than we can at this point.

I thought that MarkM was mostly right, modulo politics. My thought was that local politics in most areas was making it increasingly difficult to set up new dumps and increasingly expensive to operate existing dumps that would eventually fill up. That leaves all the politicians, in the short run, without a palatable solution that can be implemented by short-sighted politicians who are driven by the next election. This, I thought, would lead to an increasing crunch on room at the dump, an inability to ship the stuff further away, where we know there's plenty of room if the value of getting rid of it all rises high enough. So, while I thought it was caused by lack of planning and easily remedied if the market was allowed to take care of it, I was willing to not kvetch too loudly when people got on their high horse about the moral imperative of recycling.

Well, it turns out that MarkM was more right, even taking short-sighted politicians into account. According to a short piece by Jeff Taylor in Reason, dump operators have improved the efficiency of handling waste enough that the capacity of reasonably well run ones don't decline. Simple techniques can lead to rapid enough decomposition of the organic waste that many dumps no longer project a date at which they will run out of room. And of course, the market speaks as well: costs for dumping average $35 per ton nationwide, a level that apparently hasn't risen significantly over the last decade or more.

And I'm willing to argue that we aren't running out of petroleum or trees if anyone wants to fall back on that point, so it looks like I'll have to start taking MarkM's side more vociferously.

Perhaps I should point out that MarkM, as is his way, doesn't argue with people about this, he just refuses to pay any attention to containers marked recycle. If you ask him why, he'll explain, but that's about as far as I've seen him go.

1 comment:

Chip Morningstar said...

In Palo Alto, we have curbside recycling, which is "free", whereas regular garbage disposal costs a monthly fee according to how many garbage cans you have them pick up each week. With recycling, my household generates 1 bin of recycling and 1 bin of garbage. Without recycling we'd generate 2 bins of garbage. The minimal additional effort of choosing to toss certain items into a different bin means we save 50% on our garbage bill, an out of pocket cost reduction of about $250 per year, which definitely makes it worth the trouble. The sanitation company no doubt derives some revenue from the recycled materials, but I have wonder how much of that $250 is a subsidy from my neighbors, and how much is reflected in my base fee being larger than it otherwise would be...