The Economic Case Against Mandatory Recycling

Question Everything: Should recycling be mandatory?
Getty Images; Illustration by Kirsten Salyer for TIME

It’s not always the cheapest, most environmentally friendly option

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Like most people, I voluntarily reuse or recycle most things I use. After driving a car for years, I sell it back for the scrap metal. After I wear a suit to work, I don’t throw it away; I send it to the dry cleaners.

The reason is that it is far more expensive (and uses more resources) to throw away cars or suits after I use them. No one has to order me to do; I just do it voluntarily.

Mandatory recycling means that I am being required, with threats of fines or punishment, to “recycle” products in ways that actually use more resources than if we just threw them away. How do I know this? In a market system cost is a measure of the value of the resources used up in different courses of action.

Do we need mandatory recycling of aluminum? Nope. Those cans in the garbage are worth money; recycling saves resources. People will voluntarily go through the trash and pull them out.

What about glass? Yikes! Many cities have suspended their glass “recycling” programs, because it is much cheaper (and uses less energy) to use virgin sand than to try to purify commercially mixed cullet. No one would recycle glass, except in a few isolated areas that produce wine or other bottled products. And the environment would be better for the change if we ended mandatory recycling.

Why don’t we? Because recycling has taken on religious significance. It’s true that recycling is a net expense, a waste, but that truth misses the point in terms of goals. Religious devotion is more meaningful if there is a sacrifice. The fact that people spend money, harm the environment, and use the one resource—time—that is truly non-renewable is just a way to show how much those people love the earth. Mandatory recycling wastes resources, but it allows people to declare their faith publicly.

And that’s the real problem: Mandatory recycling programs for glass are a violation of the separation of church and state. There are no policy or environmental benefits; recycling glass is a religious sacrifice. Amen.

Michael Munger is an economist and professor at Duke University.

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