Sunday, September 19, 2010

Flow-on effects of recycling - are there net benefits?

It is widely claimed that recycling “saves resources.” Often, recycling proponents claim that it will save specific resources, such as timber, petroleum, or mineral ores. Sometimes particularly successful examples are singled out, such as the recycling of aluminum cans. Both of these lines of argument rest on the notion that reusing some resources means using fewer total resources.
Daniel K. Benjamin

Like efficiency, the word recycling reflects positivity from all angles. How could anyone say a bad thing about recycling?

I propose not to say a bad thing for the sake of cementing my identity as a super-sceptic, but to examine in detail the potential flow-on effects of recycling and determine whether the espoused benefits can theoretically be delivered.

Generally two benefits of recycling are proclaimed. First, waste will be diverted from landfill, thus we can reduce the space required for this purposed and reduce the threat of leaching from landfill sites into groundwater systems and other environments. Second, recycled material will substitute for raw materials and thus reduce consumption of natural resources which may have associated negative environmental externalities.

These are two distinct benefits, and achieving one does not necessarily imply achieving both.

There are also two different economic scenarios for achieving recycling with different outcomes – the profitable recycling scenario, and the unprofitable recycling scenario that requires government support.

The profitable scenario represents an improvement in overall economic efficiency, thus, like the case of profitable energy efficiency, it facilitates future economic growth and improves our productive capacity.

In this scenario, recycled material cannot be said to be diverted from land fill, because it would never have been put there in the first place due to the material’s value to remanufacturing. If the material was simply dumped on the street there would be an opportunity for a business to emerge to collect the material and sell for a profit. Without a counterfactual we cannot estimate the effect on either of our two recycling claims.

If we assume instead that the counterfactual scenario is one where the technology had not yet emerged to make recycling profitable, then we can now consider the flow-on effects from the technology. It is best to have a single material in mind, say glass, when thinking of these effects.

First, the price of the final goods (windows, bottles etc) using the newly recyclable material will decline due to the reduced cost of recycled instead of raw materials. Thus we will see an increase in demand (not a shift in the demand curve, but a new point on the demand curve at a lower price) for these final goods and therefore an increase in demand for recycled and/or raw materials (recycled glass or silica from natural sand deposits). Depending on the availability of recycled material compared to the total quantity of raw materials, this can lead to greater demand for natural resource itself (sand mining).

We can now say we have probably diverted waste from landfill leading to a greater quantity of material circulating in the hands of society (as either capital equipment – glass in buildings perhaps- or soon to be recycled consumables – maybe bottles), but we cannot say with certainty that the new recycling technology has reduced demand for the particular natural resource in question. Nor can we say that demand for, and consumption of, other natural resources remains unaffected. In fact the new recycling technology, since it improved overall economic efficiency, is likely to increase demand for all natural resource inputs to the economy.

The alternate unprofitable scenario represents a decrease in overall economic efficiency, and will reduce overall economic activity compared to scenario where government did not use its coercive power to enforce this unprofitable venture.

In this scenario we are likely to see a decline in waste to landfill compared to the economically efficient situation where recycling is not subsidised. We face the same situation of compensatory demand due to price declines of final goods manufactured using the cheaper subsidised recycled materials. This scale of this offsetting behaviour cannot be readily estimated and is likely to strongly depend on the relative prices and quantities of the recycled materials and raw material inputs are a particular point in time. A decline in overall demand for raw materials in the economy as a whole is certain in the unprofitable scenario due to the overall reduction in economic efficiency.

For unprofitable recycling the net result will be a reduction in waste to landfill of both the recycled good and other goods (since we can now produce fewer goods in total across the economy), and a reduction in resource consumption of the recycled material and all other resource inputs to the economy.

In what is becoming a familiar environmental theme at this blog, it should be clear that indirect measures to curb negative environmental impacts from our activities, such as promoting conservation behaviours, profitable energy efficiency, and recycling, have questionable net impacts on the environmental issue at hand.

Returning to our two main environmental goals of recycling – reduce negative impacts form landfill sites and reduce resource extraction that involves an environmental burden – we can clearly offer more direct measures which are both easy to establish and have certain environmental benefits.

The first environmental goal can be achieved by setting minimum environmental standards for landfill sites to address leaching (or any other associated problem depending on local conditions) including, perhaps, restrictions on location. In response to these criteria, landfill operators (public or private) would need to adopt appropriate measure to limit external impacts – possibly lining their pits with impermeable material, sorting, washing or removing particular types of waste, or some other creative response. These extra costs of waste disposal – the internalised environmental cost – will flow through to the cost of disposal, and may render some recycling programs profitable.

For the second environmental concern, resource extraction, similar direct controls can be used. Sticking with the glass example, the scope of sand mining can be limited through planning controls where natural environments which are valued by the community. Once this limit is established, sand mining in that area can proceed, at any particular rate, with certainty that there is a finite limit to the environmental cost.

These limits would never be, strictly speaking, perfect. They would at best reflect the perceived value of the environment to the community. There is no reason that the limits should not be stricter in some areas than others.

As an indirect environmental measure with questionable benefits, recycling, like efficiency, is claimed to be a panacea for a variety of poorly defined environmental ills. We often forget to critically examine the link between this indirect environmental ‘remedy’, and the target environmental illness.


  1. great post & site!

    not being an economist myself, is it correct to assume that if things are cheaper i will buy more of them? like if i buy one plastic bottle per day already, if they are cheaper would i buy another bottle, or a bigger bottle? hasn't my demand for water been met?

    the one scenario that hasn't been imagined is if the cost to use recycled materials was the same as virgin materials...wouldn't this have a positive effect without any rebound, and therefore the arguments over recycling being less or more costly are rather not comments over the benefits of recycling but over the benefits of economic growth?