Friday, March 11, 2011

The recycling conundrum

Back to the flaws of our neoclassical economy and its detrimental impacts on the environment.

A few years ago, I learned that recycling is a business. To be honest, it really shocked me then, and still at times I cannot wrap my mind around this fact. Many people recycle out of the goodness of their hearts, and take the time and effort to be responsible recyclers because they think they are truly being lighter on the environment. And so it might be shocking to them to comprehend this fact. But giving this fact a little more thought, I understand why it may be a business - in a consumerist world, we always need materials to make things. You can of course extract virgin materials or synthesise them, which requires its share of energy, water, fuel, human, time and other spendable resources. All of these resources are then assigned a money value. On the other hand, you can take already existing materials and reform them into the same, or similar materials (likely downcycled, not recycled). This, too, required its share of spendable resources. A money value is assigned to these resources. If the cost of the virgin material is cheaper than the recycled material, people may just choose to use the virgin material. People will only use the recycled materials if the cost of using them is competitive with the cost of the virgin material. Recycling is probably (?) less bad for the environment, but cost triumphs, always.

It was a wonderful experience to go to the recycling plant just south of Ann Arbor with Caroline. A complication about the future of recycling in the region was raised by our tour guide. He said that recently, the contracts that allowed Ontario's trash to be imported into Michigan expired. This may likely reduce demand for landfill space, and landfills may decrease the fees it costs to actually dump something in the landfills (called "tipping fees"). It may therefore make it cheaper for cities and municipalities to just pay the tipping fees rather than the City of Ann Arbor to accept their recycling refuse. This could cut down on recycling. But Caroline raises an even more salient issues in her post from a few days ago. She said,

"...we forget that recycling is actually a business, and the Ann Arbor plant is run by a corporation.  Ann Arbor is unique in her recycling ways.  Due to the fact that the city owns the plant, and that it is in close proximity to the city and the other locales that feed it materials, it is actually more profitable to recycle than trash our waste.  But would the city really try to motivate us if it wasn’t earning a profit?  Sadly, probably not.  Instead of dwelling on a pessimistic view, it does say something that A2 creates an environment conducive to recycling.  However, if we used less resources all together, there would be less to recycle, and profits would fall.  So even though the idea of recycling is usually linked with consuming less, a revenue threshold exists that needs to be maintained.  What I therefore struggle with is the contradiction between business and the environment.  From a recycling plant perspective, are we supposed to stop consuming?"
I wonder what the ideal world for the people that actually process the recyclables is. As an environmentalist, the ideal world would be one in which recycling the way we do just doesn't exist - we just wouldn't have so many products in the first place. In that case, the very need for recycling is nil. Yet it doesn't seem to me that the recycling plant is run out of the goodness of a corporation's heart. (Of course corporations are people and are living...right?!) If they can't make money, who cares about the environment?


  1. The recycling plant in Ann Arbor is run by a private non-profit called Recycle Ann Arbor - this organization sprung out of Ann Arbor's Ecology Center, and started Michigan's first-ever curbside recycling program in 1978. In my opinion, its a great organization.

    Also check out this unrelated video that made me think of your blog:

  2. Recycling is so much needed. All types of medical waste should be handled perfectly. These are so much hazardous to our environment.