February 24, 2009
When Libertarianism Attacks

To paraphrase a favorite movie line, Recycling: I don't think that word means what you think it means. The comments, in my opinion at least, reveal quite starkly the main problems I have with "green" ideas: to wit, the common assumption that human labor is free, and that recycling resources is always "better" than simply expending them.

It's all well and good for you to spend all your free time in a victory garden, mulching your family's waste with the kitchen trash, but quite frankly I really would rather pay someone to take it all away. Likewise, it may make a person feel quite at one with the environment to spend all that time sorting paper, plastic, and metal, but when it all ends up costing significantly more than it would otherwise I'm sorry but I will have to question its utility. And opt out, where I can.

It's not that I'm opposed to green initiatives, it's that so very often their costs are never considered, or actively hidden in all the feel-good propaganda, and then forced on me via government regulation or tax policy. Recycle? Sure... form a company that makes a profit doing it, and make it worth my while, and I'll be happy to sign up. Can't do that? State the price and let me decide if I want to support your green charity. It's when both of those fail, and the advocates in their failure try to turn the barrel of government's gun on me that I start to have a problem.

"Ah," says they, "you'll be happy to fiddle while Rome burns then, will you?" Show me the smoke. Show me the fire. Then, once more, ask me to support your cause.

"But you're unreasonable! The evidence won't convince you! There's an emergency and we must do something about it! Now!" Well, I'm terribly sorry about that then. Would you like me to line up against the wall now, or would you rather me wait until you've collected a few more of my friends?

Want your environmental initiatives to last? Turn them into markets. Let someone make a buck off it. Let someone make as many bucks as they can from it, and ten years from now the efficiencies will astound you. Let the price of scarce commodities drive solutions to their access, and ten years from now they'll all be cheaper than they are now.

But that's not good enough, now is it? That's not what we really want! It won't happen fast enough! It relies on commoners, and they're too stupid to do the right thing! It won't let the people who really know what they're doing to impose the policies we know are required to resolve the crisis!

Yeah, that's what I thought you'd say. Ah, well. Do they still hand out blindfolds and cigarettes for these things?

Posted by scott at February 24, 2009 12:03 PM

eMail this entry!

Worth noting is that some companies employ a similar strategy. At Starbucks, they knock $0.10 off the price of your drink if you bring your own mug. Now, they'll also happily sell you these mugs for about $15. They save the cost of paper and get to sell you a mug at an insane profit margin. So why in the hell would anyone want to do that? Because, quite simply, the payback occurs in less than one year. In fact, in about 5 months if you go daily.

Since Amber and I manage to use our mugs for years prior to retirement, we're actually ahead in the deal. So is Starbucks and so is our local landfill.

This business model works. It's not difficult. Metal recyclers have been doing this for years. Scrap steel, aluminum, copper, and other metals are actually cheaper than getting them new so they can make a profit recycling. It's a dirty and ugly business, to be sure, but profitable.

Now, one thing about their article with regards to styrofoam cups and a ceramic mug. It'd take 1K uses to equal the cost. Great - most of us that have a cup on our desk use that cup for years. If you drink a single cup of coffee a day, the pay off is 4 years (50 weeks of work, 5 cups/week). If you drink 2 and get a new cup each time, the pay-off drops.

Unlike Scott, I actually support pushing these initiatives and am willing to do a bit of labor to get there. Not too much, but sorting out recycling isn't too difficult. Nor is running it to the end of the street where the huge recycling containers sit (we're far enough away that we can't see nor smell them). However, much like him, I'm absolutely not willing to pay extra just to feel good. I do the math to see if it really does work out. I'm replacing our current bulbs with CF ones - but not until the old ones burn out. Cheaper that way. I could conceivably hand wash all of our dishes and do so with less water waste and electrical usage than using the dishwasher, but I'm not going to because my time is more valuable.

Hell, I'm even willing to get a clothesline going to dry towels and sheets just because it's cheaper. I'd put up a wind turbine generator or invest in solar if they'd pay off within a few years, but since they won't - I won't.

Posted by: ronaprhys on February 24, 2009 12:23 PM

Here in sunny Northern California, we let the bums act as our recycling service. The joke is that you don't have to worry about sorting trash; just throw the bags out by the curb and leave them there overnight, and in the morning you'll be left with a neatly stacked pile of trash that's been stripped of anything even vaguely recyclable.

Posted by: DensityDuck on February 24, 2009 08:28 PM

**cracks knuckles** Ok, let's get started...*starts typing**

Some of the linked-to site's comments are based some solid facts, some misleading, and so on down the line. I'll just hit a few high spots here.

The Trouble With The Trees: While it may be true that we've increased the number of trees over the last 50 years, ('we' in this case being American logging companies) it does not follow that the rest of the world is doing the same, as evidenced by the every-shrinking rain forests of Amazonia and central Africa. And even here, replacing a forest with a same-species tree farm is no replacement at all, since there is effectively no biodiversity in a tree farm. And while said treefarms may well make American logging more efficient since there are fewer "trash" species of tree to get in the way, I'm willing to argue that at least part of the reason why logging companies started treefarming in the first place is because they were legally required (via REGULATION...gads!) to do so at some point, not because they wanted to do it on their own.

Landfills and recycling: Sure, a lot of us get a warm and fuzzy "I'm saving the planet!" feeling from volunteer recycle programs. Nothing wrong with that. And while the profitability of some forms of recycling are pretty marginal, the fact that it IS overall cheaper to recycle cardboard, newspaper, 1 & 2 plastic, and of course metals (and maybe glass too) than it is to mine and/or manufacture the stuff from scratch.

The article make a big argument that putting twice as many 'garbage' trucks on the street to handle the recyclables negates whatever profit. That sounds like faulty logic to me: if 100 trucks are required to haul off all the intermingled trash and potentially recyclable materials of a community to begin with, and THEN you remove the recyclable materials (say, 30%) wouldn't you still only need 100 trucks???
The only difference is that now 30 trucks out of the 100 are painted bright green and have recycle signs on them, and the other 70 can haul off the rest of the garbage.

Posted by: Mark on February 25, 2009 04:03 PM

Interesting, but, as I understand it, not correct. According to Bjorn Lobmorg's The Skeptical Environmentalist, UN-financed studies are showing overall forestation is increasing. Precisely because market-driven industrial logging practices allow more dedicated trees to be grown on less land, much of the new forestation is "wild."

I think we both agree metals recycling is definitely worthwhile, otherwise the market-driven metals-recycling industry would never have formed. I recall a Modern Marvels show stating that something like 60% of all steel in circulation is recycled.

However, I'm definitely not convinced other sorts of recycling are cheaper overall. It is my belief that were it otherwise industries to do so would have formed long ago. In my opinion it is only government subsidies and regulations which make these industries possible.

This is not to say recycling them is bad, only that the practice represents a hidden cost which should be accounted for openly by, say, admitting it's more expensive to do so.

In our neighborhood, the recycling and trash services are split between two companies. It could be argued that the recycling company uses 70 fewer trucks, but employs 70% more people for sorting and processing. This of course drives (as it were) profit margins down, which I would argue drives the cost of recycling most "marginal" materials well above the cost of creating them from raw materials. Automation can reduce this cost, but the price of the machines comes with its own quite appreciable hidden costs, and with profit margins so slim where is the incentive to create or purchase them?

Reasonable people can, and do, disagree about these topics. However it is my opinion that as a whole the green movement is not accounting for ANY hidden costs in the policies and practices I see being advocated. If they were, it is my opinion that far more effective strategies could be formed, ones which would result in a self-sustaining movement with constantly increasing efficiency and constantly decreasing costs.

In other words, a market.

Posted by: scott on February 25, 2009 06:24 PM

There is a bit of chicken/egg going on with other types of recycling. If the gov't would decide that recycling is necessary and then leave it up to industries to find the means to do so, this argument would become less relevent. However, they not only mandate it, but they mandate the means. Due to this, the costs are higher than they should be.

However, your assertion that the green movement is ignoring hidden costs is very valid.

Posted by: ronaprhys on February 26, 2009 11:14 AM

I also agree that the human element is not being considered when calculating the costs. And I'm sure those that are doing the ignoring will defend themselves by saying, "Well, at least those 'environmental workers' [i.e., those who sort the recyclables] have jobs." Then of course we go back to the government 'subsidies'. Or are they 'tax incentives'? And where do we draw the line between the two?

man, I have a headache now!

Posted by: Mark on February 26, 2009 05:19 PM

Just think how many trees could've been saved if we didn't have print out all the pages on that farce Obama calls a "Stimulus Package"? In fact, I wonder if they even bothered with recycled paper?

Posted by: ronaprhys on February 26, 2009 06:02 PM

No, that would make too much sense. So much for "change we can believe in"...

Posted by: Mark on February 27, 2009 03:46 PM

Honestly, I think it is change I can believe in. Since I believed he'd change the country for the worse (jack up prices, make an assault on the 2A*, not do a damn thing in Iraq or Afghanistan that McCain wouldn't have, promote policies that do nothing but help keep the poor in their financial woes all while making more poor, etc., it's exactly the change I expected and believed he'd bring.

I'd be smug about being right if it wasn't so damn bad for the country.

*The new AG just announced that Obama wants the "Assault" rifles ban back in place. Let's ban things because they're scary looking!!! There's also a bill working it's way through Congress now called Blair Holt's Firearm Licensing and Record of Sale Act of 2009. From a cursory reading, it violates the 2A pretty steeply as well as infringing on the 4A (unreasonable search and seizure, IIRC, could be another A). So, Obama's statements that he wasn't going after firearms have turned out to be just as quality as all of his others.

Posted by: ronaprhys on February 27, 2009 04:54 PM
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