NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Recycling Trash Talk

September 10, 2003

The European Union has ordered the citizens of the United Kingdom to roughly double their recycling rates by 2008, while the city governments of New York and Seattle have proposed mandatory expansions of existing recycling programs.

These moves are not based on new developments in resource conservation; instead they-like other mandatory recycling programs-rest on misconceptions of mythic proportions, says Daniel K. Benjamin, an economics professor at Clemson University.

Some facts about trash and recycling:

  • The United States today has more landfill capacity than ever before; in 2001, the nation's landfills could accommodate 18 years' worth of rubbish, an amount 25 percent greater than a decade before.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) acknowledges that the risks to humans (and presumably plants and animals) from modern landfills are virtually nonexistent.
  • Contrary to current wisdom, packaging can reduce total rubbish produced: The average household in the United States generates one third less trash each year than does the average household in Mexico, partly because packaging reduces breakage and food waste.
  • Interstate trade in trash raises our wealth as a nation, perhaps by as much as $4 billion; most of the increased wealth accrues to the citizens of areas importing trash.

Recycling is a long-practiced, productive, indeed essential, element of the market system. Informed, voluntary recycling conserves resources and raises our wealth, say experts. In sharp contrast, misleading educational programs encourage the waste of resources when they overstate the benefits of recycling.

Mandatory recycling programs -- in which people are compelled to do what they know is not sensible -- routinely make society worse off. Market prices are sufficient to induce the trashman to come, and to make his burden bearable, and neither he nor we can hope for any better than that, explains Benjamin.

Source: Daniel K. Benjamin, "Recycling Rubbish: Eight Great Myths About Waste Disposal," PERC, September 2003; based upon "Eight Great Myths of Recycling," forthcoming from Political Economy Research Center.


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