Michael Munger on Recycling
Jul 2 2007

Mike Munger, professor of economics and political science at Duke University and frequent guest of EconTalk, talks with host Russ Roberts about the economics and politics of recycling. Munger argues that recycling can save resources, of course, but it can also require more resources than production from scratch. Some curbside recycling, for example, makes sense, while other forms (such as green glass) may be akin to a form of religious expression rather than a wise policy that is environmentally productive. The conversation is based on Munger's recent essay at the Library of Economics and Liberty.

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Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


Jul 2 2007 at 10:19am

The company that I use to collect my trash once a week will actually charge me an additional fee if I request that they come by and collect recyclables, too. This even after I have sorted the glass from the plastics from the newspapers for them.

I’d like to be ‘green’ but I’ll be darned if I’m going to pay for the privilege. The feeling that I’d get from doing the right thing does not counterbalance the satisfaction that I get from having the additional ten or so bucks that I’m saving.

Maybe if Al Gore, the Sierra Club, or even the Environmental Liberation Front would divert some of their political campaign funds to subsidize my home recycling program — rather than rent-seek or on purchasing flammables to torch SUVs — they might be able to realize some actual improvements.

Mike Munger
Jul 2 2007 at 12:52pm

Good points, LC Joe!

In many cities, the fact that you CAN make money from CANS (sorry) allows a cross-subsidy.

But this is becoming less and less true. In fact, the proportion of aluminum cans being recycled has fallen, a LOT, since 1996.

The reason? Interestingly, it is because the amount of aluminum in cans has been cut, by packagers. Cans have less than have the metal per can as in the mid-1990s. So….cans are worth less, companies that recycle have less ability to cross-subsidize, and there are fewer economically viable recycling programs.

Al Gore, who is worried about overpopulation (though he has four kids), and is worried about greenhouse gasses (though his house uses more coal-produced electricity than some entire neighborhoods), probably wants people to recycle. As long as they pay for it themselves.

John S.
Jul 2 2007 at 1:23pm

Great podcast as usual. Although I completely agree with Mike Munger, I’m going to play devil’s advocate here. Let me begin with a true story: my wife recently decided to start recycling certain types of glass. Strangely enough, tabasco bottles, mayonnaise jars and other food containers go right into the trash, but each bottle of wine I empty must be placed in a special bin that I pass every time I pull the car into or out of the garage. Then when the bin is full, she makes me take it down to the recycling center (since our community does not have curbside recycling pickup).

In that spirit, could recycling function as a kind of Pigovian tax, designed to make us use less? Admittedly, I haven’t heard anyone say “I’m not going to buy that magazine because it’s too much of a hassle to separate it from the other trash and bring it out to the recycling bin,” (just as I don’t think I let my always-growing collection of empties discourage me from buying new, full wine bottles) but if recycling uses up valuable time, the “hassle factor” must be entering somehow into our purchasing decisions. Could this be another motive for recycling? Because environmentalists think it will make us use less stuff?

Tom B
Jul 2 2007 at 3:03pm

Great podcast. My local council (in the UK) compels me to recycle. They operate a complicated system of black bin (domestic waste), green bin (garden and kitchen waste), black box (“dry recyclables”), blue box (plastic).

They will not take my normal bin if it contains glass, plastic or paper, effectively forcing me to work for them.

Their website is a treat to read, especially the wonderful phrase, “waste is a resource”.

What’s the best way to combat such coercion?

scott clark
Jul 2 2007 at 6:57pm

What is wrong with you, Mike?

You ended the article by actually putting the bottles in the recycling.

Fairfax County, VA has made it illegal to not recycle, and I have become an outlaw. I refuse to sort garbage in my house, I treat all my garbage equally(i will put bottles and cans in a recycling bin if i am in someone else’s house who engages in the practice).

Michael Munger
Jul 2 2007 at 7:18pm

tom b: outstanding! I enjoyed the cambridge site a great deal. The blog of the folks who decided to produce no waste for a month: straight out of Monty Python. The broken globe, the recycyled toilet paper (I should say, the toilet paper is made from OTHER types of paper)…you have my sympathies, sir.

The broken globe

I have no idea how to turn back such zealotry. If you even question the morality of recycling, you are labeled. Good luck, Tom!

As for Scott Clark: It’s true. I do recycle. And it makes me feel good. It doesn’t really do any harm, and it makes me feel are warm inside. I get upset at wasting stuff. I just wish that there were prices to tell us what is WORTH recycling.

Still, on average, Scott, you are right. Most of us would be better off recycling NOTHING. Less cost, less waste, and fewer resources used up.

Jul 2 2007 at 9:23pm

…as a landscape architect, with both a modicum of innate concern for the environment and a wife who is borderline fanatical about ‘recycling/helping/serving/stewardship’, I’ve got a particularly vested interest in this, and I really appreciated the topic.

As I’m trying to wade through this new ‘economics’ thing, I’m trying to understand the following: How do we factor in the cost of landfills, and subsequent need to reduce (or value in reducing) the amount of space used up by relatively non-renewable land? In 50 years, for example, I *might* be able to build a golf course on a land fill, but not too much else will be a feasible use of the likely un-structurally-sound ground. How do I factor in the use of the land into the equation?

To go with one of the examples in the podcast, diapers..what if, every year, we toss enough diapers to effectively make un-buildable 10 acres of land. With even reasonably low density, that’s 100 housing units that I can’t provide every year, so how do I factor in the missed opportunity there as I consider whether to dispose of the diapers from the kids that I don’t have? Now, granted, there’s not much value in land right next to a landfill, so if we emptied 10 acres of an existing landfill, it’s not like i’m going to put up my 100 units…but that’s that much land that could be used as a buffer before I can actually use the land for something other than trash.

Perhaps all of this is answered by your continued comment on the lack of prices to convey the truth of the matter, Michael. Like I said…I’m a landscape architect; I draw pretty pictures and sell ideas–this is all a bit new. 🙂

John Hall
Jul 2 2007 at 10:27pm

The best point you made was about Tierney’s article in 96 about the schoolchildren being indoctrinated about recycling always being good. As being part of the generation finishing elementary school in that time period, I can attest to this. It took an economics course to get me to think properly. Unfortunately, most of my peers don’t spend the time critically thinking about issues like environmentalism.

Jul 2 2007 at 11:34pm

Before I formally respond, I would like everyone to know that I am typing this with the monitor off. I have printed out a copy of the econtalk website and slowed my mouse speed down so that its movement is 1:1 between my desk and monitor. It only took about 10 minutes to figure out (I kept mis-calculating the mouse speed) and a couple pieces of paper to save electricity. Thus, if you can read this, I am more virtuous than you. Ipso facto, if you do not read it, you are an environmentalist.

In response to John S.’s comment, a June 8 podcast from The Economist, discusses an intriguing Pigovian tax. Tom Standage, the editor of Technology Quarterly, explains that ‘in various parts of the world’ (whatever that means) manufacturers are responsible for coming, picking up, and recycling a product after it breaks. This way the manufacturer has an incentive to make a product that is easier to recycle. Just how many ‘parts’ of the world do this, or how effective it is, is unclear. I think the responsibility, and thus incentive structure, should be placed on the firm, as a firm will know more about how to make their products recyclable and will weigh that against the various costs associated with doing so. Regulation would also be easier and more effective for the same reason that high disposal costs may encourage dumping, as Roberts and Munger discuss.

To go a little further, a system like the one that countries and companies use for pollution credits may be best. Because countries and companies can trade pollution rights, the benefit to the environment will ideally come at the lowest cost to us, and in the case of using resources to save resources, also to the environment (another misunderstood concept that leaves us economists counting the ice-cubes in the punchbowl).

In response to Shawn, the problem arises because we are valuing a good that is almost entirely incomparable to any other good. The ‘good’ is something like the future wellbeing of the planet and the implications for our children or maybe a dedication to the future of humanity and mother nature itself. Economics has always had trouble with choices whose benefits and costs occur at different times. One example that comes to mind because it is in the literature so often is of the Christmas Club, which is a no-interest bank account that does not allow withdrawals until December, such that the participants lose both the interest on the money as well as freedom. This is one of many such examples. Another problem for economics is when individuals are responsible for the interests of others, such as a manager and employee in the principle-agent situation.

The issue of recycling materials multiplies these dilemmas together because, chances are, we are not going to run out of many non-renewable resources in our lifetimes, including land. This means our cost/benefit decisions have to weigh future effects on other individuals that very well may not be meaningful until well after we are dead.

The solution seems to be to either create a direct incentive to recycle, such as a green God and you’ll go to Hell otherwise, or to create a social pressure. Munger suggests that both are occurring, such that social costs/benefits are experienced when one is observed behaving a certain way, and this has to some degree been internalized so that individuals will experience these feelings even when they are not watched (Freud stuff, now). The problem with this is that we do not internalize opportunity costs when we consider something a necessity.

Another issue that the Munger and Roberts discussed was the resource cost of recycling resources (In proofing, I deleted my second use of resources, but realized that the redundancy is the point.) I enjoyed the jokes about standing alone at a party when expressing an opinion about this because it is entirely true—if you explain that the cost of recycling is too high, people assume you mean that the cost to YOU is too high, and that you are being selfish and stealing from poor mother nature. I do not give these opinions enough credit to believe they have thought this out, but the implication is that the opportunity cost of not recycling is almost infinite, and we ought to spend any amount of resources to avoid further mining resources and losing land/increasing pollution due to landfills, as Munger stated.

I consider myself a pseudo-environmentalist, insofar as I live in an environment, and try to conform. For instance, I purchase cans instead of bottles for the very reasons Munger discussed. I trade furniture with friends, visit craigslist, thrift stores, and freecycle as much as I can.

Mike, why do you think people are so focused on the cans and bottles? As you said, tossing a microwave instead of either melting it down into another one or making a rectangular flowerpot does not get the same kind of attention as tossing a can—why is that? Perhaps attitudes and norms about recycling have been shaped, for some reason, to associate cans and bottles in specific colored buckets (varying by city, apparently) with environmental wellbeing—in fact, if we gave up cans and bottles altogether, how would we save the environment?

Finally, I think there are more convincing arguments against cost-ineffective recycling than the depletable human resource of time. This argument, to me, reinforces the stigma against economic approaches because it is easily translated into ‘I don’t want to waste my time caring about something that does not effect me directly.’ What I would argue is that dollars spent on recycling could often be more efficiently spent elsewhere for environmental protection. Perhaps we could do more good if we spent it on technological improvements, as with aluminum cans, or on better recycling methods. And for time, If individuals spent the time needed to wash and sort garbage on building a greenhouse, collecting rainwater, or working our jobs so that we can purchase a higher quality appliance with a longer lifetime, we may be doing more for the environment.

Nice Podcast, one that I will share with many others whether they like it or not.

Jul 2 2007 at 11:38pm

Another great podcast. Living in Michigan with the stupid 10 cent bottle deposit and drinking soda all day long, there is nothing more annoying than having to take bottles back. I can easily see the time wasted and I will also mention the nastiness of bottle-returns, the fact that stores have to buy return machines and hire people to fix them as they break down and fill up all the time, and just the wasted space at my house where I store the bottles until it is cheap enough to drive to a store with a halfway decent bottle-return machine. Using just my family’s and my own anecdotal evidence, we actually hurt the environment more driving 30 miles to the one store to take all the bottles back at once than if we just threw them out. I also grew up in the “Reduce-Reuse-Recycle” era and I could see it being a religion back then. Unfortunately, when I got to college, a small group of environmental religion people decided that the dorm I lived in needed a big recycling bin. I was one of the few who noted that the recycling bin was taking up precious parking spaces even though most students did not go through the hassle and waste the time sorting their garbage.

Thankfully, all I have to deal with is getting my deposit money back on cans and bottles and not having an actual recycling program at my apartment complex. Guess I missed the lesson on recycling improving my self-esteem when I was younger. Darn.

Jul 3 2007 at 2:51am

Check out this company (www.discstation.com.au) that specialises in recycling CDs and DVDs, which are becoming a huge problem in our landfills.

Bruce G Charlton
Jul 3 2007 at 8:02am

This was tremendously enjoyable – thanks to both Russ and Mike for making an incredibly tedious job (tidying my study) into a pleasure.

Now _that’s_ good use of time.

Mike Munger
Jul 3 2007 at 8:27am

Great stuff, folks! I appreciate the thoughts and questions.

Shawn: Terrific question, that’s the heart of the matter. If we can get an accurate price on landfill space, then a lot of other problems wouldn’t be problems. BUT: cans, jars, and plastic can all easily be transformed into building materials. They are relatively chemically inert, and if properly managed can be used in pavement, bricks, or other things. They certainly can’t make an area “unbuildable.” You could build anything on top of a landfill with these materials. The problem is with garbage. If you are thinking about the diapers, then sure, that may be a problem. The Mungers used cloth diapers, for basically this very reason. But all my enviro friends used disposables, and convinced themselves it was for good reason. (transport of used diapers, washing, water, detergent, electricity for drying, etc.)

Here’s the point, Shawn, and you recognized perfectly in your last sentence: WE DON’T KNOW! Since landfills are subsidized, we end up making vague “second best” arguments about recycling or keeping things out of landfills as a moral duty. Still, I think the problem has more to do with garbage management than with recycling. Better to make glass and plastic into stable blocks, or cement sand, and use them that way, than to be forced to recycle them. There, the prices are telling us the truth.

John Hall: It’s appalling. If you throw away a paper towel, your kindergartner says, “Daddy, why do you hate the Earth?” That’s why I grow trees on my 35 acres, though. I have thousands of tons of carbon locked down on my land. I *love* the Earth! And I’m making good money off of harvesting trees, TO MAKE MORE PAPER TOWELS!

Clayton: I’m going to steal the monitor bit, and just use it like I made it up. That would be stealing of course, but…. Seriously, your point about price is the right one. But so many people just say (and you’ve heard them): “But what if price doesn’t capture the full value of the resource?” I have to admit, I don’t know what that question means. So I talk about time instead.

Why, indeed, cans and bottles? I invite more speculation. Clayton may have it right, though: there’s a bin at the park marked, “Bottles.” There is NOT one marked “microwaves.” Since there is a PLAN for bottles, it is immoral not to put your bottles in the bin. You need to get with the plan. Clayton, I’m afraid we are kindred spirits. Waste upsets me. I buy jackets and shoes at thrift stores, and it upsets me to throw things away. My dad, raised in the Depression, actually kept a box in the garage, marked “Puzzle pieces, various.” Random pieces from long-lost jigsaw puzzles. Not sure what he thought he would do with them. But he didn’t throw them away.

Trumpetbob: sorry you don’t get to feel the virtue of washing mayonnaise jars. It has to hurt, living in the Peoples’ Republic of Michigan. The “recycle bin taking up parking spaces” example is wonderful. An expression of religious devotion, a sacrifice of the fatted Taurus.

Ben: um… we’re being ironic, right? Interesting site, though. I liked the “Hydropal.” You just can’t make stuff like that up.

Scott Clark
Jul 3 2007 at 9:32am

I was talking about this podcast and the puzzles of recycling with some MBA classmates last night. At first they were receptive, as I continued they became a little uncomfortable that I was challenging the idea that recycling saves. Then a few more people came into the room and they were openly hostile to the idea that putting garbage in a landfill might be the best course of action right now. But what really upset them was my contention that the world is getting better, one guy said well at least my grandparents didn’t screw up the environment as much as this generation. And I said oh, you mean the grandparents that burned coal in their homes, the grandparents with the factories in the middle of the city belching soot and ash all over the place, the ones who took trains around that blew huge amounts of black smoke into the air, the ones with the cars that got 7(if that) miles to the galleon, the ones who tested (and used in anger twice) every sort of nuclear bomb whereever they found room.

I tried to point out that all the prior evidence we have should lead us to beleive that future generations will have more technology, more wealth, more options. Maybe we should be burying the garbage because future people will have awesome technology to turn that garbage into interstellar jet fuel or something, then they’d be like, “grandpa was so smart to bury this here for us, how did he know?”
I said we should focus on what we can do to make everybody wealthier, wealthier people have the resources to remediate and conserve the environment. The wealth can accumulate and be transfered to the future people who, by all accounts, should have some pretty nifty ideas and processes with which to handle their affairs. We should be thinking about progress and how to speed it up, not how to slow it down.

I couldn’t beleive how angry people were at the thought that the future might be better than today.

Jul 3 2007 at 11:24am

Thanks, Russ and Mike for a great podcast!! I’m an econ grad student, and I gain more pure insight into the economic way of thinking from your discussions than from any other source imaginable. Mike– the ‘Hydropal’ link is hilarious…”Hydropal will increase your water consumption”????? PRICELESS

Jul 3 2007 at 11:50am


Isn’t it strange indeed the number of students that one could find in higher education (grad and undergrad levels) who have a disdain for commerce? I once took a ‘capstone’ business course for my Bachelor’s and the professor was perpetually hostile to capitalism. No exaggeration: the entire course was about social responsibility, environmental awareness, and some concept that I still cannot wrap my head around that goes by the name of “fair trade”.

Jul 3 2007 at 12:51pm

I [mostly] understand Mike’s points about recycling, but am very bothered by the idea that we are accurately able to indentify a price/cost for this recycled material. We have little incentive to accurately price it, since the non-economic costs (land taken up by landfills, pollution, shortages of reources) will be borne by future generations. I don’t think we can responsibly rely on prices in this case.

Second, maybe this is naive, but I never separated the idea of recycling from re-using. I was completely unaware (and I suspect the general public is as well) that glass put into my recycling bin is always turned back into glass. My assumption (and one of the reasons I am a diligent recycler) had been that the material put into the bin was in fact, re-used for something, not that it always became new bottles, cans, and paper. By this I mean that I assumed that recycled glass was being used for roads, building material, etc., and not that it always became new glass bottles. I just assumed that someone made the decision as to what the most efficient use of the glass was, and to be honest, it didn’t matter, so long as it didn’t end up in a landfill, at which point, it really becomes waste (assuming that it isn’t mined in the future).

Do you have a source for the information on petroleum stored away in plastics? Isn’t the melting down of plastics to recapture this petroleum likely to be a source of pollution, as plastics may contain toxic chemicals?

Brad Hutchings
Jul 3 2007 at 1:31pm

As usual a great podcast, and the least expensive one to date! Translation: Jeff Bezos personally called to ask why I didn’t order any books this week. Russ is quite good at getting his interviewees to discuss stuff, but the chemistry between you two is especially fun to listen to.

My question… Robin Hanson had a post recently on the Bias blog about serving sizes telling us how much to consume, with an example of switching to cans from 2 liter bottles cutting his total consumption of Coke. Say that 2 liter bottle has the same recycling deposit as each can. Taking into account how many states assess the container fee (i.e. not included in displayed price), how high do you think the fee has to go before people switch their buying behavior to big bottles? Could you see the recycle fees as a “convenience tax”? Any connection of all this to the apparent irrationality of buying flats of bottled water?

Jul 5 2007 at 4:48am

If we lived in a world with no government ‘ownership’, where all air, sea, fresh water and so on had clearly defined property rights then the price system would work as an awesome signal of relative scarcity/value etc. as indicated in this podcast and I would agree that you could leave the tap running, drive a HUMV, fly anywhere in Europe (I live in Dublin) with Ryanair for 10 euros (that is not a typo) etc without guilt.

However, we don’t.

What bothered me about this podcast (that also bother me as an Austrian listening to Reisman’s rants on this subject) is that little time was devoted to how distorted the price signal is (surely libertarian minded people must know this?), and therefore cannot be relied on exclusively as an unquestionable marker in a cost/benefit equation.

The perfect solution is never going to happen, e.g. global zero government, all resources privately owned including air, rivers, oceans, sea floor etc. and the current solution (government regulations/taxation + personal’guilt’) clearly doesn’t work either (this last point won’t need explaining to anyone listening to this site I presume!)

Prices are pretty good guides but given there are externalities, I think education and personal responsibility need emphasis so people can make more informed decisions than letting the price act as the judge of their decisions.

To take an example in this podcast, should you leave the tap running whilst getting something from the cupboard? It’s a subjective call but I’d say no. Or more obviously, should I buy a V8 2 ton truck versus a smaller smart-designed Japanese family car? It takes wilful blindness to say with a straight face that all the costs of the former option are internalised and reflected in the price of the vehicle and higher gas costs. (p.s. I am no climate alarmist, see this link http://www.iea.org.uk/files/upld-book403pdf?.pdf)

John Henry
Jul 5 2007 at 12:52pm

I’ve enjoyed all your podcasts and all your guests. I think I enjoy Mike Munger the most. There seems to be a chemistry between you that makes these particularly fun and informative.

I do take exception to one thing Mike (I think) said. This was about running bottles through the dishwasher before recycling them. He claimed that there is a cost in hot water and electricity in doing this. Sorry, I fail to see why unless he is running a special load. The marginal cost of sticking a mayo jar in with a load of dishes is zero, unless I am missing something.

There is a marginal cost in time, however slight, in the handling of the jar and I would certainly agree with him on that.

I am not in disagreement with anything else you or he said but I do think he missed it there.

John Henry

Jul 6 2007 at 7:01am

John Henry writes:

The marginal cost of sticking a mayo jar in with a load of dishes is zero, unless I am missing something.

It’s not zero. Sticking the mayo jar in the dishwasher means not having space for some of my other dishes. At the margin, something either has to wait for another load–or be hand-washed. Dishwasher space is scarce. Add to that that jars are unwieldy and take up more space than a single drinking glass or plate, and that they don’t dry inside unless you use the heated dry cycle, so they drip on the floor when you take them out. Oh, and the labels’ glue ruins your dishwasher, so you have to soak off the labels in hot water first. Better pick up some of that Glue-Begone next time I shop! Oops, then I’ve got to clean up the dish I cleaned the label off in. Hmmm–I’d also better think for each brand about whether it is only top-rack safe lest one melt or shatter….

I myself don’t wash or recycle mayo jars! I’d certainly have those marginal-cost reasons for not doing so, but those particular reasons never kick in because my primary reasons are the more general economics-oriented and philosophical ones, closer to the general discussion of the podcast.

Salaam Yitbarek
Jul 7 2007 at 11:38am

Listening to the podcast and reading the essay, I had exactly the same concerns as Jonathan above – something’s missing here!

I think the whole idea behind ‘environmentalism’ is to ‘undistort distorted prices’. It seems to me that the crux of the discussion should be on how to get externalities and prices right, how not to leave it to ’emotional activists’ (tongue-in-cheek), etc.

Mike Munger
Jul 7 2007 at 2:05pm

Ah, well: that’s where we are talking past each other, then. Jonathan and Salaam think that prices are distorted, and we need some other metric to guide action. I don’t disagree with that, at ALL.

But what is that metric?

Jonathan asks about leaving the tap running while you get something from the cupboard. Other things in this category might include leaving the lights on when you leave a room, or leaving the front door open when you bring in groceries, while you put the groceries away, because your hands were too full to close the door on the way in.

Why is this a subjective call? (Jonathan’s words, not mine).

Precisely because as a society we have decided to subsidize water utilities and electricity. Consumers pay too little, compared to the cost of obtaining the water, or to the costs of generating the electricity in dirty coal-fired plants.

If consumers in Los Angeles had to pay the REAL cost of the water, or if consumers in Ohio had to pay the real cost of electricity, they would conserve without being yammered at by some indignation professional.

Instead, the government undercharges us for utilties, and then spends huge time and money begging us to behave responsibly. Unbelievable!

I am a free market environmentalist. And I think that Salaam has it exactly right when he calls for a focus on HOW to get prices right, and account for externalities. If that were the focus of discussion, then I would 100% on the side of environmentalism.

But it is NOT. Consider the logging industry, in Oregon and Tongass in Alaska. We (the government, the Forest Service) pay millions of dollars to build logging roads to make it possible for loggers to cut old growth forests. Then we underprice (10%, or less, of real value) stumpage rates on those same forests.

The result? We end up cutting down extremely valuable trees, and runing streams and habitat, for a few jobs that are going to disappear soon anyway. Much of the wood is shipped abroad, at artificially low prices, because other nations do not allow this kind of logging.

The solution? Environmentalists want us just to stop logging, altogether. I say: STOP BUILDING SUBSIDIZED ROADS, and multiply stumpage rates by 10! Some small scale logging might still take place, but it would be much closer to sustainable.

In short: get prices right. The problem is not externalities. The problem is this paradox:

a. Government subsidizes wasteful behavior
b. Government sponsors moral suasion efforts to curtail wasteful behavior.

I object to b. I want government to stop doing a. Stop subsidizing wasteful coal power plants without scrubbers, stop subsidizing logging in old growth forests, stop subsidizing wasteful farming practices.

We don’t have to discourage waste. We just have to stop ENCOURAGING it, which is what we do now.

Jul 7 2007 at 9:04pm


Your example of mining plastic in future landfills is intriguing and puzzling. On one hand we should act, as you say, minimizing cost, by taking into consideration all the costs (time included). On the other hand, if something is worthless now, but has the potential to be useful twenty years from now, this makes the economical calculus quite challenging!

I wonder then, since we already have the moral imperative and people are already doing a lot of sorting, if it doesn’t make sense to have differentiated landfills. Namely, throw all the plastic in one hole, all the glass in another one, and label them accurately for future generations that might have a use for them.

Of course some of these holes might turn out to be one of those “boxes of puzzle-pieces” of a previous commenter, but one never knows.

Jul 8 2007 at 6:06am

Brilliant, fantastic…I think that’s the best 2 hours (including reading the comments) I’ve ‘wasted’ in a long time.

The emphasis on time trade-offs that we constantly weigh and judge on throughout our daily life juxtaposed against the recycling phenonmenon was eye-opening. Thank you!

Also, Mr Pietro might be onto something here (separating the landfills). I am going to ‘invest’ in large pieces of land where I live (India) invite the local municipalities to dump their ‘garbage’ waste on my land. Hire cheap labour to sort out the mess. Maybe I’ll even get on TV for being a good samaritan.

My great grandchildren will curse me as a lunatic for passing on the stinking mess to them, BUT, my great-great-great-great-great grandchildren will thank their ancestors for the carefully preserved inheritance that they can make money out of!


Jul 9 2007 at 5:42am

I agree with all that you say, I just think that respectfully you are not saying all of what needs to be said.
In the absence of the outcome you wish for, (undistort distorted prices), we recognise that current prices are less efficient than they could be. Therefore, when deciding to run the water (personal bias alert, I live in Dublin where tap water is ‘free’) we recognise that our behaviour is different than what it would otherwise be if priced correctly. In the absence of correct prices it is certainly a subjective decision to reduce water use from what you would otherwise have used if basing your decision exclusively on the price. By the word subjective I mean a personal decision based on a private evaluation of the non included costs. Ones personal valuation of such dispersed costs is unlikely to be as reliable a guide to the actual costs that one would expect from undistorted prices, however those arent available.
Pushing my luck here but it is worth mentioning that all scarce resources would have to be owned to be priced correctly. This would include land, sea, air etc. which I think we can price as having near zero probability of ever happening. So we need to think of a way to behave that doesn’t rely exclusively on prices once we recognise those prices as distorted and I would say that comes from culture/education etc not regulation etc.

Jul 11 2007 at 3:30am

I agree with Jonathan. It’s one thing to ridicule the “cheaper at any price” line. It’s another to ask “what would make it socially beneficial to recycle unprofitably”. That would be if natural resources and waste disposal were systematically underpriced relative to their social cost. Then, by the “utilitarian” argument that Mike mentioned, it would be socially beneficial to recycle things that were slightly unprofitable.

We are used to dismissing these “mispricing” type arguments on the basis that there is no better system than the price system, even when it is imperfect. But a much stronger claim was being made in the podcast: recycling is only ever socially beneficial when it is profitable.

Jonathan has argued that it is in fact the case that natural resources are systematically underpriced — tragedy of the commons, etc.. The question is then how much are they underpriced by? I would think probably noticeably, but not overwhelmingly much. It’s difficult to tell, but that is the interesting question about recycling, and it’s a shame that two clever economists could discuss recycling for an hour without getting near it.

Mike Munger
Jul 11 2007 at 8:09am

Andrew: Now, now. We were addressing the claim, “Recycling is always cheaper, regardless of the cost.” In other words, prices NEVER matter.

If you agree that THAT claim is false, and that prices could conceivably matter, but on the other hand might get it wrong, then yes, we are ready to go to the next step.

There were three points that were very explicit in the podcast, or so I believe, perhaps self-servingly.

1. Sometimes, recycling is NOT worth the cost.
2. The main thing is to get prices right.
3. I don’t know, just plain don’t know, whether it is better to recycle or not. But if we get prices right, other people will figure it out.

This is strikingly different from your summary above.

And, the way to make prices “right” could very well be to tax negative externalities, and to subsidize positive externalities. The place I disagree with Andrew, and Jonathan, is that they think the answer is to ignore prices.

And their reason is that prices will NEVER be exactly right. Further, Jonathan wants to make people feel bad about using free stuff. If I have to feel bad about using it, it is NOT FREE! You just want to impose a different price, a psychic/guilt price, on using “free” tap water, so people want use too much.

I think real prices work better. And I could very easily be wrong about that, I admit.

Russell Roberts
Jul 12 2007 at 12:21pm

Jonathan and Andrew.

I wish we had been more explicit in talking about prices not always capturing all of the costs and benefits. We did talk about it during the landfill discussion—see the highlights summary above in the segment beginning at 16:46. Maybe we can look at it in more detail in a future podcast.

Nicholas Conrad
Jul 27 2007 at 11:42am

Awesome podcast guys. This is definitely the best one to date. I do wish there was a proper forum set up so the back and forth discussion here was a little more organized, but top marks all around.

…Now if only there was a way to dispel the global warming hype in an economics context…

Randall Green
Aug 8 2007 at 12:37pm

The major issue here was about throwing the baby away with the bath water. That sense of (oh gee!) here are some more environmental crazies doing things that don’t make monetary or environmental sense. This suggests that many will figure it out and say lets forget the whole thing. But as in Dan Pink’s discussion and the Outsourcing podcast shouldn’t the unknown be taking into consideration here? With green glass or color plastics one of the costs / new environmental problems has to do with separating the dyes. Who says they need to be separated? Dan Pink suggested design is the new Business degree and without too much effort we can all see that “Green” has become the new business standard. Wouldn’t it be reasonable to suggest that these none resources will find economically viable homes in time? Doesn’t the fact that we have stockpiles of partially subsidized to-be-recycled materials suggest that businesses, designers, entrepreneurs will try to take advantage and use them A: because they are partially paid for B: Because at least in theory it’s the “Green” thing to do. C: Won’t demand maximize efficiency? If we are supposed to have good faith and believe that the fact that the Midwest is rusting is O.K. and actually opening new markets for “better” jobs wouldn’t it stand to reason that our stockpiles of proposed recycled materials will also become resources through ingenuity? When in the past has the climate been so ripe for this type of new development? Also I think burning colorful-funky looking plastic chairs from way back in 2010 seems like a better cheaper idea than mining for it through piles of 50 year old hotdogs and McDonalds fries ..

ok. take that! I hope to get karate chopped back.

Aug 15 2007 at 12:23am

So, let’s see. Because it isn’t worth it based on the price someone is paying for beer bottles or soda bottles, it doesn’t make sense to recycle them, so that means the logical thing to do is just toss them into my yard, targeting the stone wall if glass. That returns the aluminum or silicon and stuff back to the environment in the least costly way. And because carrying it home where they must pay to have someone truck it away and put it in a land fill, throwing it into my yard is the cheapest according to economic theory.

Do I understand the economists point of view correctly?

Of course, this assumes that the mainstream economic model is correct, but perhaps this view is like that of Ptolemy who was certain the sun, moon, and stars revolved around the earth.

What if the earth revolves around the sun, and the sun is flying among the stars?

What if, instead of the environment being a bag on the side of the economy that is an infinite source of resources and an infinite sink of waste, the economy is just a tiny part of the environment, and the economy describes only part of the activity in the environment, and must obey the rules of the environment?

Economists can argue that if all the coal is used up, then the environment will supply something to replace it. Well, the time scales are not those of the economist. In fact, the economist doesn’t even use time in describing its most fundamental and basic “laws.” As that is obviously stupid, economist then hand-wave it, and use such terms as “short run” and “long run”. To me, that is like saying, in the short run, the car will travel in a straight line forever, but in the long run, it will crash into a bridge abutment or run out of gas.

So, I’ve got a beer container in my car, in the short run, the economist says to toss it out the window.

In the long run, the economist says, well that is going to impose a cost on mulp who has to pick up the can or the shards of glass.

The way I see it, the problem is that the people who are involved in making and buying and using the product do not pay a price the includes the cost of disposing of the product. From the environments standpoint, the economist’s good never sudden appears nor suddenly disappears, it is merely changing form as time passes.

Apparently the economist believes in a free lunch, goods appear from nothing and then vanish into nothing when the economist sees it as having no value.

For the economist, the environment supplies at no cost and demands no payment in return.

Thinking as an ecologist, I see the economist advocating taking from the environment and paying nothing because it costs nothing today, and the cost to our grandchildren and their grandchildren is not our concern.

Hey, maybe you can give us the economist’s view of burglary being a sound economic enterprise.

[the Ptolemy-Copernican analogy thanks to Lester Brown – that was the ah ha! of the century for me that suddenly explained the flaw in the classic economic axioms.]

Aug 15 2007 at 5:03am

My comment above was written after reading comments while waiting for the download, and while hours later I’m still waiting, though one of the failed attempts got me almost 50 minutes. (I’m wondering if your fileserver can’t handle restarted transfers from the middle…)

But I am only expanding on my earlier comment, and if I remember them, correcting my faulty assumptions on a couple of minor points.

I perhaps should have taken notes, so I’m not sure if I recall all the fallacies in your assumptions, but as economists, I guess I shouldn’t expect you to understand systems. Recycling does not mean recreating the original planned obsolescent single use container or whatever, it means applying it to a new use. For various safety reasons, post manufacturing scrap plastic can’t be recycled into food containers because it might be contaminated with chemicals that leach into the food. However, they are ideal for making construction goods in multiple grades. For example, the yogurt containers complete with the aluminum foil top are recycled, aluminum and all, into landscaping timbers which includes various fillers like crushed stone. Green glass is perfectly suited to be recycled into such products as well, or added to the mix for road patches. Here in my community, any color glass is combined and recycled into fillers for asphalt or construction materials, and not landfilled.

Now one pays to have the mixed glass disposed of by recycling into some new product other than glass containers, but the price paid is less then landfilling it, at today’s price for landfilling. The price of landfilling today is higher than it once was. For example, back before the government started with all their silly rules, you were free to buy some land, dump anything you want on it, then sell the land, or give it to the town for a school and take a tax donation. That price was really cheap. Then those people at Love Canal started bitching because they and their kids were getting cancer from all the stuff cheaply disposed of under the school and the houses.

Now the thing is, you are economists, so the cost of disposal was cheap. The cost for living on the waste was expensive. As economists you see the two events as being totally separate events. To the ecologist, the two events are absolutely tied together by the laws of nature, with one absolute law applying here: the conservation of mass and energy. To the economist, dumping the waste cheaply in Love Canal got rid of the waste cheaply. To the ecologist, the stuff dumped had come from the environment, stayed in the environment while being processed because the economy is inside the environment, and then discarded in the environment. And it doesn’t matter that it was dumped one year and then cost someone ten years later to the ecologist.

Now, you did explore the “rebuttal” I made above about discarding the container on my lawn. But you were trying to figure out why it was a matter of religion to not discard it on my lawn that you accepted, but that the religion of discarding it in the trash can you didn’t accept. The problem is that, while you figured out that tossing it on my lawn pushed a cost on me, but you didn’t figure out that discarding it in the trash can incurs a cost on your children or grandchildren or their grandchildren.

The reason why you are calling it religion is that the cost of discarding it in either way is so small for the one item that it only matters when in the greater scheme of things you realize that my house looks like crap because I haven’t picked them up five years later, and now my house is driving down the value of your house down the street. Or else, I have taken to dumping my trash on your lawn. In the first case, we have the “do the right thing or you will find yourself in hell” or in the latter case, the Golden Rule.

Your suggestion that landfills will be mined in the future might be correct, but the cost of landfilling, mining, and then producing fuel, energy, and waste to be landfilled, will certainly be much greater then simply burning it without landfilling. This is because economists don’t consider time, while scientists do.

Think of it this way, mainstream economists argue for trade across space because they believe this provides benefit to all. But why limit trade to space, why not allow trade to span time. If we had a time machine, the future generations would come back in time and take the trash before it was landfilled and take it back to the future so they don’t have to mine it. Then again, why bother with the garbage, why not just take the oil out of the ground?

Now when the laws of governments restrict trade, you complain and point to all the bad that this does. Well, why not rail against the laws of nature, pointing out all the reasons that trade should be allowed between the past and future. For example, in exchange for the oil of 1960, 1960 gets today’s technology.

Let’s think about economics. At the first level is an exploration of human behavior, and from the theories to explain the way our interactions create the market, we are able to create abstractions that, like the understanding of physics allows us to design new things that no one expected, economics creates abstractions that were not incorporated into our genome by evolution, and then cooperate in ways that would have otherwise been impossible.

So, think of economics as a subset of the environment, and then consider the environment as including all people, past, present, and future. I argue that the resources of the environment belong to all the people, and the principles of the Golden Rule or All Men are Created Equal, gives every person an equal right to the resources on this planet.

When the economist seeks to determine the economic welfare, the positive, not normative, he should calculate it not only across space, but also across time.

Now if your normative view is “might makes right and takes as much as desired” then who cares. But if you are the classic free market advocate, then in most case a normative imperative exists to see to create the societal framework to provide equal opportunity to all, and I argue that it should be across time, as well as space. When you argue that international trade should be free, that is because of the normative view that it would be better for both the rich and poor. Well, I say that likewise, economists should find the means of creating that same effect across time as well, and that problem is no more difficult than the econometric side figuring out how to separate and price separately the risk and no-risk components of a financial instrument like a package of mortgages.

Now I should point out that you go off on a couple of fallacies when you forget that you advocate global markets, and then say that the price of the sock is less than the cost of manufacture because the cost to darn it is so much higher. But that isn’t true in a global market. A number of companies have created a bit of a scandal by putting out clothing bins that most people think are from Salvation Army or Goodwill, and are really simply making use of empty space going to Asia to send them to be sold for a price that, while low here, are high there, but much less than the price of new. Those holey socks might very well demand a price that is positive even if the first action taken by the consumer is to darn them. By the way, my brother figured out that he could solve the hole problem by wearing two pair because the holes often come in different places.

Clothes were once recycled in any form, so those holey socks would be recycled into the fiber that might have gone in to the fine paper. However, polymer science and the pricing of oil and gas as if the supply was infinite made the substitution of synthetic fibers have a price lower than the ultimate cost (say in 50 years), so the recycling of clothing ended. You danced around, but didn’t figure out this problem when talking about the green glass and different kinds of glass. The technology of glass over the past half century has created many incompatible types of glass because that is cheap from the front end, and the cost at the back end is not a cost the manufacturer needs to pay. The cost of products with a planned one-time-only and an unplanned no-recycle design falls on society, not on the manufacturer or consumer. If that is rational, if that is normative, then surely you advocate single payer government funded healthcare 😉 However, if the economy is part of the environment, then without coercion, either you recycle individuals with a need for healthcare like an infant born with Down’s or you go with government single payer – no insurer is going to write a policy for a person born with a costly health problem. Nature’s way is to recycle the least fit which are those that are the slowest, weakest, or dead. So, why doesn’t the economist say that the infant with Down’s is going to cost more than it produces, so the best solution is to sell it in whole or parts to recycle the chemicals and such. Or is there an externality like religion or society that intervenes and rejects the rational economic view.

I include that seemingly off topic point to bring in a matter of “religion” that is just like the “relgion” started the discussion, the woman who said that “recycling is always cheaper.” I see that as dogmatic and as irrational (logic wise, not insanity) as saying “all life is sacred and no expense should be too great to preserve life.”

What I think might be another problem with economics as a field is the use of “positive” and “normative”. Those are terms of philosophy. I want economics to be science, or at least as close to science as possible, with a cross displinary philosophy of econ like p of science. Then you wouldn’t be reacting to the woman, screaming inside, “relgious wacko.” You would instead do as the scientist does and talk about the costs, and to get your phd or next paper, you would say, well, it doesn’t make sense to wash the garbage, based on the costs, but what are all the other costs that haven’t been incorporated into the lifecycle, and then you would say, “everything has a circular flow, money and labor, money and goods, and goods through the environment, so what are all the costs at every step, across space and time.”

Then you might be going to the guy making green glass and say “why are you making green glass when it causes all these costs down the line which you don’t have to pay for, but society does?” And you might call for a completed circular flow where the guy making the green glass is responsible for paying to dispose of the green glass – maybe society declares that he owns the glass he makes into perpetuity.

And the download stopped again at about 50 minutes…. I have a slow dialup line, so it takes much longer than an hour to download.

Lauren Landsburg
Aug 15 2007 at 5:44am

mulp wrote:

My comment above was written after reading comments while waiting for the download, and while hours later I’m still waiting, though one of the failed attempts got me almost 50 minutes. (I’m wondering if your fileserver can’t handle restarted transfers from the middle…)… And the download stopped again at about 50 minutes…. I have a slow dialup line, so it takes much longer than an hour to download.

We’re truly sorry about the download problem you’re having. A few months ago we decided to move to a larger file size to improve the sound quality of the podcasts. We did know it would involve tradeoffs, making it harder for people with dialup.

Have you tried doing it through iTunes? The iTunes software is free and only takes a few minutes to download and install. If you subscribe to EconTalk (also free), iTunes will do the downloading for you in the background. We keep about 30 podcasts available through iTunes.

I’ll look into the server matter you describe, as well; but I think it’s more a function of trying to download a 30mb file over a phone line. Unfortunately, we can’t provide two versions. We’ll keep your vote in mind. As technology improves, one of our first goals will be to reduce the file sizes while maintaining the improved sound quality.

Economics involves tradeoffs. Making the best choices–for oneself as an individual consumer or as a supplier of a product–is rarely easy, whether in the production of podcasts, the disposal of trash, or the writing of comments. There is always an alternative cost.

Aug 21 2007 at 10:52pm

It finally downloaded in full; the size isn’t the problem, as I download larger files that have taken days. Some sysops have been known to assume that if a file transfer isn’t finished within a time limit, something must be wrong force it to end.

Anyway, having listened to the entire podcast, I return to “religion” as it did. I note that Munger didn’t object when it was suggested that throwing trash on the ground was “wrong” because it placed a cost on someone else. Who cares?

If I buy a gun, I have made a capital investment that will allow me to “earn” more with less labor. Some genetic anscestory research suggests that Ghengis Khan profited from force in implementing his innate imperative to propogate as seen in the huge number of males with the same DNA that it is believed came from Khan. After all, survival of the fitest can be consider natural.

Perhaps you include or assume an axiom requiring reciprocity, but that is normative, not positive in the purest sense.

So, if I steal from you, your religious sense is violated.

If I steal from your child, ditto.

If I steal from your retirement fund so that two decades down the road (and you only discover it in two decades) you don’t have the you set asside for retirement, and your religious sense is violated.

So, why isn’t your religious sense violated when you toss out a resource as garbage, denying that resource to your child?

Right now, the price assigned to fossil fuels pretty much assumes that they will last forever.

Now I might be unfair about this, but I periodically read another article that makes bogus claims about the circa 1970 Club of Rome report Limits to Growth, authored by those associated with the “mainstream of economic theory.” Perhaps such people don’t speak for all the professional economists, but such references are not followed with economists writing articles protesting the misrepresentation of the Limits to Growth report. (The claims are generally like, “in 1970, Club of Rome forecast the world would run out of oil and copper in the year 2000….”

I have searched for articles that really deal with how resources should be priced to account for depletion in the near term, in the face of exponential demand for these resources soon to be depleted. Yes, there is the early 20th century paper by Hotelling, and the address where Solow honored Hotelling by revisiting and expanding on it. But the end of oil seems likely to be as well planned as the end of whaling to provide the lamp fuel, but I have no faith that a cheaper alternative to petroleum will be found in the next two decades, and by cheaper, I mean cheaper than the cost of oil today, not cheaper than the price of oil as it runs out in 20 years.

So, I see the issue as a matter of religion, but it is the same religion that makes the idea of tossing trash on someone else’s property or stealing from your kid repugnant. So, only by assuming there is no tomorrow can Munger say that treating something as waste because it seems to have no value today is like stealing from your kids, unless you have seriously considered whether your child will find it far more valuable then you do in the future.

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Podcast Episode Highlights
0:36Intro. Has recycling crossed over from an economically wise act to more of a religious impulse? For religious rituals spend time on them--not wasted--but that the time has an even higher purpose. Woman in Massachusetts said "Recycling is cheaper regardless of the cost." Moral imperative. Like religion, it doesn't matter what the cost. 20 questions game: "I have something in my hand. I want you to guess. Is it a resource or is it garbage?" Q.1: Is it pretty? A: Somebody might think so. Q2: Does it taste good. Can somebody eat it? A: I can't. Is it bigger than a breadbox? Yes.... Did you buy it? Was it a gift? Newspapers flung into the yard go straight to trash. Q: Would somebody pay you for it? One more Q you'd need to ask: Could I make something with it that either costs less or has higher quality? If answer to both is no, it's garbage, not a resource. Two types of recycling: 1. I wear my clothes more than once. We ask: how much will it cost to clean or repair this? Re-use lots of items. 2. Cans, bottles, paper, plastic stuff is what we call recycling--we put it in special bins and think of it as a resource, but a lot of it is garbage, not re-used.
8:50What's different? Just because I donate these items to the recycling center are they not a resource? Mike: I dawdle at curb putting out these items so neighbor can see. Nobody's paying me to do it--that's the sign that it's virtuous. Right thing to do, moral imperative. "Even knowing what I know, I feel virtuous." This is spending time that has a utilitarian basis. Stewardship of the environment. But it's really hard to tell that that's true. Have to ask: "Will somebody pay me for this?" If somebody will pay me for it that means this uses fewer resources than doing it some other way. Mining bauxite: aluminum cans example. Recycling aluminum does use fewer resources than mining bauxite. But it's not that they just have to have to be cleaned. The proportion of cans purchased in any given year that are recycled has fallen from 52% to 48% from 1992-2002. Why? High price of aluminum has given incentive to reduce amount of aluminum in each can. Cans are now lighter. So now it's no longer as greatly worth people's time to collect aluminum cans for recycling. If time has no value, aluminum is still worth recycling. Also, requires sorting, removing plastic, etc. Used to be that you couldn't crush a can in your hand so easily. Now it's easy. The can has more aluminum not because people care about the environment, but because it's in the self-interest of can producers to find ways to use less aluminum. Fluted lip at top helps it support more weight yet be made of less aluminum. This in turn has made recycling less beneficial. But we still have religious-like feeling that throwing cans out is bad.
16:46Economist's quibble: We put all these things out together in big yellow/blue boxes (should be green?), but that imposes all the costs are borne by consumers. If things are just put out in their dirty state, the city will lose money. If it takes more resources to convert something that's used into something that's usable, it's better to throw it out and start from scratch. Normative claim to use word "better". If the city is losing money on recycling because it takes so much effort and so many machines to scrub and clean and remove labels--compared to just putting it in the landfill--then recycling could use more resources than throwing away. Recycling exhausts precious things, wastes more than throwing things away. How we know that is that there are prices on all the things we are using. Is it more expensive to mine more to make aluminum or to make aluminum from recycled cans? Self-interested people are going to find out because they can make more money by doing it. If you have to pay someone to take it away, it's garbage, not a resource, not conserving to recycle. But to be fair, landfill costs are low: If we charge the actual marginal cost, more people would dump illegally. We can't charge the right price for landfills--we'd get toxic waste, etc. We're not pricing landfills correctly. Homeowner doesn't get charged for quantity left by the curb. Environmentalists claim correctly is that because landfill space to the homeowner, the homeowner's choice is biased. Some cities now charge by weight or volume, one can. Causes people to internalize costs--correctly. But the more expensive the cost of landfill space, the more you have to enforce dumping. Throw away old washing machine costs $25; but someone else could just dump machines in some vacant lot. Pouring used auto oil down the sewer drain. Difficult to get prices right. Former girlfriend so concerned about recycling oil that she never changed her oil, only added more, then bought new car when old one broke. Price of recycling oil is not infinite--a couple of dollars. Could charge a little more up front. Batteries, charge $3 more at front end, get credit when turning it in.
25:24Sorting. Other than newspapers, homeowner doesn't sort. Green glass, plastic, clear glass, cans, etc. put into one bin. Cities look for cheapest way. Often use proceeds from cans to pay for how to dispose of the other items. Newsprint is something of a wash. Two kinds of plastic: soda bottles vs. milk jugs. Both losers, and if it has to be sorted it becomes useless. City might trash it, or "recycle" it by paying extra to have it resorted and melted down. Munger's prediction: Large plastic strip mining operations for the petroleum. Not worth it now, but in 100 years? We're close to the point now that the oil in the non-biodegradable plastic could be burned for fuel, useful. Scrubbers.
29:31Glass: There are a number of kinds and you can't tell by looking because it's clear. Could sort by color, but also it breaks. Ground glass is called "cullet." If it's pure it may have some value. Ground up green cullet is so plentiful that it's wasteful to recycle it. It uses more resources than to make new green glass out of sand. Objection: But the sand is in the earth right now. It's finite. Making it out of sand uses up a finite resource. Why would I want to deplete a precious thing? How can it be? One issue is that melting the green glass releases toxins that are expensive to retrieve. There might be some other things that will cost less if we can use it as something other than glass--say, as sand to be used in concrete, road bed. But if you have to reuse it as glass it's too expensive. Cities all over the U.S. have stopped taking green glass. Are cities just stupid? Just worried about their budget instead of the environment. What's wrong with that argument? Cities give in, allow homeowners to sort glass and put it in a green glass container, and then just put that green glass container in the landfill because it's too expensive to melt it. "True, it costs more, but it's worth it." It's worth it because it's become a political and religious question, also about the tradeoffs and non-financial choices as well as the financial choices.
36:22Non-economist, hard-core environmentalist, might still say: "I can't compare the resources used to convert green glass into a new bottle vs. the resources used to start from scratch... because the sand that comes from the earth is holy, pristine, precious, as opposed to people's time. It's not right to use dollars and cents to compare and weigh this as a tradeoff. You can't add the time it takes to recycle. It's always worth it." Economist: Okay, but be aware that what you're saying is that there's no amount of resources, natural or human, that would be too much. Mike: "Invocation of values that I don't share." Most people think they are saving resources, but they are not. It's a personal preference to go beyond that to say that even if it's not saving resources, it's worth it. Tierney article: Could reuse half of a manila folder. If we look long enough we could find the other half. Economist argues that "time is our most valuable and scarce resource--we can't make more of that." Social, cultural aspects. Yellow bin advertises our virtue, want to put out some--but not too much, don't want to be a burden. Cultural value got created through a decentralized cultural movement. Smoking, littering used to be activities people didn't feel bad about it. Littering, throwing a can on the ground imposes costs on others, ugly. But when Mike throws a can in the trash it now has acquired additional external effect--social approbation, religious. "If you think it's valuable, go retrieve it yourself."
43:56Why don't people feel this way about anything else? People wear socks till they have holes. We understand that it takes time to fix it, so they throw socks out. Can make turkey soup out of bones, but if that took longer and longer, we'd throw the bones out. We make these tradeoff choices all the time for other things, without feeling bad, but with glass, cans, newspaper we feel differently. In the 1950s, you got your TV fixed, but now we throw it out because it's not worth fixing it. Microwaves not worth fixing, cars are worth fixing. People even run glass and plastic containers through dishwasher before throwing it out. Sensible if you yourself are going to reuse it yourself, but running garbage through the dishwasher? Some cities even require this or rinsing it thoroughly. Uses water, electricity, time, but the city doesn't bear those costs. But why do you feel virtuous about it? City wants you to turn garbage into a resource, and we line up like sheep. Why don't we object? Mike called a couple of these cities, and they answered: No, no, we're trying to keep animals away from the recycle bins. Hmmm. Why not run the turkey carcass through the dishwasher? Steak bones.
50:51Diapers: People ask: Have you decided to go with disposables or cloth? Russ's answer: "We care about the environment so rather than having trucks running around and using toxic detergents to clean them, we're going to go with disposables." Mike: For us, cloth diapers were cheaper: $29/month. But it took a lot more of our time, plus we had large containers of soiled diapers. In retrospect it was irrational for me, but the virtue I felt was worth a great deal. Our parents washed diapers themselves. Impact of disposables on environment has in fact fallen though because diapers are now made with less plastic. Dynamic. Economist treats all resources equally, can't add apples and oranges directly, but you can add their values. Doesn't mean all economists care out is money. We want to make sure when we make a decision, we make a decision that uses the least resources. Green eyeshade accountant part of economists assigns a value to time as well. It's the human, humane way to lead your life. Time is precious and doesn't come back. Could be spent with your family, reading a cheap novel. Scrubbing out mayonnaise jars is anti-human, maybe pro-earth. Only in some strange culturally highlighted areas do we take our time and treat it as if it is worth zero. Political implications. Might go too far the other way. Focusing on resource values could avoid backlash. Stendahl on first tasting ice cream: "What a pity this isn't a sin." Paper towels, water running, growing trees on 35 acres of forest, turn off lights in room. Mike's wife: "You left the dark on in here." Why use electricity if you could just get used to the dark?