Curious, I phoned the public relations officers with the recycling departments in several small cities in the Northeast. I asked one extremely cheerful and energetic young woman how her city could justify asking people to put their garbage in the dishwasher. Isn’t that pretty expensive, in terms of human time, and the energy to heat the water, compared to the value of the garbage?
Using the same tone of voice one would use to talk to a five year old—she clearly thought I was not the sharpest can lid in the recycle bin—she gave me the most concise explanation I have encountered in the whole genre. She said, “Oh, you have to understand, sir. Recycling is always cheaper, no matter how much it costs!” For her, and for millions of people like her, recycling is not an economic activity at all, but a moral duty, without limits and for which cost is irrelevant.
This is a brilliant article on the topic of “Why We Recycle.” Read the whole thing. I have stood at the sink, rinsing out a glass bottle or can, and wondering if the cost in energy to purify and pump the water, dispose of the dirty rinse water, drive trucks to pick up the recycled bin separately from the trash bin, sort it, then ship it to a plant which reuses the material is really worth it in net terms to the environment. But I still do it, because if feels so virtuous!
No one had ever said, “Recycle because it’s cheaper”; instead, they had been told “Don’t throw anything into the landfill, because it’s wrong!” By that logic, the protesters had a point: moral imperatives shouldn’t respond to relative scarcity. If it’s wrong to throw things into the landfill, it’s not an excuse to say “it’s expensive.” Using moral suasion to solve the problem of charging a low price for landfill is actually dangerous, because people confuse sensible frugality, contingent on prices, with morality, which is only contingent on the good or bad character of the citizen.