When I heard about the possibility that recycling might become mandatory in Lincoln, I emailed my city councilman and asked what he thought of the idea. He brought up an interesting question. When we recycle, someone is making money from the salvage value of those items. In that light, doesn’t it seem odd that we have to pay for recycling?
The question fits nicely with the book I’m reading, “The Ultimate Resource 2” by Julian Simon. This book is about resource scarcity and comes to a conclusion that runs counter to our general assumptions but also helps answer this question. The premise is that natural resources, without any outside market interference, always will be available and will, in fact, become more abundant over time.
I realize this hypothesis sounds crazy, but let me explain his reasoning.
If we ask an engineer to give his or her best estimate of how long any given natural resource will be available, he or she most likely will take the known (or proven) reserves and divide them by our annual consumption. The result is the number of years before we run out of that resource.
Taking the known reserves for aluminum in 1990, an engineer would have forecast that we had 63 years left of consumption. But 23 years into this forecast, are aluminum prices on the rise? Are we projecting shortages within our lifetimes?
Engineering forecasts often are wildly inaccurate because they look only at the resources we know we can recover using today’s technology.
A better way to forecast is to take a look at the “Ultimate Recoverable Resource,” which the U.S. Geological Survey assumes is 0.01 percent of the amount in the top kilometer of the Earth’s surface. Using this percentage, we still have about 68,066 years of aluminum consumption left.
Engineering forecasts often do not consider technological advances in mining and manufacturing. They cannot predict the replacement of copper wires with fiber optic cable (sand) for long-distance communication. Nor can they account for future resource discoveries or new ways to reuse existing resources.
We get paid to recycle aluminum because it takes only 5 percent of the energy to melt scrap compared to creating aluminum from bauxite. We sell our cars because used cars still have value before they reach the junkyard. We naturally do whatever makes the most economic sense, which also translates into the most efficient use of resources.
Landfills are no different. We pay a monthly fee to our garbage company, and its workers haul away our trash. If space becomes scarce, we would expect to pay more for garbage collection. But like aluminum, we are seeing more room in landfills overall, not less.
According to a 2005 article in The New York Times, “In the last four years, (the three largest trash companies) buried 882 million tons of waste. But the remaining permitted capacity of their combined 410 dumps did not shrink. It expanded over those four years by more than 1 billion tons.”
How is this possible? Waste companies don’t want to buy new land or apply for new permits. They want to get the most use out of the land they own and thus come up with new ways to compact trash.
But landfills eventually will fill up, so it makes sense to prolong their lives if we can, right? If we generate waste as we do now until 3000, the resulting landfill would require a 35 square-mile area, 100 yards deep. That’s 0.1 percent of rangeland now available for grazing in the United States. Top the landfill off with dirt and grass, and its original purpose is restored.
Humans thrive on solving problems and generally end up better off for having them.
The reason we pay for curbside recycling isn’t because it makes economic sense or even environmental sense. It’s because it is convenient and it makes us feel better about the environment. Many of us are willing to pay for this feeling, which is a legitimate reason to recycle. However, forcing others to pay more for the privilege of recycling so we can feel better about ourselves is not.