Monday, May 28, 2007

Questioning recycling

Tim Worstall has a challenge to all advocates of recycling in this morning's Times:

Recycling is based on the near-religious belief that everything has value, everything is worth saving, except your time.

He quotes a study in Seattle which showed a household spending an average of 44 minutes a week to sort rubbish. He then projects this to estimate the cost for the UK:

The Worstall Calculator (envelope, 1, pencil, 1) tells us that our time spent in sorting our rubbish by these new rules has a cost of between £1.7 and £4.5 billion.

The solution being proposed is thus that we should spend more money than the cost of the entire waste disposal process in sorting the rubbish, before we spend still more collecting it, recycling or incinerating it and then tipping the remainder into the same holes in the ground that we’ve always used. The system will cost more in total than the old one in the name of saving money.

There is a legitimate concern about methane emissions from food rotting in landfills. Fortunately, as Elliot Morley (at that time a Defra minister) told the Commons in 2004, this has already been solved: all modern landfills collect this greenhouse gas and use it to create energy.

I can't help thinking that Monsieur Worstall has gone a little OTT here. He doesn't seem to recognise that recycling saves the energy and resources to make new products, that there is a shortage of land for landfill and that 50% of the waste in an average bin could be composted thereby feeding new plant growth.

I am also not entirely sure if the Seattle study gives a fair view of the extra time spent recycling compared to traditional waste disposal. If you are just slinging bits in a few recycling bins that you keep outside your kitchen door, it is not really more time-consuming than putting it in a waste bin and then carrying it to your wheely bin is it?


  1. I'm well aware that recycling "can" save money and energy. After all, I've worked in the scrap metal trade where the lesson is obvious. The important question is which products save energy, save resources, by recycling and which don't?
    Any attempt to answer this question which does not include our time (a limited resource, I hope you'll agree?) is therefore flawed.
    I would actually love to see a full cost benefit analysis of the value (or not) of recycling.
    My biggest complaint is that no one seems to have done one, certainly not the Government.

  2. "Any attempt to answer this question which does not include our time (a limited resource, I hope you'll agree?) is therefore flawed."

    Agreed Tim, and a good point - the first time I have read it being made. Thank you for your comment.

  3. Tim makes alludes to an important point by mentioning his time in the scrap metal business.

    It is often claimed that recycling is in fact economically viable and even sensible. Yet this is total nonsense. If there was real value in recycling waste, people would be willing to buy the contents of our bins (as they will buy scrap metal).

    Recycling assuages our horror at the seeming waste, but it makes little economic sense.

  4. It is a fascinating area, Tom. As a manager involved in finanical operations, I too like to see cost/benefit analyses and I would love to see one on this subject. I think the Seattle study might have extended the time to recycle (most people recycle into separate bins in the first place but often these studies involve people sorting rubbish after it has gone into one bin, which is obviously more time consuming). You make an important point, but what about those ocmmunities in China, recently documented in the Guardian Weekend magazine, who are sustained by recycling our rubbish? If it is economic to ship the stuff on a slow boat to China and have lots of industrious Chinese people re-sort it and recycle it, then this would seem to be worth considering in an economic assessment, would it not? Also, a cost/benefit analyses depends often on how wide you make it. When you say that recycling isn't economic you aren't presumably including the economic impact of some of the more cataclysmic forecasts for the impact of global warming. Even if we include some of the impacts already incurred in Africa as recently poignantly described by Archbishop Tutu, surely there is an economic argument broader than the straight-forward "how long does it take a family to chuck things into separate bins?" argument, isn't there?