What a waste! Why reducing rubbish might not make sense

Recycling seems like a bright idea, but is its shine coming off? Kilgub/Flickr

The initial impressions most people have of waste-reduction campaigns and calls for greater recycling are that they must be good. After all, most of us are taught from a very early age that waste is a bad thing and the less we have of it the better. “Waste-not-want-not” is a phrase familiar from many of our childhoods.

Those advocating the “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra likewise are motivated by what seems to be the best interests of society. They are popular causes. Calls for governments to subsidise recycling schemes and to ban some forms of waste – like plastic bags – fall on sympathetic ears.

The problem with this aversion to waste is that “all that glitters is not gold”. A closer analysis of the waste issue indicates that there are likely to be unintended negative consequences of cutting back on our generation of waste.

The first thing to recognise is that no-one produces waste for its own sake. Waste is an unwanted by-product of production and consumption activities that make people better off.

If policies are introduced to reduce our use of resources so that not as much waste is created, then necessarily those policies will restrict the production or consumption of something that people like. Doing without those finished products will make people worse off.

Regulations that restrict people’s choices mean that they are not able to select the options they most prefer. They have to settle for “second best”. That reduces their well-being.

What resources will this recycling save? GenBug/Flickr

Policies that subsidise waste reuse or recycling are also likely to make people worse off because they require the use of scarce resources and hence impose costs. For instance, to recycle glass containers requires the collection of old bottles from a geographically dispersed population and their cleaning or reformation. The energy and other resources involved in this process are finite – their use in the recycling process means that they are not available for other uses.

Subsidies have to be paid by local governments to make some recycling schemes viable. Container deposit schemes have to be introduced by regulation. This demonstrates that the costs of the resources used in the recycling process are greater than the cost of using virgin material. If they were cheaper, recycling schemes would have been introduced voluntarily.

Banning plastic bags at supermarket checkouts provides an illustration. With bans in place a proliferation of fabric shopping bags is sold. Are the resources used in those bags more or less scarce than those used in plastic bags? Their relative cost suggests they are scarcer.

Supermarkets prefer to use plastic bags because they are relatively cheap and offer customers convenience. Their goal is not to produce waste! And because shoppers can no longer re-cycle plastic shopping bags as bin-liners and the like, more plastic bags are sold for those specific purposes. Bans on plastic bags in developing countries even deprive re-cyclers of their livelihoods.

The goal of reducing scarce resource use may not even be achieved. The outcome can merely be a re-allocation of demand for resources away from the one that is targeted by the waste restricting “rules”.

Poorly thought out waste policies can lead to rubbish dumping. State Records NSW

If resources are saved by waste policies - such as recycling requirements or subsidies - those savings are likely to come in the distant future.

With such long time periods involved, there are significant uncertainties about the development of possible substitutes. Will the saved resources be used at all? Technological advances in the development of substitutes may mean that the resources being saved now may not be so valuable in the future.

For instance, with more use of electronic communication devices, paper saved by recycling schemes now may not be in such strong demand. That would mean less pressure in the future to harvest trees for paper. The end result is that future gains from recycling may be limited.

There is no doubt however that society faces a real quandary in terms of how it manages solid wastes. Ideally, those who create waste should bear the full costs of treating and disposing of their rubbish. If disposing of waste is free, people won’t be as careful as they would be if they have to pay the full cost.

To make those who create waste recognise the full costs of their actions, prices for the use of landfills need to reflect the full costs of their operation. This includes payments made by the landfill operator to compensate local residents for their loss of environmental amenity.

However, such a landfill pricing strategy is likely to mean more waste will be disposed of through littering and illegal dumping. Many authorities therefore choose to implicitly subsidise the collection and disposal of household waste as a lower-cost means of reducing the negative environmental consequences of littering and illegal dumping. To assist this, community programmes of education regarding littering mean that there is more community resistance to waste disposal outside of landfills.

The actions of waste reduction community groups are often supportive of these educational efforts. The danger to society comes when their calls shift from a focus on improved waste disposal to one of reducing waste production. Then the prospects of higher costs and less efficient use of resources become real. The best of intentions then result in overall harm to our society.

This is an edited extract from Jeff Bennett’s forthcoming book, Little Green Lies: An exposé of twelve environmental myths.