Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Follow the recycling money

The New York Times recently reported that unwanted appliances -- old washing machines and so on -- placed on the curb for disposal in New York City have been "disappearing." With scrap metal prices strong, what the article calls "thieves" have been driving along streets scheduled for used-appliance pickups -- in New York City, this happens by published schedule -- and taking away the unwanted junk before the city's officially approved recycler arrives. The "thieves" then sell the unwanted junk as scrap metal.

Set aside whether it's theft to take an unwanted item that has been discarded in a public place. New York City bureaucrats think so; they've instructed police to ticket anyone engaged in recycling without government sanction. Twenty years ago, New York City bureaucrats were demanding that citizens recycle whether they wished to or not, and imposing fines for failure to comply. Now if the average person is caught recycling, it's a police matter.

This issue is not the cleanliness of streets or the environmental benefits of recycling -- it's control of money. The New York City Sanitation Department pays a company called Sims Municipal Recycling about $65 million annually to pick up and recycle metal, glass and aluminum. Notice what's happening here? Recycling is supposed to make economic sense. If it did, then the recycling company would be paying the city. Instead the city is paying the company. ...

Recycling of aluminum makes good economic sense, given the energy cost of aluminum and the high quality of recycled aluminum. Depending on where you are in the country, recycling of newspapers may make sense. Recycling of steel and copper usually makes sense. But recycling of glass, most plastics and coated paper is a net waste of energy. Often the goal of government-imposed recycling program is to use lack of understanding of economics to reach into citizens' pockets and forcibly extract money that bureaucrats can control.

Notice what else is happening here -- New York City pays a company millions of dollars to do something "thieves" will do for free. The "thieves" harm no one, and could save New York City taxpayers considerable money. But then bureaucrats wouldn't be in control. And surely no-show jobs and kickbacks have nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with New York City sanitation contracts.
--Gregg Easterbrook, ESPN.com, on bureaucratic benefits of recycling

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