On recycling

Mar 14 2010

While visiting one of my regular reads, I came across a summary of what’s wrong with our continued national fetish for recycling.

Having extensive experience in the waste industry, I’ve never been a fan of consumer (curbside) recycling. It’s a completely different business than the trash business.

The trash business is simple – fee for service. You pay someone to come and pick up your trash. They take it away and either burn it or bury it. Fee for service.

Recycling, as it’s done today? Not so simple – it’s a commodity play, basically a bet that they can pick up your allegedly recyclable cast-offs, and a market will exist in which the person who picked them up can sell them (after cleanup/aggregation/processing) for more than it cost to perform the collection, separation, and processing.

A very different business from trash collection. And as I used to say back when I was in the waste business, if someone wanted to be in that commodity business, more power to them, but I couldn’t understand the idiocy by which municipalities asserted common ground between that business and recycling. I was further dismayed to find that trash companies took the bait and accepted this absurd bastardization of their business. There’s at least one former company in the industry (Browning Ferris Industries, now a fully-digested part of Allied Waste, which is itself now a fully digested part of Republic Waste), a true blue-chipper, and a great company in its time, which was utterly undone by the idiocy of pretending that recycling was the business it was in.

Why the idiocy? Because of the actions of a misdirected board, the chairman of which, former EPA administrator William Ruckelshaus, decided BFI should pretend to save the world, while destroying the business at which it actually excelled. He did some good things while in that slot – breaking the back of organized crime in the New York market is one of those. I can think of no others, and his actions ultimately killed the company’s ability to operate as a viable standalone entity. His recycling mantra was the murder weapon.

I was reminded of all of this from the Ace of Spades post previously mentioned. From it, I traversed a link to the interesting Sippican Cottage website. (be sure to read his “About Me” snippet). And from that link, a reminder of the several-years-old Penn & Teller “Bullshit” segment on the idiocy of recycling, notwithstanding the fervor of the idiots who believe in its value, below.



Lots of things make sense to recycle. Oddly enough though, virtually every one of those things happens to be an individual aluminum can. Almost everything else is a waste of time and effort, on both economic and environmental grounds. Curbside recycling, outside of aluminum cans, is counterproductive make-work, worth nothing other than the psychic self-stimulation it provides to misinformed consumers and maladjusted recycling coordinators. We’re not now, nor have we ever been, running out of landfill space, and landfills are now and remain the most effective and safe way to deal with the nation’s garbage.

Other things will come along which can rationally be used to reduce volume going into landfills, but when they do, it’ll be because there’s an economically justifiable method for recapturing value from the items that would otherwise be buried in the ground. Mechanically separating waste streams, while hoping that the market for the resulting commodities doesn’t crash while you’re baling them up and praying for an opportunity to sell them, has a flaw in it:

As with any human activity, if you can’t find an economic justification to do it, with only a very few exceptions, you shouldn’t be doing it.



A concise definition of “rights”

Mar 13 2010

From Dr. Walter E. Williams. (via his posting at George Mason University’s site)

I’ve incorporated it here in its entirety because it’s so short and so important that I want to ensure it remains close at hand.

Is Health Care a Right?

Most politicians, and probably most Americans, see health care as a right. Thus, whether a person has the means to pay for medical services or not, he is nonetheless entitled to them. Let’s ask ourselves a few questions about this vision.

Say a person, let’s call him Harry, suffers from diabetes and he has no means to pay a laboratory for blood work, a doctor for treatment and a pharmacy for medication. Does Harry have a right to XYZ lab’s and Dr. Jones’ services and a prescription from a pharmacist? And, if those services are not provided without charge, should Harry be able to call for criminal sanctions against those persons for violating his rights to health care?

You say, “Williams, that would come very close to slavery if one person had the right to force someone to serve him without pay.” You’re right. Suppose instead of Harry being able to force a lab, doctor and pharmacy to provide services without pay, Congress uses its taxing power to take a couple of hundred dollars out of the paycheck of some American to give to Harry so that he could pay the lab, doctor and pharmacist. Would there be any difference in principle, namely forcibly using one person to serve the purposes of another? There would be one important strategic difference, that of concealment. Most Americans, I would hope, would be offended by the notion of directly and visibly forcing one person to serve the purposes of another. Congress’ use of the tax system to invisibly accomplish the same end is more palatable to the average American.

True rights, such as those in our Constitution, or those considered to be natural or human rights, exist simultaneously among people. That means exercise of a right by one person does not diminish those held by another. In other words, my rights to speech or travel impose no obligations on another except those of non-interference. If we apply ideas behind rights to health care to my rights to speech or travel, my free speech rights would require government-imposed obligations on others to provide me with an auditorium, television studio or radio station. My right to travel freely would require government-imposed obligations on others to provide me with airfare and hotel accommodations.

For Congress to guarantee a right to health care, or any other good or service, whether a person can afford it or not, it must diminish someone else’s rights, namely their rights to their earnings. The reason is that Congress has no resources of its very own. Moreover, there is no Santa Claus, Easter Bunny or Tooth Fairy giving them those resources. The fact that government has no resources of its very own forces one to recognize that in order for government to give one American citizen a dollar, it must first, through intimidation, threats and coercion, confiscate that dollar from some other American. If one person has a right to something he did not earn, of necessity it requires that another person not have a right to something that he did earn.

To argue that people have a right that imposes obligations on another is an absurd concept. A better term for new-fangled rights to health care, decent housing and food is wishes. If we called them wishes, I would be in agreement with most other Americans for I, too, wish that everyone had adequate health care, decent housing and nutritious meals. However, if we called them human wishes, instead of human rights, there would be confusion and cognitive dissonance. The average American would cringe at the thought of government punishing one person because he refused to be pressed into making someone else’s wish come true.

None of my argument is to argue against charity. Reaching into one’s own pockets to assist his fellow man in need is praiseworthy and laudable. Reaching into someone else’s pockets to do so is despicable and deserves condemnation.

Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University. To find out more about Walter E. Williams and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

Granted, those pushing the current federalization of the American healthcare system may truly believe that healthcare is a right. If they do, they’re wrong, just as they’d be wrong to claim that everyone has an innate right to any tangible, finite product or service of which others would have to be deprived in order to provide it to them.

But I don’t think any of the Obamacare pushers truly have an opinion about healthcare as a right. This headlong rush to socialization isn’t about rights, and it’s clearly not about reducing costs. It’s about control. Control of the quantity and quality of service that Americans can choose to purchase, from whom, and via what methods.

Picture this: Say the cost of hamburgers increased 15% per year over a 20 year period, and as a result, some people could no longer afford hamburgers as often as they’d previously become used to. Pretend further that, unlike in our current framework of healthcare provision, there wasn’t a requirement that all burger joints had to provide hamburgers at their emergency drive-up window, regardless of ability to pay.

Would declaring hamburgers to be a basic human right, and stating that the federal government should exercise market control of hamburgers, suddenly become an argument that would pass the giggle test? Of course not.

And it amazes me to see that the argumentational artifice of “healthcare as a basic human right” passes that same test. If it didn’t, people would spend the time that they should be spending asking what our elected overlords are really trying to accomplish.

This ain’t about healthcare, people. It’s just not.