Recycling Strikes Back

I’m back in Germany, the land of serious recycling. We separate much of our excess into bio, packing, paper and everything else (“all the rest, and only that,” as the instructions in our apartment state). Of course, this doesn’t include the three types of glass – white, green and brown – that are to be carried to a set of common receptacles two blocks from our apartment. The picture shows me depositing an empty olive oil bottle in the green-glass container (on a Saturday, not on Sunday, since Sundays are forbidden, perhaps due to externalities created by the noise of crashing glass, perhaps for religious reasons); but I wasn’t at all sure the bottle was green, not brown. These stringent rules raise the price of using containers and other things that are to be recycled. As such, they decrease demand for such products and indirectly help the environment. Maybe this is the most important route by which recycling rules aid the environment!

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  1. DanInesanto says:

    You could be right, because it certainly isn’t from basic energy savings from recycling!

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  2. Robert says:

    In Seattle, we are down to “one bin” recycling so no more sorting! Glass, paper, etc all go into the same thing. How they sort it out is beyond my pay grade.

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  3. JohnJ says:

    That’s horrible! Recycling regulations incentivize people to make less-green decisions. You don’t encourage environmentalism by making it more difficult to engage in.

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  4. EH says:

    Of course if the rules are too stringent people will just ignore them and throw away recyclables.

    While living in Japan, I got an angry email about how I hadn’t removed the label from a plastic drink bottle, rinsed it out, removed the top (different plastic so it goes in a different bin) and let it all dry before putting it in the recycling bin. And it gets worse for other types of recyclables (paper must be stacked, tied and within certain dimensions, recyclables pickup is once a month with different days for different items, etc).

    After that I decided just to throw everything in the trash for the incinerator to deal with. How’s that for unintended consequences?

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  5. Bloix says:

    The point of this, I suppose, is to ridicule recycling. Or to ridicule those compulsively orderly Germans. Or both.

    It would be nice if you’d bothered to call someone in the municipal government to see whether the program reduces landfill costs, if the separation of colors really matters, if recycled glass is cheaper than new glass. And perhaps someone has actually done some research into whether recycling does increase the product costs and whether it actually effects consumer purchasing behavior in Germany.

    But no. Actual research and analysis isn’t necessary. Based on your personal dislike of putting bottles in a receptable, you can conclude, as an expert, that the program probably doesn’t work and all it does is cause inconvenience to consumers.

    It must be wonderful, being an economist. It’s a way of knowing everything in the world simply by examining what’s already in your own head.

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  6. Joe D says:

    So: make recycling difficult, but flaunting the rules painful (through fines), in order to increase the “reduce, reuse” parts of the circle.

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  7. MikeM says:

    Agree with JohnJ. Stringent rules only decrease demand for the substances subject to those rules if the enforcement of those rules and subsequent punishment are strong enough to disincentivize breaking the rules. So unless the decrease in demand is greater than the incentives to just not recycle, the environment loses.

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  8. Punned It says:

    @ Joe D – and who will police every bit of garbage and track it to each individual? Fact is we cannot control all kinds of garbage dumping, people and businesses that do not want to comply find a way to dispose of things irresponsibly and illegally if fines are involved. By and large it seems the best way to get people to recycle is to make it easy – besides many of use pay so much already for garbage they are already creating scofflaws just due to that expense much less heaping fines on top of that.

    The pressure to reduce packaging and better use resources needs to happen at the industry and retail level – ‘demand for such products (containers/excess packaging/etc) and indirectly help the environment’ would happen because that is what would be available to the consumer.

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