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!


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


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.


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.


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?


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.


Joe D

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


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.

Punned It

@ 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.

Eric M. Jones


Just after WWII, a physicist friend of mine worked in the atomic research in Berkeley. One Friday night his laboratory mate had a bucket full of radioactive isotopes that he didn't want to leave around...and he had a he carefully put the bucket inside a metal trash can and put it up on the lab bench away from people.

Monday came and the guy was in a panic to find that the isotopes were gone. The cleaning crew had tossed them and now they were somewhere in the Berkeley city dump.

He grabbed his Geiger counter and ran out the door to the dump.

A few hours later, he returned and my friend asked him if he found them.

"Aw, heck...everything at the dump is radioactive now. My advice is to stay away from the place...."

Ian Kemmish

Here (Bedfordshire, UK), we used to have bottle banks segregated by colour, but now just the one bank for all colours. Similarly, the list of things which are collected and sorted for recycling has been growing, and the list of things that have to sorted first and/or taken to a recycling bank has been shrinking.

Maybe this is thanks to market forces amongst the companies tendering for the council's recycling contract (less money going on landfill tax means more money for the contractor). Or maybe what you're seeing in Germany is just the renowned Teutonic love of good order.


My town has a simple solution: households pay to dispose of garbage, but recycling is free.

Len M

We went to the Cologne arena to see the World Hockey Championships and they would charge a 1 Euro fee they called a "pfand" for use of reusable beer mugs and it was incredibly effective at reducing the traditional clutter of beer cups one would find at sporting events. In Munich"pfand" is charged on any sort of bottled beverage that could be recycled. I was impressed with this approach actually gives people an incentive to recycle and puts the bottles back in the hands of people who can sort it properly.


One point people have missed: the more stringent the recycling laws, the less costly it is for whomever sorts it to do their job. So, while more strict rules may decrease the total amount of recycling, the all-in-one-bin method is more costly for the government to implement than if consumers do the leg work.

Bottom line: the ideal solution of who does the sorting should depend on who incurs the greater cost at the margin, meaning who's time costs more: government or consumers. I guess that consumers' time cost more since the wage to pay a recycling technician is likely lower than the average recycler.

And whatever the social cost of less recycling is (assuming a consumer-sorting model leads to less recycling) would have to be included in the cost of a consumer-sorting model. The benefit of more recycling would be subtracted from the cost of the government-sorting model, which is already lower (as noted above, the government may be able to sort recycling at a lower cost than the average recycler, since the average recycler probably makes more than a government paid recycle tech.).

So, if there really are monetary benefits of recycling that outweigh costs, there should probably be a government funded all-in-one-bin system, but we would, of course, have to test these assumptions.



we now have the everything in one bin recycling - and it is sorted somewhere. I have no idea if this saves money but it certainly has lowered the trash tonage for my community and the cost of trash collection. In communities where one has to buy trash bags for trash collection recycle rates tend to rise quite a bit.
However in Japan - as #4 notes - recycling is very strict - and imho - a bit over the top. My d-i-l has to be restrained from tearing the labels off the deposit back bottles when she visits us. In Japan - the recycle nags tend to be people who live in the apartment complex who see something wrong - they take it very seriously and try to find the offender . Japan has NO space for landfill dumps - which encourages good citizens to be careful about disposal of everything.

Dan Green

Fritz is compulsive about neatness, however the country just looks neat. We break our butt to help, here in North America, and if you live in a big city, you have to wonder, what all the trash contains, business put at the curb. Then in the middle of the night major size garbage trucks pick it up a poof it is gone.

Steve Bennett

I used to live in France with similar glass recycling reptacles. I kind of liked the day-after ritual of taking all the bottles from a party and smashing them into the bin. Naturally, this was usually a Sunday morning - glad they didn't have that rule there.


No, these stringent rules lower the price for recycling because using you as recyclables sorter and making you carry the glass to a common place rather than pick it up at every building makes the system cheaper.

And you are missing the biggest incentive in the system: the packaging recycling is paid for with the product and the collection is "free"; on the other hand the "other waste" category must be paid by you directly (or is included in the apartment rent). People who do not recycle (or share an apartment building with people who do not recycle) will then pay twice if they throw their (rather voluminous) packaging/paper/glass in the normal trash.

Jon Svendsen

Interesting point about the demand reduction, although I suppose in lieu of actual enforcement it requires some level of social stigma attached to not recycling properly.

In Norway we now submit all colors of glass, as well as metal containers, to the same bin.


Recycling is a waste of time for cleaning up the environment...the trucks that collect recycled products spew pollution; the people who go to work - to the recycling plant - in their own cars or use mass transit spew pollution in the air; the recycling plant uses coal fueled energy that spews pollution into the air. And, the people who are employed by the recycling plant, now have money to pollute!

Recycling is not cost effective for governments, because government doesn't care about your money; but it is profitable for private recycling companies - money is made. Why not push for mandatory compliance and make the public do all your sorting?!

Recycling and the environment have become pseudo-religions for many, and a source of government income & power for those who are in charge of it.

Worshiping mother nature gives you something to believe in when nothing else strikes your fancy and makes you feel morally superior to stodgy traditional religious fanatics.

After awhile, if you're in charge of government recycling, watching bottles pass by each day is boring. Inventing new rules makes it more fulfilling and shows others that you have some worth and power.

Finally, if you can't break into the oil business, coal business, or government, create a crisis or new Grail and put yourself in charge of it and the drive the competition into the ground with never-ending government subsidies.

Just kidding...recycling rocks! Save a tree or turtles from plastic bags...really, it could happen.



Small garbage-related side point: here in Ireland the government placed a small (I think it was 15 cent initially) tax on every plastic bag that shops had until then been handing out for free. Overnight, behaviour radically changed.

Up to that point shops automatically handed out bags for free. With the arrival of that tax shops automatically did NOT hand out bags, the onus was on shoppers to ask for one. (Sometimes one forgets to bring a reuseable bag, in which case the shop's plastic bags are still cheap - so it was not particularly inconvenient on shoppers.) Immediately the number of bags being used dramatically dropped, to the point that I could even see fewer of them in litter.

It may not even be necessary to create a financial incentive with taxes, the real impact (I guess) came from that change in behaviour: making NOT giving out bags the default.