Blog author: jballor
by on Tuesday, April 22, 2008

I know there are some economic arguments against recycling, at least some forms of it. Many of these seem to be based on the fact that there’s no real profit margin, so proponents have to either engage the coercive power of government to get people to recycle (by charging them a fee or by offering city services) or people have to simply donate their recycle-ables gratis.

But one “economic” argument I’ve never understood is the on that goes like this: it’s not worth my time. After all, I get paid $X per hour, and I’m not getting paid at all to recycle. Why waste the time doing something for free? One economist puts it like this: “as one of the great one-liners of economics goes: ‘Recycling is the philosophy that everything is worth saving except your time.’”

And so, “Why don’t we recycle in our house? Because our time is worth more than a pile of newspaper.” Other economists have made similar arguments against volunteering, to which I’m a bit more sympathetic, at least insofar as it isn’t always a better use of time to volunteer.

But c’mon, “our time is worth more than a pile of newspaper”? That sounds more like rationalizing laziness than true economic sensibility. I understand the concept of opportunity costs, but it isn’t as if you are making your standard wage 24/7/365.

My time is worth more than a pile of dirt, too, but that doesn’t mean my house doesn’t need to be cleaned. Just because the negative externalities of throwing your trash into a public dump aren’t visible doesn’t mean that you don’t have a responsibility to manage your waste.

And don’t tell me there aren’t good economic arguments in favor of recycling, too. Take a look at the legacy of Ken Hendricks, a high school dropout and an entrepreneur who made a fortune in the building materials business. He passed away late last year, and during his life “Hendricks loathed waste and dedicated his life to recycling and rehabilitation in all their forms. He resuscitated decaying buildings, directly through the millions of square feet he personally owned and indirectly through the hundreds of millions of square feet restored by his customers.”

Maybe Prof. Anthony Bradley can help me out