An Inner Dialogue on the Definition of Recycling
In What is Recycling?, I made the claim that recycling is the sourcing of a by-product as an input into the production of another good. As it turns out, it is similar to the EPA’s definition, the only difference being that the EPA explicitly states that the primary alternative of the by-product is waste.
Recycling is defined as the recovery of useful materials, such as paper, glass, plastic and metals, from the MSW stream, along with the transformation of the materials, to make new products to reduce the amount of virgin raw materials needed to meet consumer demands (bolding is mine).
For the most part, I don’t have an issue with this definition, nor would 99% of people. That said, when thinking about the economics of recycling, I do want to avoid a definition based in the context of waste. In my opinion, the economics is about the relative prices of by-products. Maybe the option with the greatest gain is disposal or it’s between two recycling opportunities. If the latter, then throwing it away is not a reasonable alternative and the idea that the by-product is “from the MSW stream” isn’t true (MSW is Municipal Solid Waste).
Less important, why must recycling “reduce the amount of virgin raw materials”, all else constant? The idea here is that recycled materials are a substitute for virgin materials. That’s fine, however, that isn’t a definition of recycling as a behavior, but an effect of recycling or motivation to recycle. Therefore, I would update their definition to match with my own.
Recycling is the process of sourcing by-products as an input into the production of another good.
To be honest, my distinction may prove meaningless and pedantic. How much it matters will depend on how the EPA or those studying the economics of by-products apply their definition. In the meantime, below is an inner dialogue between me and a skeptical, but open-minded persona I rely on, so you can decide for yourself.
Persona: “Mainly, what you’re suggesting is removing ‘from the MSW’. That way, the context of recycling is generalized away from waste, right?”
Greg: “Right. I want to distinguish between re-purposing waste by-products and re-purposing by-products regardless of value designations.”
Persona: “Would you agree that by-products are usually unwanted results of some production or consumption process, i.e. trash?”
Greg: “Yes, usually. In fact, I concede that many or most by-products start out as waste from the perspective of the producer, or even of everyone. But, that is not always the case and it may change.”
Persona: “Well, if you concede that, explain what you mean then by ‘not always the case’. You can recycle a by-product that is not trash?”
Greg: “Yes, I can create a by-product never intended to be thrown away as trash. Bones and cuts of fat from meat are by-products of meat consumption and production. When buying meat, I plan to use the bones for broth or fat for tallow, otherwise I would dispose of them.”
Persona: “Great, so you would admit that the meat scraps would otherwise be thrown away. That is, enter the MSW stream.”
Greg: “Yes, but how many alternative uses must a by-product have? Imagine I have three uses for the meat scraps: tallow, dog food, and disposal (trash). Assume that both rending tallow and making dog food offer more potential gain than disposing of the scraps. The opportunity cost of producing tallow isn’t the gain from disposal, but from dog food and vice versa. Silly example, I know, but in any case the next best alternative isn’t disposal, therefore I recycled and I would not have otherwise thrown it away.”
Persona: “I see your confusion. Think of it this way, both making dog food and rendering tallow involve recycling meat scraps. Consider “recycling” as all possible alternatives to disposal. Now we have reduced the decision to a binary one. Namely, to one where you either recycle, in one of three ways, or to dispose of it. Now you see, when choosing to recycle you are always avoiding throwing something away.”
Greg: What if I defined all economic production as the process of “collecting materials that would have otherwise been thrown away and turning them into a new product?”
Persona: Economic production doesn’t deal with trash in any meaningful way, so the caveat ‘otherwise been thrown away’ is not only superfluous, but wrong.
Greg: I see your confusion, think of it this way. Consider “production” as all possible alternatives to disposal. Now we have reduced the decision to choosing whether to produce or throw something away.
Persona: Haha, yes, but recycling involves producing something from garbage.
Greg: No, I am suggesting recycling involves producing something from by-products, they don’t have to be considered garbage.
Persona: Fine, I remain only mildly convinced it’s too limiting as you described it.
Greg: That’s enough for me. I even admit it all seems quite pedantic at first.
Persona: Look, you’re a reasonable person, but you owe me evidence! How does the EPA apply their definition and how would you apply yours?
Greg: Yes, of course, I will endeavor to find some. Whether I am right, wrong, or only mildly convincing, you’ll be the first to know.