What is Recycling?

I don’t know if it’s just me, but I like to think about things independently before looking around for opinions. It’s a personal activity and not necessarily a useful one since it is always cheaper to look for what really smart people already have said. Regardless, when it came to recycling, I took a step back and asked myself “what is recycling?”

First, recycling deals with by-products, not necessarily garbage. Without a doubt, recycling is a part of any waste management system. Indeed, by its very nature waste systems make available cheap products, if you can find a use for them. Though, if I plan to make soap or candles from rendering meat scraps from my dinner, then the meat scraps are not garbage — never were. You might respond, “the only other option is to throw them away” or “it is garbage to most people”. Maybe, but don’t limit your imagination. One could choose to make dog treats or compost. What’s important to recognize is that by-products exhibit the same price dynamics as any other good. Sometimes it’s cheaper to pay someone to haul it way, sometimes it is valuable enough to sell, and other times you may want to use it for your own purposes. Given the right price, by-products can move from to “garbage” to “good” just as the status of property can move from “public” to “private”.

Second, recycling involves sourcing by-products as an input into production of another good. This means recycling is a production activity. From the point of view of the recycler what matters is the difference between the costs incurred producing recycled materials and the price received for the final material. You can apply this logic all the way to the sale of the final good, say, the sale of a cup of coffee made of recycled cardboard. Yes, separating materials is likely a crucial part of the recycling process. Yes, voluntarily separating garbage in a bin could reduce the cost to producers of recycled materials. As would hauling the collected materials to the factory for them, say, once a week. But, until those materials are made into something useful, I would refrain from calling them recycled.

Third, recycling is the act of sourcing a by-product for its properties, not it’s function. For example, when you wash a dish before using it for your next meal, you did not recycle the dish, you reused it. Why? Applying soap and water maintained the dish as a dish. Similarly, when you fix a leaking pipe in your house, you did not recycle your house, you maintained your house. Alternatively, you could recycle your house by repurposing it’s bricks and other building materials. In that case, you would be sourcing the house for its components in the production of some other good. “Up-cycling” is a word people use when they repair clothes before selling them — that’s reuse. However, sourcing jeans for their denim is recycling (even to make new jeans). People recycle car tires when they choose to grow potatoes vertically. Possible response, “this ‘change of function’ unnecessarily muddies the water. Surely, ‘reuse’ follows the same price dynamics as ‘recycling’ and a ‘function’ can be considered a ‘property’.” I admit, the vocabulary seems subjective or abstract, but I think this delineation is helpful, even if at times ambiguous. Consider buying a grocery store, is it consumption or an investment? What’s the difference? Intentions? Results? When the context is made clear, I think the difference becomes self-evident.

What are some of the implications from this exercise?

  1. As demand for recycled materials increase, they can transition from waste to an economic good. Evidence of this is transition is already available: gasoline, glycerin, American cotton seed, to name a few. Crude oil was worthless sludge before the discovery it could be refined into kerosene. The process left several by-products, which Rockefeller turned into many different products, one of those being gasoline, but also 300 other products. Under my definition, Rockefeller (and his sales team) are some of the world’s greatest champions of recycling. I think this has profound implications, but at minimum it seems like many crucial economic narratives are missing from public discourse on recycling.
  2. Recycling involves by-products, whether or not the by-product is considered waste or garbage to the producer of the by-product. Most of the discussion and metrics are around residential waste. If the difference is whether a by-product ends up in a landfill or as an input into a new final good, then residential waste is a subset of the broader topic.
  3. Instead of paying producers to clean and sort garbage, politicians instead make recycling a legal and/or moral imperative, passing the costs to households. This amounts to bringing down the costs for producers of recycled materials using the unpaid labor of households. The result is that recycling is not economical and has become a politically divisive topic. Quite unfortunate.
  4. Recycled materials, like any input, can be used to create novel goods (petroleum products), or to substitute inputs into a current good (changing to cheaper fats for soap). Of the latter examples, I have only ever heard people comparing recycled materials with “virgin” materials. Recycling is a much broader activity than anything I have heard discussed.
  5. No matter is created or destroyed in the universe, so time clearly matters, but I don’t have much to say about it right now. Given enough time, landfills generally could become a source for raw materials. Recycling? If landfills are capitalizing potential mining revenue, then I think so.
  6. Some speculations from thinking about this: (1) The TV and film industry might be the world’s greatest historical conservationists; (2) the future is nuclear and as that future is realized, it’s waste will be little to none.

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