All Commentary
Sunday, September 1, 1991

When Folk Sayings Are Ignored

Daniel F. McInnis is an environmental policy analyst with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a pro-market public interest group.

“You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear” was one of my grandmother’s favorite sayings. Grandma, however, had never seen the likes of modern chemistry. Increasingly, entrepreneurs are able to transform anything into something else. Out of oil, we make nylons and perfume, plastic dishes and fertilizers. Our trees become buildings or methyl alcohol or newspapers, Even garbage can take on new life, as paper, glass, and metals are reused.

Nonetheless, Grandma had a point. If you want to make silk purses, it’s a lot easier if you start with silk.

Proponents of government-mandated recycling have forgotten this simple insight. Recycling has become a battle cry for the environmental movement, a call to arms that can often make little economic or environmental sense.

Your daily newspaper is a perfect example. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), newsprint makes up almost 20 percent of all garbage, paper as a whole, 40 percent. Currently, only one-third of all newspapers are reused, leaving nine million tons of waste paper a year. A mountain of garbage, scream the environmentalists. Needless destruction of trees, they quickly add. Legislators are listening. California will require a 25 percent recycled-fiber content in newspapers by next year and Connecticut 20 percent by 1993. Some 16 other states are considering similar legislation. New York is supposed to be able to recycle a quarter of all its trash by mid-1994.

But what happens when states mandate recycling? The New York City Sanitation Department says it is meeting the collection goals mandated by law, but may have to end up dumping the sorted waste into the Fresh Kills landfill. Moreover, the city now pays paper collectors $25 a ton to haul away newsprint. The market simply collapsed when the supply of waste paper far exceeded the limited demand for more expensive and often lower quality recycled paper.

Washington, D.C., faced a similar problem when it began mandating paper recycling. The solution: instead of dumping paper into a landfill as it had in the past, the waste is now stored in a warehouse.

In both cases, government intervention had an unintended result. Less paper was recycled because markets were glutted, and it became unprofitable for anyone to collect and recycle trash.

The Diaper Debate

The environmentalists’ recycle-at-all-costs campaign not only is driving people out of the recycling business, but it often has dubious benefits for the environment as well. This is best seen in the disposable versus cloth diaper debate. When finally discarded, cloth diapers in sum take up considerably less space in landfills than disposables, but along the way they use twice as much energy, cause four times the water pollution, and create twice the amount of air pollution according to a “cradle-to-grave” analysis by Franklin Associates, a leading supplier of data to the EPA. These environmental costs are largely hidden since they don’t end up in the form of a pile of soiled diapers. Instead they are transformed into the emissions of trucks delivering and picking up diapers, the sewage from washing machines, and the depleted sod from the intensively cultivated cotton crop.

Moreover, new mothers have been made to feel needlessly guilty when they use disposable diapers for their children. Some environmentalists seem less than sympathetic. “Parents who simply prefer the convenience of disposables should feel guilty,” says Allen Hershkowitz of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

While crusading against convenience may seem noble, the actual environmental costs don’t bear the critics out. To choose between disposable and cloth diapers is to pick between less space in landfills and greater air and water pollution. There is no clear winner or loser.

One hundred percent recycling almost never makes economic sense—or environmental for that matter—when the extremely high energy needs are factored in. Unfortunately, many environmental activists won’t settle for less.

Some recycling, of course, does make sense. After all, it’s cheaper to wash your clothes than throw them away and buy new ones. This simple economic test should be applied to anything that we may consider recycling, especially since the price tag is a strong indicator of environmental effects. Products that use fewer resources throughout their existence generally have less impact on the environment. Absent cost-distorting government subsidies and regulations, prices tell consumers which product is environmentally superior. Now that’s a bargain even my grandmother would love. After all, another of her favorite sayings was that a penny saved is a penny earned.