Recycling fraud: up in smoke

Residential recycling falls into the same category as food drive campaigns for the needy: both are useless programs designed to make participants feel good while accomplishing nothing.

Food drives, as Slate Magazine pointed out years ago, are idiotic and even insane.

‘Tis the season for food drives. It’s a holiday tradition as storied as Christmas trees, awkward conversations with the in-laws, and embarrassing drunken moments at the office holiday party. Your employer, your church, and your kids’ school put out the boxes and ask everyone to drop off excess canned goods for the needy. Then the boxes are collected, sorted, and handed out to the poor. Everyone feels better about themselves, the hungry get fed, and you get to free up some much needed shelf space. It’s win-win-win.

The problem is that, economically speaking, it’s totally insane.

America, after all, is not a country stricken with famine. There’s no objective shortage of food, in other words, that makes it vitally important for you to draw down the stockpile in your kitchen cabinet. Indeed, many of us don’t even have that much food socked away, which leads to us going out to buy extra food in order to give it away. But having 100 different people go out and pay retail prices for a few cans of green beans is extraordinarily inefficient relative to pooling those funds to buy the beans in bulk.

But it’s even worse than that. All across America, charitable organizations and the food industry have set up mechanisms through which emergency food providers can get their hands on surplus food for a nominal handling charge. Katherina Rosqueta, executive director of the Center for High Impact Philanthropy at the University of Pennsylvania, explains that food providers can get what they need for “pennies on the dollar.” She estimates that they pay about 10 cents a pound for food that would cost you $2 per pound retail. You’d be doing dramatically more good, in basic dollars and cents terms, by eating that tuna yourself and forking over a check for half the price of a single can of Chicken of the Sea.

Beyond the economies of scale are the overhead costs. Charities are naturally reluctant to turn down donations for fear of alienating supporters or demoralizing well-wishers, but the reality is that dealing with sporadic surges of cans is a logistical headache. A nationwide network of food banks called Feeding America gingerly notes on its website that “a hastily organized local food drive can actually put more strain on your local food bank than you imagine.” Food dropped off by well-meaning citizens needs to be carefully inspected and sorted. A personal check, by contrast, can be used to order what’s needed without placing extra burdens on the staff

When residential recycling was first imposed as an environmental burden, it became clear that most people don’t want to spend hours sorting out their cans from bottles from newspapers to cardboard, etc., so to make it easier, municipalities turned to so-called single stream recycling, “to encourage participation. It’s a complete failure: a useless, expensive gesture. If you’re curious, enter the search “single stream recycling failure” into your browser and you’ll find hundreds of articles on the subject, dating back at least to 2002. For now, you can just enjoy this Washington Post article.

The collapse of the international (China, actually) market for low-grade paper and such might seem to call for a return to the hand-sorted method, but that’s also a failure.

In England, where residents are forced to sort (and often, wash) their garbage into four separate categories, half to eighty-two percent of the discarded trash is incinerated.

According to official figures just released, in the 12 months to March, 50 out of 123 councils in England incinerated more than half the household rubbish they collected, including plastic and paper.

The worst offending councils are in London. In Tory-controlled Westminster, for example, an amazing 82 per cent of all household and recyclable rubbish was incinerated.

….Many councils — and the Government that stands behind them with its official targets — are taking us for fools. They preach the value of recycling and engage our loyalty in what is presented as a vital social enterprise to save the planet.

They even try to justify introducing three-weekly garbage collections — to the delight of local foxes and rodents — on the questionable grounds that people are more likely to recycle if their bins are emptied less often. One council in Wales now collects only once a month!

Sententious councils bully householders over minor infractions. Bin men are expected to write reports on thousands of families for rubbish and recycling 'offences', and have been instructed by officials to rifle through domestic garbage and record where recycling is 'contaminated' with food or other waste.

And yet when our backs are turned after our mostly heroic efforts, many of these same councils, which demand such high standards from us, furtively slink off and put a match to the rubbish we have painstakingly sorted.

Feel-good, useless gestures are annoying precisely because the originators of such gestures know full well the futility of their schemes, but their hapless victims don’t, so they waste their time, thinking that they’re saving the world when in effect they’re doing nothing. Picture the latest craze, banning plastic straws, which serves only as an annoyance while accomplishing precisely nothing.

Baa humbug.