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Waste Reduction

Why it might not be a good idea to reduce rubbish

Most people’s first impressions of campaigns to reduce waste and encourage greater recycling are positive. Most of us have been taught since a young age that waste is bad and the less of it we produce, the better. Many of us have heard the phrase “Waste not, want not” since childhood.

The “reduce reuse recycle” mantra is also motivated by what appears to be in the best interest of the society. These are causes that have a lot of support. The calls for the government to subsidise recycling programs and to ban certain forms of waste, like bags, are well received.

This aversion to waste has a problem: “all that glistens isn’t gold”. If we look at the issue of waste more closely, it becomes clear that there may be unintended consequences to reducing our waste generation.

First, it is important to understand that waste is not produced for its own sake. Waste is a by-product that comes from production and consumption. It makes people happier.

If we introduce policies to reduce waste and our use of resources, this will necessarily restrict production or consumption. People will be worse off if they don’t have those products.

Regulators that limit people’s options mean they can’t select the option they prefer. The “second-best” is what they have to accept. This reduces their well-being.

How much will this recycling reduce? GenBug/Flickr

Subsidizing waste recycling or reuse is likely to worsen the situation of people, as it requires scarce resources. To recycle glass containers, for example, it is necessary to collect old bottles from geographically distributed populations and clean or reform them. This process is finite in terms of energy and resources.

Local governments must pay subsidies to make certain recycling schemes viable. Regulations must be implemented to introduce container deposit schemes. The cost of recycling is higher than using virgin materials. Recycling schemes would have been implemented voluntarily if they were less expensive.

A good example is the ban on plastic bags at supermarket checkouts. Fabric shopping bags are sold in abundance after bans. Are these bags made from more or less scarce resources than plastic bags? They are more expensive, based on their relative price.

Supermarkets use plastic bags because they’re cheap and convenient. They are not trying to create waste! Because plastic bags can’t be recycled as bin liners or other similar items, they are being sold more for these specific uses. In developing countries, plastic bag bans have even deprived recyclers of their livelihood.

The goal of reducing the use of scarce resources may not be reached. The result can be simply a shift in demand away from the resource that is being targeted by waste-restricting “rules”.

Unsound waste management policies can lead to the dumping of rubbish. State Records NSW

The savings from waste policies, such as recycling or subsidies, will likely come in the future.

There are many uncertainties when it comes to the development of substitutes. Will the resources saved be used? The development of substitutes and technological advances may make the resources that are being saved today less valuable in the future.

Paper saved through recycling schemes may no longer be so in demand, for example, as electronic communication devices become more common. This would reduce the pressure on future generations to cut down trees for paper. Recycling may not yield as much benefit in the future.

The society faces a dilemma in managing solid wastes. In an ideal world, the people who produce waste would be responsible for all costs associated with treating and disposing their garbage. People will not be as careful if disposing of their waste is free.

Prices for landfills must reflect all costs associated with their operation. The landfill operator must compensate the local residents for any loss of environmental amenities.

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Jane S. King

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