Recycle Smarter Than A Third Grader!

Daniel K. Benjamin,

Release Date
April 8, 2014



Reduce! Reuse! Recycle! All right? Maybe — maybe not, says scholar Daniel K. Benjamin. Making an unused tissue out of a used one wastes resources and hardly benefits the environment. Melting and casting aluminum cans, though, both saves resources and benefits the environment. But you don’t need to exhort the aluminum company to save those resources: saving scraps is in its own interest. So why does it take a lesson from your third-grade teacher to get you to recycle household waste?

For more insightful work by Daniel K. Benjamin, check out his page on the Property and Environmentalism Research Center’s website

Learn Liberty has more videos that will make you rethink conventional environmentalism too. Check out,
Can One Person Save an Endangered Species? See for Yourself
Save Our Parks! How to Keep National Parks Open During a Government Shutdown

1. Recycling Myths Revisited (book) The myths about recycling are abound, says Daniel K. Benjamin. The truths? Landfills aren’t running out of space, packaging more conserves more resources, and more.
2. The Economics of Waste Management (podcast) Benjamin discusses the informal business of recycling in the developing world and the advantages of landfills with radio host John Batchelor.
3. The informal recycling sector in developing countries (article) The occupation of waste picking conserves resources and reduces poverty in the developing world, argues Martin Medina.
4. Recycling Myths: PM Debunks 5 Half Truths about Recycling (article) Popular Mechanics purports to debunk five half-myths. While most plastic in recycling bins does currently end up in the trash, for example, this trend is changing due to emerging technologies.

For more insightful work by Daniel K. Benjamin, check out his page on the Property and Environmentalism Research Center’s website

Daniel K. Benjamin: I’ve got a Kleenex in my hand — which is now a used Kleenex — and I’ve got to decide: should I put it in the trash, or should I recycle it? I’m going to put it in the trash. I’ve also got an aluminum beverage can here — which is now an empty aluminum beverage can — and again I’ve got the same choice: into the trash, or into the recycle bin? I’m gonna recycle it.
My name’s Dan Benjamin and I’ve been studying recycling since the 1980s, both as a college professor and as a senior fellow at PERC, in Bozeman, Montana. So why did I make the choice that I made with that piece of paper? If I had thrown it into the recycle bin, turning that piece of paper into new paper would have used up an enormous amount of resources and would have conferred very little environmental benefits. Hence, because I like to protect the environment and conserve resources, I put it in the trash.
With the can, on the other hand, by recycling it, when that can gets turned into a fresh new aluminum can, 95 percent of the energy used to make aluminum cans will have been saved, and as a result of that, I will have protected the environment and conserved resources. So, for me, the choice was easy: recycle that can.
Now you’ve probably always been told: recycling always conserves resources, that it always protects the environment. Which probably started with your third-grade teacher, is generally wrong.
Now, it is true that with large-scale industrial processes — for example, making frozen pizza or making aluminum cans — the firms recycle all the scraps that happen along the way of the production process. The pizza company takes the scrap dough, puts it back in the next mix, the aluminum company takes the scrap, puts it back into the next batch of aluminum. It conserves resources to do this, and it protects the environment.
It’s even true that for large household items such as refrigerators, stoves, microwaves, dishwashers, there’s enough recoverable material in there so that it conserves resources and protects the environment to recycle those items.
But what applies to refrigerators doesn’t necessarily apply to ordinary household trash — the sort of stuff that I was tossing in these bins here. How can you decide what to recycle? Well, here’s an experiment — I’ve done it myself — you can try it. The night before your trash is due to be picked up, put some items out by the trash can with a sign on them that says “free.” Try it with a bag of aluminum cans, a bag of plastic bottles, a bag of glass, a bag of paper. You might even put out there a lamp that no longer works or a small appliance like a toaster oven that doesn’t work.
Then, the next morning, go out there and see what’s still out there in the alley. During the night, someone has come through the alley, and without any direction from you, they’ve figured out, they know that given current market conditions and where you’re located, what makes sense to recycle and what doesn’t.
Now, however this experiment works out in your community, I’ll ask you to do one thing: whatever you find out, be sure you pass it on to your third-grade teacher.
If you’d like to learn more, please click here. You can read my policy series called Recycling Myths Revisited. Now you’ll have a choice: either read the paper version or the electronic version. The advantage of reading the paper version is that it increases the demand for trees and so more trees will be planted. On the other hand, if you use the electronic version, then you won’t have to make the tough choice: should I put it in the trash, or should I recycle it?