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Reblogged:Practically Everyone is Wrong About Recycling

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Over at Medium is an post by Robert Wiblin with the promising title, "What You Think About Landfill and Recycling Is Probably Totally Wrong." He opens by noting that his "impression is that most people have an extremely inaccurate perception of the merits of recycling and throwing things away." Amen to that. Wiblin then proceeds to marshal a wide array of facts that any opponent of this practice should find useful, to reach conclusions that he regards as "the boring consensus view among people who are highly informed about waste disposal."

On that second score, I am afraid he is right: While he laudably questions the merits of this practice, neither he nor they get around to questioning the conventional rationales for recycling. He concludes:

We don't have to throw our time away... (Image by Javier Huedo, via Unsplash, license.)
  1. f I'm glad I used something, I don't feel at all bad just throwing it in the bin when I'm done with it;
  2. I would regard it as a poor use of the effort I put towards improving the world [for whom? -- ed] to work on increasing recycling or reducing plastic use in rich countries
  3. [C]onventional wisdom on how to deal with environmental issues is surprisingly unreliable.
That man is a rational animal is almost as cliched -- and unexamined -- as the "three R's" of reduce, reuse, recycle. That is a shame, because a major implication of man's nature is that man's survival is not automated by instincts geared towards a very limited range of conditions: He must think to survive, and a major part of that kind of thinking is changing the environment in order to live and flourish. This has significant implications for the interpretation of facts such as Wiblin assembles. As I put it in a piece about recycling shortly after China decided to change its requirements for importing recyclable waste:
[R]ecycling pre-dates China itself, and began the moment someone realized that it saved time, effort, and/or money to re-use an object or any of its raw materials... But around the 1970s, hippies changed the goal of recycling from benefiting human life to preserving the natural world. Lest you think I quibble, consider how that affects even a simple choice: Toss out a cheap soft drink bottle -- or wash it and send it off to a recycling plant, regardless of whether it is quicker or cheaper to make a new one.
Most people, including Wiblin, I would guess, do not look deeply at how incompatible the goals of preserving nature and human flourishing really are, or they would insist on far better reasons than a vague save the planet for the demands on their time that recycling is. Time is a factor Wiblin does not explicitly consider. (Hence my question, for whom. I want a clean and beautiful world as much as anyone else: That goal does not imply that it is wrong to alter it in any way.)

Freedom is another, related factor that Wiblin does not consider. It is worth noting that absent improper government encouragement (at our expense!) of this wasteful practice (and its past encouragement of other practices that have harmed our quality of life) -- and with proper enforcement of property rights -- we would probably already practice many of the alternatives to recycling that Wiblin mentions in his piece.

Wiblin's piece has value for showing how wasteful and unimaginative recycling is, but it does not go as far as it could. The common rationales for recycling are also wrong, and the resulting waste of our time and diminution of our freedom (however slight) when the government forces people into this wasteful practice are criminal.

-- CAV

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