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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

What is seen and what is unseen

“The great problem of recycling anything is that whatever it is that you’re after might be extremely dispersed. You can end up epending more energy, more labour, in trying to oncentrate it enough to recycle it than you would expend by simply digging up some new stuff.”

Tim Worstall on the issue of recycling rare metals. The point he makes very well, in my view, is the issue about the scarcity of time. It takes oodles of time for people, even in their own households, to recycle stuff and sort it out, as opposed to acquiring material elsewhere. Now, if the value of the recycled stuff rises sufficiently to make it worth the while of people to recycle it, or the availability of dumping grounds for unwanted stuff declines sharply, the of course recycling will increase.

Everything has a cost. And time is one of the costs that legislators frequently don’t stop to address.

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13 comments to What is seen and what is unseen

  • Dom

    Another point — and I think it’s a very “Worstallian” point, but one he didn’t make — is that conservation of materials is often done better by inventions in totally unrelated areas. For example, the invention of e-mail certainly saved more paper that recycling.

    It’s an odd phenomenon, but one that I see often — we conserve materials by inventions that increase the benefits that utilize the materials (that could probably be said better). In this case, an invention that increased the communication that was once handled by paper — email — has saved paper. This is why government attempt to conserve almost always miss the mark.

  • phwest

    Newspaper recycling used to be a fairly useful fund-raising tool for churchs in my area. Growing up, I used to help my dad bundle our papers, which we would then drop of at church on Sunday morning. This was a very efficient collection system – everyone who dropped off papers was going to church anyway, so other than the truck that hauled the container back there were no additional resources expended to bring the paper back for recycling. And the church made some money on the deal.

    This all went by the boards with community recycling, so now a special truck with 2 workers drives all over town during the week collecting everything. It is then taken to a center to be sorted. And then the paper is sent off to be recycled. So more resources are expended in collecting the paper, and predictably an activity that used to generate a modest amount of revenue in the community has now become a pure cost center.

  • Paul Marks

    It is very simple.

    If recycling made economic sense – people would pay you for your stuff.

  • The comments at the Guardian article at a hoot. This one is wrong in just about every way imaginable. How do people get to be so wrong about *everything*?

  • “if the value of the recycled stuff rises sufficiently” … When I was a child glass bottles were redeemable for 2 cents and 5 cents depending on size. I could buy a goodly amount of candy for 2 cents and so I would return discarded bottles for the reward. There was no discarded bottle trash.

  • Sigivald

    I say just landfill all of it, except for the stuff with a very, very low marginal cost to re-use*.

    Then, if it’s valuable in the Future Of Horrible Resource Scarcity that they keep trying to tell me is inevitable… our descendants will know where to mine it up.

    (* And even then, not “Because recycling!”, but because landfill space isn’t free!)

  • Laird

    Jim, those deposits you and I happily collected as children weren’t paid because the glass was worth that much; they were paid because the purchasers of the beverages advanced the money (hence, a “deposit”) at the time of purchase, which was merely being refunded to whoever returned the empty bottle. The bottles could then be cleaned and reused because that was cheaper than buying new ones, but the 2 cent deposit cost the bottlers nothing: it was borne solely by the consumers. It was a market solution, which is why it worked. When aluminum cans became cheaper than glass bottles the utility of the system disappeared and so did the bottles. Now some states are mandating deposits on cans (and bottles), but that’s merely an attempt to force uneconomic recycling on the public (and to keep trash of the streets).

    I agree with Sigivald.

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    I read this comment by someone years ago, which would be an answer to all rare-earth dilemmas. It might have been in an Asimov short story. He pointed out that there are lots of dissolved minerals in the oceans of the world, gold atoms and molecules amongst them. Salt is the major molecule but all of the elements are present in smaller amounts.
    If you had a good filtering system, you might be able to just ‘mine’ the oceans for all those rare, expensive minerals. If your mine could be run just using electricity, you could set up solar cells on the ocean, and sieve it for all you wanted! You should be able to sell gold and silver and platinum, and other ores, straight into the waiting ships parked next to your factory-ship.
    Scarcity? What scarcity?

  • Marty

    Were it not for all the government interventions that distort prices, one could simply ask if a given recycling program pays for itself… because the costs and sales would reflect society’s best valuation of everything that goes into it, including the value of the time of the people involved. If it pays for itself, barring regulatory hurdles someone will do it—if it requires a subsidy, some portion of the expense is dead loss.

  • Laird

    My town has just started a recycling program. It’s voluntary (which I like), and they’re charging a one-time $25 “registration fee” to participate and get the required bin. Their claim is that they have to pay $16 per ton to the landfill to dispose of trash, but the recycling company pays them $10 per ton for (mixed) recyclables. If those numbers are accurate the program might actually make some economic sense; it will depend upon how many extra trucks and crews they have to run versus the quantity collected. It will be interesting to see the actual results.

  • Ironside

    I suppose there comes a tipping point in that if you are company which has enough “boots on the ground” (infrastucture) already then, perhaps, it becomes an interesting and ultimately profitable course to pursue, such as vacuuming London streets for precious metals as featured in the Sunday Times a few days ago (This link is ad verbatum and as you know the Times is £); http://www.indiavision.com/news/article/international/232959/london-streets-paved-with-precious-metals-like-platinum/

    I don’t see any negatives to this and I recall seeing similar ideas mentioned maybe as long as 10 years ago. For me this has nothing but positives in it such as job creation, recycling/envornmentalism/maximizing resources etc. Unless of course, I’m missing your point?

  • Paul Marks has the right idea.
    The modern-day descendants of rag-and-bone men still tour the retail parks and industrial estates looking for steel and copper; where I work we get up to four vans a day coming round, the price of these metals presumably making it worth their while.
    when rare earth metals become rare enough that collecting old electrical equipment becomes worth the while, I imagine they will start collecting old computers too. Until then we have to pay somebody to take it away, to comply with regulation.

  • Paul Marks has the right idea.
    The modern-day descendants of rag-and-bone men still tour the retail parks and industrial estates looking for steel and copper; where I work we get up to four vans a day coming round, the price of these metals presumably making it worth their while.
    when rare earth metals become rare enough that collecting old electrical equipment becomes worth the while, I imagine they will start collecting old computers too. Until then we have to pay somebody to take it away, to comply with regulation.