Remarks delivered at a public hearing for the Sedgwick County solid waste management plan, April 24, 2008. Sedgwick County, Kansas, home to the City of Wichita, is considering a mandatory household recycling program. Or, perhaps people won’t be forced to recycle, but they will be required to pay for the cost burden that recycling places on communities.
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The economist Frederich Hayek tells us that the price system communicates all the information we need to know about the relative value of things. The price system allows people who don’t know each other to coordinate their activities in the most effective and efficient way possible. The price system is truly a miracle.
If you want to see what happens when the price system is not allowed to work, usually because a government attempts to manage prices, just look at the former Soviet Union and other planned economies. The economist Thomas Sowell relates this story:
The last premiere of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, is said to have asked British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher: How do you see to it that people get food? The answer was that she didn’t. Prices did that. And the British people were better fed than those in the Soviet Union, even though the British have never grown enough food to feed themselves in more than a century. Prices bring them food from other countries.
The price system can do its work only when free people trade with each other freely under a system where property rights are respected. Any attempt by governments to manage prices leads to inefficiencies that manifest themselves as shortages, waiting lines, surpluses, and black markets. The emergence of these problems lead to calls for even more government interventionism to fix the very problem the government caused by interfering with the price system. It can be a never-ending cycle.
How does this apply to recycling in Sedgwick County?
In some cases the price system tells us that recycling is a beneficial use of resources. About 75% of automobiles are recycled, and used cardboard is often recycled in commercial settings. That’s because the price paid for these recycled items is high enough that, in these contexts, recycling can be profitable. That’s the price system at work. It tells us that the best use of an old car is to recycle it, and the same goes for cardboard boxes at the grocery store.
A household setting is different. Households usually have to pay to engage in recycling. The prices that recyclers can get for these recycled goods doesn’t cover the cost of collecting them from households, as evidenced by the fact that in Wichita households must pay someone to pick up recyclables. That’s the price system at work again. Its sober assessment is that in the context of households, recycling is a waste of resources. That waste can be tremendous. Orange County, Florida, for example, spends roughly $3 million per year to collect recyclable goods from households, but sells them for only $56,000.
What about running out of landfill space? If landfill space were truly scarce, the price system would tell us so, because landfill operators — if there is a free market for landfills — could charge high prices for accepting trash. But evidently, they can’t.
So the price system tells us sometimes recycling is a good use of resources, and sometimes it isn’t.
A mandatory recycling program or one where people have to pay fees even if they don’t actually recycle their household goods amounts to the government attempting to override the price system. It is attempting to manage the price system through government interventionism. These policies, should Sedgwick County implement them, will cause citizens to suffer the same inefficiencies that all planned economies have demonstrated, if on a smaller scale.