Crosses, Stars, Moons, and Green Street-Side Bins

What do these four symbols have in common? Well, to start with they all cost resources, that is, they are not free. Why in the heck then do practitioners waste their money on them? Why do churches have steeples, and synagogues wonderfully ornate glass windows, and mosques, exquisite wool carpets? Surely the money spent on these trappings could have been used to do missionary work, feed the poor, or heal the sick. What is going on?

For some time, economists have understood that wasting money could pay big dividends, if the money was wasted carefully (see herehere, and here). Ornate signs, symbols, or Super Bowl ads, more than drawing attention, signal commitment. When money is spent on trappings, it will only return if the seller delivers as promised.

So, Christians wear crosses, perhaps for adornment, but also to signal to others that they believe in certain things and might be expected to act in certain ways. Some Jewish merchants close for Sabbath, even while it might appear to cost them money, presumably it pays more in loyalty and customer satisfaction by the symbol of their commitment.

The time that Muslims spend praying each day precludes a lot of production. Yet it remains valuable to them for many reasons, one of which might be external signaling to friends and colleagues of their religious and personal beliefs.

The modern environmental movement is hardly different. People desire to commit to a way of life, to signal their preferences, their values, their beliefs, and they also seek to enlist converts in their cause. Hence, symbols that are otherwise a waste of time and resources, come to play.

As Dan Benjamin at PERC, and others, have noted, a lot of recycling is (directly) wasteful and does not help the environment. Yet recycling remains a mantra of the movement. I offer that it is symbol of commitment, a willingness to waste, that bonds the recycler to a course of action, begs others to join, and creates a sense of community within the movement.

So here’s my prediction. The more people learn from Dan that recycling is wasteful, the more they will recycle. If recycling paid for itself, then it would not serve as a symbol and commitment of heart and soul to the cause. Recycling is good by virtue of the fact that it wastes, and the more that people learn this, the more they will do it. If crosses could heal or feed the masses, churches wouldn’t put them on the top of steeples. Their uselessness is their virtue, their symbol, their commitment.

While I agree with Dan that most street side recyling is an economic waste and environmentally unwise, the green street side recyling bin is a valuable important social sign precisely because it proves a willingness to waste. It says to the person pedaling by, “I am a believer.” The environmental movement would be less without it; that’s why I leave mine on the street for a couple days after the truck comes by and doesn’t empty it (cause it already is).

Bobby McCormick is a senior fellow at PERC and professor emeritus of economics at Clemson University.


  1. i’m not so sure about the analogy between advertising one’s greenness and one’s religiousness, as there seem to be critical differences in how they are qualified and measured.

    specifically, the obvious goal of recycling – to reduce the wasting of resources – can be measured and reported on. if the net result were widely understood to undermine that goal, then participation would no longer be just an expensive symbolic gesture, but would show open defiance of the values that define the community.

    in contrast, the primary goal of advertising religiousness is just that, a public display for the purpose of influencing others (i.e. showing commitment to a belief system for the benefit of one’s god, self or peers). the distinction is that no separate and measurable outcome can be meaningfully compared to either the costs or the intended outcome.

    anyway, my main point is that in the case of your recycling bin, there is an observable goal that drives the behavior endorsed by the advertisement. if analysis indicates that recycling is wasteful, ignoring that result would seem more like a damaging hypocrisy than a benign social extravagance.

  2. Matt, i take your point, but i think it is wrong.

    once people learn that recycling is wasteful, they will better understand that it is a signal of commitment. Recycling that is efficient and productive is NOT a signal or commitment of dedication; it is simply the right thing to do.

    Only when recycling is wasteful can it be part of a sign or commitment to a cause. Like a logo which is costly but directly unproductive, recycling makes sense for those who want to rally others to their cause, but that only works if it is wasteful. in that sense, recycling carries the same benefit that sorority sisters get when they try to raise money for charity by rocking in chairs, non-stop for days at a time. it is the lack of productivity that signals.

    maybe i am wrong, that recycling is and always was about saving resources, but i think that part of the reason that people do it is because they think it shows concern for the environment, not because it makes the environment better.

  3. fair enough. although, i dont imagine that a community with the wolf, prius and local produce (to name a few) really needs any more expensive symbols.


  1. […] behavior. And there is a rich and full academic literature in economics that speaks on the topic of commitment via waste, the Prius being just one recent example of that principle in practice. The idea is simple. You and […]