Resources Versus Refuse in Recycling

Almost every state has a policy to discourage dumping trash, or waste, into the landfill. Reducing waste makes sense and saves resources. But is it logical to reduce the amount of waste put into the landfill when the alternative comes at a higher cost? Some policies encourage exactly that.

Waste is something that is low in value and costly to reuse. A resource, on the other hand, is an item that provides value for use where the costs of reusing the item are less than the value added from its use. Reusing, or recycling, resources makes sense and is a choice that markets help us make. People are willing to pay for a resource which signals to the owner that there is a value for it.

It is a widely held belief that we are running out of landfill space and, hence, should reduce the amount of garbage we dump. As shown by the chart above, the number of landfills has declined over the past two decades. Landfill capacity, however, has increased. According to the EPA, the number of years of remaining available landfill space has increased from about 9.5 years in 1990 to 20 years today. Landfill dumping fees (tipping fees shown on the graph) also demonstrate there is no lack of landfill space available. Tipping fees rose in the late 1980s and early 1990s in response to increased EPA regulations but have declined slightly since.

Recycling resources makes sense. Recycling garbage is a waste of resources.

Originally posted at Environmental Trends


  1. hoosiermuse says:

    Hi, Holly,

    Thanks for your provocative blogpost. Have you written more extensively on this topic elsewhere? I would enjoy reading it. This piece seems very brief for such an important issue.

    I understand that this analysis is strictly a cost comparison, one that might help city managers in today’s budget pinches. But I think it’s worth discussing the moral, ecological and future economic value of recycling waste even if it does cost more for a few years. You indicated that the U.S. may have 20 years of available landfill space, up from 9.5. To be honest, that figure freaks me out. How can we be in a position of running out of room in one generation and expect the market to suddenly innovate a solution? I’m also concerned about our educational priorities on this issue: Shouldn’t we start training those who will inherit the waste problem? Maybe our current cost savings through landfilling could support their education.

    The other day I was reminded of Paul Hawken’s advocacy for closed-loop manufacturing, if indeed that’s what you call an economy with zero waste. I walked into Best Buy to examine a possible camera purchase and marveled at the current electronics craze, so many people poking this and that, and absolutely certain that they needed it. Yet I was also saddened by the one-sidedness of the store; there was little or no sign that it cared about its waste stream (e.g., precious metals, plastics, paper packaging). What if such companies advanced a system to recycle smart phones and laptops and iPods instead of indirectly encouraging their customers to landfill their products every season? Imagine the jobs that could be produced, especially the engineers in every direction, let alone the waste reduction and the landscapes spared from clearcuts and mining.

    Can you recommend any companies, schools or free-market environmentalists doing this kind of work? At present, I have only Paul Hawken’s books on my shelves. Thank you.

    Jeff Muse


  1. […] to believing that there is a garbage problem. “We have too much garbage,” they claim. In a reply to a previous blog I was queried, “Shouldn’t we start training those who will inherit the waste […]