Thursday, April 19, 2012

Santiago Recycling

I have expressed my views on recycling in the past, here for written, here for a podcast.

Nonetheless, we are avid recyclers chez Maison de Mungowitz, I was interested in how (if?) Chileans do it. The reason that question is interesting has to do with basic economics: if recycling saves money and resources, then the first people to recycle would be relatively poor. Poor people can't afford to throw valuable stuff away, right? Whereas rich folks can afford to be profligate. So if recycling saves money, you would expect poor countries to recycle first, and most, yes?

I could not immediately find a source on this, but here is what I did find. First, here are the "top 7 countries" according to the BBC:
On the other hand, Korea apparently recycles 50%, and Japan 40%, with more than 80% of glass being recycled in those countries. Not sure why they didn't make the list, unless they didn't fill out the proper forms to get apparatchiks at BBC to let them into the club.

Lowest recycling rates: Yemen. Pakistan. Basically all of Africa, outside of South Africa, which has a rate of 18%, and climbing.

Now, my mental regression line calculator is flawed, but I'm pretty sure that these rates do NOT indicate that poor countries recycle first, and more. To the contrary, rich countries recycle first. That means, friends, that recycling emphatically does NOT save money. Instead, recycling lets rich people feel good about themselves, and perhaps does some good for the environment, as a public good reducing pollution and use of landfill space. BUT. IT. DOES. NOT. SAVE. MONEY. (Hey, kids, it might be fun to collect the data and do an actual analysis of the relation between recycling rates and wealth! You could even do it just for US states, or cities!) (UPDATE: A commenter notes I naively reversed the causal arrow. Recycling CAUSES economic development. +1, commenter!)

Anyway, Chile (recycling rate 2%, with a goal of 10%) has a program (here is rather sad web site) for recycling. I'm not making this up. You have to drive (!) to the sites, and wait in line, with your car motor running (see line of cars, at least 200 meters long, out into street, at top left):

Here is a woman, with a baby. I watched. She waited in line, more than five minutes, car motor running, for a spot. She got out, put baby in pack. Went to trunk, got out TWO CARDBOARD BOXES, and put them into containter:

And then when one of the vats is full they pull it out:

And then they put all this valuable material on a truck:

So...why? If recycling does not save money, or resources, and in fact is a big net waste of resources....why?

It is worship, of the secular god Gaia, the Earth Mother. Like any sacrifice, it should be costly. It MUST be costly, in fact, to count as a sacrifice. That's not a recycling facility, it's a church. Once you understand that, it all makes sense.

I just someone would explain it to ME.


Anonymous said...

Granger causality test? Clearly, recycling makes countries rich.

Mungowitz said...

I had NOT thought of that. Recycling is the sure-fire path to development. I stand corrected, Anon. well played

Darren O'Connor said...

At the individual level, it's clear that people who go to that much trouble to recycle are doing for purely emotional reasons. However, is it possible that the cost of recycling is made artificially high compared to not recycling due to government subsidizing waste removal/disposal? In other words, in a purely free market where we all had to pay the full cost of waste disposal, including potentially much higher prices for land on which to place landfills (since property owners would not be constrained by eminent domain), is it possible that recycling actually WOULD save money and thus represent an actual better use of resources?

Natalie said...

I'd wager that not only are their recycling rates the lowest, but that their rubbish removal rates of any kind are also the lowest. If there is no infrastructure to remove trash of any kind, why separate out recycling for scrutiny.

zimaroll said...

Warning, long-winded comment ensues...
my apologies
1) I think the BBC and others are defining "recycle" too narrowly. I'd wager that poor countries are fer sher doing way more recycling than developed countries. I once had an Indian colleague who told me he thought our notions of recycling were funny, because in India they reuse everything. He told me they actually have micro-entrepeneurs come to your house to pick up worn out pots and pans, batteries, clothing. These were refurbished. Look at Cuba where the 1950s autos are kept running on baling wire and chewing gum. That's recycling!
2) Based on 1. above, the best philosophy is "reduce, reuse, recycle" where recycle comes last. Poor countries have us beat when it comes to "reuse."
3) I'm a leftie bedwetter, but your excellent points about glass convinced me long ago that recycling glass is a net failure. I generally toss my dirty glass into the trash - I'm not going to waste two precious resources (water and my time) on cleaning glass to put into recycle bin.
4) Your colleague, down the hill in the LSRC, Dean Chameides of the Nicholas school, also blogs about environment. Based on point 3. above, YOU HAVE TO GET TOGETHER. You guys are peanutbutter and chocolate. Get together with a band-o-grad students and study recycling thru all points, from homeowner to middleman to recycling center. The economics ans science. Write a an important paper together. I dunno how political science is funded, but science has lots of yummy money. He'll get you funded! There's your summer stipend right there.

Anonymous said...

I know you write blog posts to kill brain cells, so:

"Poor people can't afford to throw valuable stuff away, right?"

If people received money for recyclables, like from a bottle deposit program, this makes sense. Indeed, in deposit states, one often sees people collecting discarded empties for return.

In a traditional curbside recycling program where one has the option to throw something in the regular trash can or in the recycling bin, please explain why poorer people should have incentives to choose the bin over the trash can.

Anshu said...

Depends how you define recycling. In many poor countries, there are whol communities of poor people who extract goods of any value from garbage dumps (or even curbside) to re-use or re-sell.

That kind of thing doesn't happen in rich countries (as far as I know, most dumps prohibit people from removing anything from them).

Ignacio said...

I agree with many of the comments about the poor recycling differently. The place you visited in Santiago is in the nicest part of the city and caters to wealthy Chileans who need to feel good about themselves.

Most recycling in Chile (and other poor countries, I presume) is done by "cartoneros" (carboard hoarders), who go through people's curbside trash, at night, before the trash collectors come. They collect cardboard, papers, glass, cans and other recycables, which they sell at the relevant companies.

If you go to some supermarkets in Chile, you will also find big bins where people drop their paper, cans and glass, which are collected by charities that later sell such items. In the law firm where I work, we have a bin for recycling paper, which is collected weekly by one of these charities.

G Wolf said...

The other commentators have it right. The Western notion of recycling doesn't exist in anything other than First World countries, so of course poorer countries won't be doing it.

My parents grew up in the communist Eastern Bloc, and when they came to this country they laughed at the idea of recycling. To them, it was just being practical and frugal. You didn't need the (local, state, or national) government telling you to do it, because it just made sense on its own, in order to conserve resources and save money.

I think that is where your attack should focus... the state subsidizes so many aspects of our lives, that our need and desire to conserve has all but disappeared, since we've become inured to the state cleaning up our messes and incentivizing our behavior. Therefore, we don't have that innate need to conserve, since we expect the state to just provide for us as we need something.

 altonzane said...

Recycling decreases air and water quality and decreases greenhouse gas pollutants which contribute to around the world.

rubbish removal

jack said...

If you go to some supermarkets in Chile, you will also find big bins where people drop their paper..