Recycle Smarter than a Third Grader! | Learn Liberty
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Recycle Smarter than a Third Grader! | Learn Liberty

November 20, 2019


I’ve got a Kleenex in my hand, which is now
a used Kleenex and I’ve got to decide: should I put it in the trash, or should I recycle
it? I’m going to put it in the trash. I’ve also got an aluminum beverage can here which
is now an empty aluminum beverage can and again I’ve got the same choice: into the trash,
or into the recycle bin? I’m gonna recycle it. My name’s Dan Benjamin and I’ve been studying
recycling since the 1980s, both as a college professor and as a senior fellow at PERC,
in Bozeman, Montana. So why did I make the choice that I made with that piece of paper?
If I had thrown it into the recycle bin, turning that piece of paper into new paper would have
used up an enormous amount of resources and would have conferred very little environmental
benefits. Hence, because I like to protect the environment and conserve resources, I
put it in the trash. With the can, on the other hand, by recycling
it, when that can gets turned into a fresh new aluminum can, 95 percent of the energy
used to make aluminum cans will have been saved, and as a result of that, I will have
protected the environment and conserved resources. So, for me, the choice was easy: recycle that
can. Now you’ve probably always been told: recycling
always conserves resources, that it always protects the environment. Which probably started
with your third-grade teacher, is generally wrong. Now, it is true that with large-scale industrial
processes for example, making frozen pizza or making aluminum cans the firms recycle
all the scraps that happen along the way of the production process. The pizza company
takes the scrap dough, puts it back in the next mix, the aluminum company takes the scrap,
puts it back into the next batch of aluminum. It conserves resources to do this, and it
protects the environment. It’s even true that for large household items
such as refrigerators, stoves, microwaves, dishwashers, there’s enough recoverable material
in there so that it conserves resources and protects the environment to recycle those
items. But what applies to refrigerators doesn’t
necessarily apply to ordinary household trash the sort of stuff that I was tossing in these
bins here. How can you decide what to recycle? Well, here’s an experiment I’ve done it myself
you can try it. The night before your trash is due to be picked up, put some items out
by the trash can with a sign on them that says “free.” Try it with a bag of aluminum
cans, a bag of plastic bottles, a bag of glass, a bag of paper. You might even put out there
a lamp that no longer works or a small appliance like a toaster oven that doesn’t work. Then, the next morning, go out there and see
what’s still out there in the alley. During the night, someone has come through the alley,
and without any direction from you, they’ve figured out, they know that given current
market conditions and where you’re located, what makes sense to recycle and what doesn’t. Now, however this experiment works out in
your community, I’ll ask you to do one thing: whatever you find out, be sure you pass it
on to your third-grade teacher. If you’d like to learn more, please click
here. You can read my policy series called Recycling Myths Revisited. Now you’ll have
a choice: either read the paper version or the electronic version. The advantage of reading
the paper version is that it increases the demand for trees and so more trees will be
planted. On the other hand, if you use the electronic version, then you won’t have to
make the tough choice: should I put it in the trash, or should I recycle it?

Only registered users can comment.

  1. Thanks! I thought the paper recycling process wasn't very environmentally friendly. Glad to have some validation on my decision. Also worth looking at is the Cradle to Cradle design concept and book with advocates that products are designed to be disassembled for even easier recycling. Cradle to Cradle also makes a distinction between recycling, down-cycling, and up-cycling. Cheers!

  2. Let the market handle garbage then we will know if it would be best to recycle it or something else ūüôā

  3. The older I get, the more I realize one important idea: as a general rule, if the environmentalist's agenda isn't economically feasible by free market standards, it isn't really better for the ecosystem.  Innovation, free trade and the rule of law are by far the best things we can pursue to achieve the environmentalist's goal of a greener planet.

    Generous government subsidies and arbitrary regulations to one point or another, more often than not, does more harm than good.

  4. People need to think of recycling in a larger scale. Paper being an organic compound will decompose naturally in a relatively small ammount of time and release resources to nature, so any effort you put in relycling it is wasted energy.

  5. I think the smarter idea is to keep the aluminum can, then on trash day dig through your neighbors recycle bins, crush them, then sell them for 20 cents a pound.

  6. More videos in this format please (like the early videos of this channel), the information itself is already extremely interesting, in an age where people like me who has an attention span of 35-70 seconds, we don't need acting, pretend dialogues / scenarios / popular culture reference, more content, less polishing, thanks!

  7. I'd be more incline to recycle if America wasn't provoking WWIII all the time. With the Fed debasing currency and the majority of the dollars held overseas ready to be dumped, I'm more worried about hyperinflation than helping the environment one can at a time.

  8. Do you want to know what really pisses me off?? ——the fact that I have to PAY THE CITY to pick up my recyclables!!!

  9. I've always threw tissues in the trash while recycling things like junk mail because I thought it would be disgusting to recycle boogers.

  10. Can we compress factory emissions into an inert solid or into a small tank for storage and/or slow release back into the air?

    If so, how much of air pollution could be burned as a very simple fuel?

  11. It's refreshing to see a libertarian talk about environmentalism without sounding like a liberal's caricature.
    This guy comes off as entirely pragmatic.

  12. i worked in a recycling place and I sorted thru trash for copper, aluminum, metal and the rest was sold for burning. that creates jobs and it is better for the planet. (people will be more likely to do this if we separate trash

  13. I believe it was Penn and Teller's show BS that found aluminum to be one of a few, if not the only thing economically-worth recycling. I think the reason people still promote recycling despite the environmental and economical discourages it creates are based on two reasons:

    1. People FEEL better by recycling, and because they don't see the wastes created by recycling they choose to keep ignorantly promoting recycling anyway.

    2. They are some how gaining some monetary benefits by keeping recycling a thing, and so even if it were wasteful and environmentally harmful…would hypocritically promote it for the sake of their own¬†economical gains and nothing else.

  14. The price system does a great job of helping me decide. If somebody will pay me for it, I recycle it. If not, it goes in the trash where it belongs.
    This video reminds me of a hilarious headline in our local newspaper a few years ago. It read, "Mayor Says Recycling Pays." Then the story explained that after income and expenses were tabulated, it had cost the city $60,000 to run its recycling facility for the past year.

  15. Prof. Benjamin, your intro micro class in 1997 positively changed the direction of my life and in no small part is why I'm a subscriber to Learn Liberty today. Thanks for this video. It was a rare joy to see you here.

  16. Its not 95% of the energy saved for cans.  The energy required to melt the cans is roughly a twentieth of the energy required to extract the metal from ore, but this isn't the only energy used.  And figuring out how much is really saved or lost is an incredibly complex task.

  17. A tissue is a bad example.  Here in San Francisco, they are supposed to be put in the compost bin.  A book or a cardboard box would be better examples.
    There are a bunch of guys with pickups and trucks going around the city picking up cardboard and recycling it.  These are independent operators who pick up mainly from stores and bring it to paper recyclers.  If you had a load of paper they'd be happy to take that.
    So clearly, around here, paper products can be recycled profitably.

  18. Though there is an obvious line of speculation to follow, I'm curious as to the professor's opinion:

    When I was young (child of the 80's), the popular slogan was 'Reduce, Reuse, Recycle' Рin that order.  Implying that the green hierarchy was, imho quite sensibly, topped by the concept of 'if you don't need it, don't use it.  If you do need it, use what you can from what you've already got.  Then, and only then, evaluate what is waste and recycle what you can of it.'

    Now, it's 'Recycle, reduce, reuse.'  At least, that's the only jingle I hear coming from current PSAs aimed at children.

    So, professor Benjamin (or, anyone else with actual knowledge on the issue), is it, in your opinion, reasonable to suppose that recycling has become a lobbyist issue, as opposed to a step in regreening our society?

  19. It seems easy to me to decide what is recyclable. If a company can make a profit without subsidies by recycling something then it is environmentally responsible to recycle that thing. The surest measure of how much resources go into making something is the actual monetary cost of making it. So if it is cheaper or about the same cost to recycle aluminum to make a can than it is to mine it then recycling is the way to go.

  20. Excellent. I've long been cognisant that much of the recycling mania was baloney, but have been unaware as to where the dividing line was as to what is truly worth recycling, and what is not. I am going to be reading that book.

  21. This video is a dangerous over-simplification, and the experiment is a boondoggle. Put some iron ore, raw petroleum, and mature, fully rooted trees next to that trash pile and see if any of those are taken. I fully agree, and have witnessed first-hand, that recycling is largely misunderstood, but you can't judge it's merits based on a skewed micro-economy (even a micro-economy the size of the US. China gladly buys our 'trash' and recycles it into products it sells right back to us.)

  22. Why am  I as end consumer suppose to recycle and not the maker of the product ?
    how about using re-useable's , like milk glass bottles instead of the plactic, gets rid of the recycling all together !!

  23. One thing I wonder about is centralized composting–is there a real energy/environmental impact savings to be had there over just transporting the waste to a land fill? Does anybody have any good sources I can look into?

  24. It has already been said, but just to make sure it's seen:
    Learn Liberty, please make more of these videos, there is something of a gap before this one with more short story type stuff, but this type of content is your best.

  25. I just don't worry about it. I figure if it gets into the trash I'm doing good. I don't have time or interest to recycle and you don't get much for cans at the recycling center. I live in America so I'll never have to worry about food or resource shortages anyway.  

  26. An odder experiment, instead of a sign that says free, put a sign out that says $10. I bet you will find more stuff is taken overnight.

  27. i think recycling everything is good for places like japan where the people themselves sort their trash carefully thus no excess energy, workers and resource laid waste. i wish my country adopt such a plan, but alas we are not socially and environmentally minded people.

  28. The Cops showed up when i did this. Because garbage and "free stuff" signs attracted a gypsyish family who settled in my driveway. Thanks learn liberty.

  29. Surely the words, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle are a step by step method and not a choice method?
    First reduce the amount of stuff you buy, if not then Reuse the stuff you buy, and finally if all fails, recycle it ūüôā

  30. If curbside consumer recycling saved any resources, the city would pay me for my trash. Obvious, the cost of processing and transporting this stuff far outweighs the value of the material, even for aluminum. Only government cronies benefit. They get taxpayer dollars to do all this.

  31. 2:51 Appeal to popularity fallacy.
    Anyways I shouldn't focus on pointing out fallacies, I disagree on you. Collectively it is always better to recycle because when we throw out all our waste into the ocean, that's cheap and easy, but irreversible. Scientists have discovered that ALL around the world there are microscopic plastic particles that will take decades to break down. This means that our oceans are becoming trash, literally. Recycling can often times be expensive but they save raw materials, and less goes to the oceans and landfills. A recycling process may use more energy but that don't blame the energy, blame the energy source. An expensive but eco-friendly solution is to recycle everything (saving the marine ecosystem and raw materials), and derive recycling energy from the sun and wind.

  32. My question is, does recycling household paper reduce the number of trees cut down? What I am wondering is that for the average Joe who is concerned about deforestation, what other easy options are there for reducing deforestation? For instance, while giving to charity is not economically efficient, it is done by a person for the moral benefit. To me, this seems like the reason that people recycle most household waste. Not because it is economically efficient for society, but because it is a way for them to impact deforestation or reduce landfills… I am just wondering what easy actions may serve that same purpose?

  33. Like most things, recycling has trade-offs. It's not surprising that some things are better recycled than others, once you think about it. But of course, you have to actually think about it.

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