Recycling Is an Economic Activity, Not a Moral Imperative

Article excerpt

Recycling--the great moral crusade of the late 1990s--was something rather different in nineteenth-century Paris: "Here we have a man," wrote Baudelaire, "whose job it is to pick up the day's rubbish in the capital. He collects and catalogues everything the great city has cast off, everything it has lost, and discarded, and broken. He goes through the archives of debauchery, and the confused array of refuse. He makes a selection, an intelligent choice; like a miser hoarding treasure, he collects the garbage that will become objects of utility or pleasure when refurbished by Industrial magic."

The poet was describing the rag-pickers of Paris, whom the authorities of the day regarded with far less admiration than did Baudelaire. For France's municipal leaders, those thousands of small-scale recyclers were filthy pests, disorderly and unsanitary. The city prefect, Eugene Poubelle, cracked down on the junk-hunters, demanding that Parisians only put their garbage cans (or poubelles, as they were quickly nicknamed) outside their homes 15 minutes before collection. Over 30,000 rag-pickers rioted and Poubelle retreated an inch, permitting a limited trash trade in what we would call a flea market.

Across the Atlantic, Colonel George E. Waring became commissioner of street cleaning in New York, where many poor immigrants had also taken to salvaging junk for a living. Waring saw them as competitors. He also considered them a threat to public sanitation, which, if you think about it, contradicts the first objection. Waring's attitudes were typical of the nascent Progressive movement: He confused neatness with cleanliness, and coercion with order.

Today rag-picking still occurs in the Third World, and poor folks don't just scavenge for junk to resell but also for personal use. As in the First World a hundred years ago, the authorities regard them as a nuisance. The Bengali policy analyst Abu Sinha notes that Bangladeshi officials view informal recyclers as an "eyesore" and a hindrance to garbage collection. So most towns try to keep the rag-pickers away from the dumps, ignoring their contributions to the local economy.

In Hanoi, however, American observers estimated in 1993 that scavengers collected 250 of the 830 tons of refuse the city produced each day. Writing in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Murray Hiebert commented that "nearly everything of value is recycled in Hanoi," perhaps in part because up to then the government had not interfered with the waste-recycling network. Communist Vietnam's recycling policy is thus, at least in this way, more laissez-faire than anything that exists in the capitalist West.

Americans often forget that recycling is an economic activity, and insist on treating it instead as a moral imperative. The American ritual of separating trash into various categories of glass, paper, etc., would not survive without public coercion and private compulsions. Few regard it as an intrinsically useful activity--in large part because it often isn't. The dirty little secret unknown to Americans who conscientiously rinse out their bottles every evening is that much of the recyclable material they so fastidiously sort and store ends up getting dumped together and buried anyway after it leaves their curb. Lots of the items that are now illegal to throw away are uneconomic to recycle, and actually cost more to reuse-in money, energy, and time--than they would to landfill.

But when discerning agents (like rag-pickers) are allowed to make choices in what they take and what they leave, there are lots of good reasons to recycle. Scavengers foraging through junk heaps, separating the trash that no one else will, don't have the greater social good on their minds. They're mining materials for which there's a market, and they're making a living, albeit a dirty one.

Most people seem to think recycling began a few decades ago as a solution devised in Washington by environmental saints. …