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Recycling to save the planet: another great environmental hoax

By Brendan O'Reilly - posted Thursday, 12 September 2019

Garbage by definition has negative value. You pay to get it taken away. Recycling can sometimes salvage value, and recycling that passes the cost-benefit test deserves support. That is, when the value of the salvaged product (as well as any landfill or environmental costs saved) exceeds the cost of the recycling process itself, recycling efforts can be deemed worthwhile. The problem is that most current recycling is merely wasteful virtue-signalling, that is overwhelmingly uneconomic.

As currently practiced, recycling is largely driven by government regulations, charges, and subsidies, that greatly distort the market. Spurred on by green activists, governments have progressively expanded recycling to the point that it has now become a costly end-in-itself.

Most of our well-meaning public mistakenly have gone along with this. Research commissioned by Planet Ark for National Recycling Week found more than 90 per cent of Australians believe recycling is the right thing to do and 59 per cent have a high level of trust in kerbside recycling.


Historic practice for dealing with rubbish was one of simple removal and disposal (usually to landfill). This was cheap, and ease of disposal helped avoid littering. Land reclamation was a fringe benefit in some cases.

About 20 years ago, governments began forcing their citizenry to spend ever more time and resources separating, recycling or reusing many kinds of garbage. Garbage collection services have become subject to more-and-more complexity and regulation, and accessing landfill has been made increasingly expensive. The costs of recycling now far exceed what is possible to recover in salvageable material of any worth.

Some years ago the Productivity Commission assessed that the costs of recycling schemes far outweighed their benefits. Its report was largely ignored and forgotten.

Recycling had some chance of being viable in large urban centres, where quantity kept costs down. For several decades, however, small rural councils regularly complained about being forced by state governments to offer shire residents recycling options, that (due to their small scale and high dispatch costs to far-away processors) had no hope of viability (ever). Similar problems affect places like the Northern Territory, where recycled material is often trucked thousands of kilometres out of the Territory because of a lack of local recycling factories.

The recycling process has recently hit a wall.

Asia has shut the door on Australian exports of trash, especially plastics, while the domestic market is awash with unwanted salvaged glass, plastics and waste paper. (Australia sent 4.3 million tonnes of waste overseas last year.) Most recycled materials now have no commercial value, often partly because the waste is contaminated (e.g. by food or labels) and because imports (e.g. of manufactured glass containers) are cheap. Recycled metals and some cardboard are the main exceptions, and still have a positive value to potential re-users.


Because most recovered glass, paper, and plastics are now unwanted and often can't even be given away, a number of recycling companies have gone bust (eg SKM in Victoria). The recycling industry is in crisis, and waste contractors in some Victorian shires temporarily suspended household collection services. More than 700 shipping containers of material for recycling at the Port of Melbourne were left in limbo (because they can no longer be shipped overseas).

Recycling is now a substantial burden on consumers, business, and the taxpayer, and has reduced our standard of living. Local councils now, instead of receiving revenue for recycling, are now generally paying a substantial price, while recycling companies now often want to charge to accept recycled material. When the cost of collection is added, you can sometimes be talking of costs of more than $100 a tonne for local governments to ensure the continuation of the recycling service.

In many cases, this costly recycling still fails to help the environment.

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About the Author

Brendan O’Reilly is a retired commonwealth public servant with a background in economics and accounting. He is currently pursuing private business interests.

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