Environmental Idealism in Handling Plastic Waste Ignores Economics and Leads to Growing Ocean Pollution

Recycling of post-consumer plastic waste leads to problems despite the seeming virtuous goal of “recycling” so that plastic is never disposed of in landfills or incinerated. A recent report published by the Global Warming Policy Foundation in London explains how seeming virtuousness without attention to economics leads to disaster.

Idealistic environmentalists want to create a “circular” economy where post-consumer plastic is neither land-filled nor incinerated, but rather recycled and reused. Unfortunately, post-consumer plastic can only be reused if it is carefully sorted into pure streams of plastic such as is found in pre-consumer plastic. Carefully sorting it ends up costing more than it is worth. So it often ends up being improperly disposed of in the oceans, where there is a “crisis” of growing ocean plastic waste.

The basic problem is that idealistic environmentalists insist on ignoring the fact that the economics of very carefully sorting post-consumer plastic waste does not work. The only solution that does is either incineration with careful control of air pollution emissions or carefully cited landfills. Higher cost sorting and recycling results in much wasted time incurred by consumers and higher costs where it is done by paid workers. The inevitable result is loss of unsorted post-consumer plastic waste to places where it contaminates the environment.

All this could be avoided by allowing the normal laws of economics to operate along with strictly enforced rules minimizing uncontrolled disposal of unsorted post-consumer plastic waste. Such government intervention to prevent such waste to be improperly disposed of is justified because of the market failure involved. The present approach described in the GWPF report will not solve the problem, which is likely to get worse as long as the economics continue to be ignored.

via Carlin Economics and Science


October 26, 2018 at 10:23PM

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