Qualche dubbio sul riciclaggio dei rifiuti

Zero rifiuti. Questo il programma pentastellato per Roma.

Probabilmente Mike Munger e Steven Landsburg avrebbero qualcosa da ridire. In realtà lo hanno già detto in “The Political Economy of Recycling”.

Da agnostici, partiamo con una semplice osservazione economica:

… Empirically, recycling is almost always substantially more expensive than disposing in the landfill…

Naturalmente ci sono le dovute eccezioni:

… There are exceptions. If disposal costs are high and there is actual demand for the cullet, then green glass is highly recyclable. The best example is northern California, with valuable land, a large population, and lots of manufacturers eager to put new wine in recycled bottles… E.P.A. official, J. Winston Porter. He advised state officials that no more than about 35 percent of the nation’s trash was worth recycling, but some ignored him and set goals of 50 percent and higher…  “It makes sense to recycle commercial cardboard and some paper, as well as selected metals and plastics,” he says. “But other materials rarely make sense, including food waste and other compostables…

In presenza di dubbi legittimi si ricorre all’ alata retorica del “buon cittadino”…

… Since we can’t use the price system, authorities resort to moralistic claims, trying to persuade people that recycling is just something that good citizens do…

Non scordiamoci che c’è un effetto inquinante anche nel riciclaggio (tutte quelle colorate flotte di camion che girano notte tempo):

… when you add on the fuel costs and pollution impact of collecting small quantities of the stuff from neighborhoods, actually uses more energy, and wastes more resources, than using virgin materials… recycling operations have their own environmental costs, like extra trucks on the road and pollution from recycling operations… Composting facilities around the country have inspired complaints about nauseating odors, swarming rats and defecating sea gulls. After New York City started sending food waste to be composted in Delaware, the unhappy neighbors of the composting plant successfully campaigned to shut it down last year… According to the E.P.A.’ s estimates, virtually all the greenhouse benefits — more than 90 percent — come from just a few materials: paper, cardboard and metals like the aluminum in soda cans…

Inoltre, forse la cosa  non è in cima alle priorità di nessuno, ricordiamoci anche dei lavoratori lasciati a spasso dalla mania del riciclaggio:

… THE environmental benefits of recycling come chiefly from reducing the need to manufacture new products — less mining, drilling and logging. But that’s not so appealing to the workers in those industries…

Oggi i  fans del riciclaggio vorrebbero riciclare tutto tranne il tempo dei poveri cristi che tornati dal lavoro passano l tempo tra i bidoncini. Eppure, anche il tempo è una risorsa, specie quello di professionisti che si fanno pagare X euro all’ora. Tutto questo crea paradossi. Raleigh, North Carolina:

… Citizens voted to force the city to pick up the glass in tplastic bins, because they don’t like to throw the glass away. The glass is picked up, trucked to the recycling facility, and either bagged or boxed and then shipped, in a different truck, to the landfill. In effect, citizens are paying the city extra to throw away the glass, so that they can pretend it’s being recycled… The main thing is to get people in the habit of recycling, because it’s the right thing to do.

Il fatto è che…

… recycling gives people a chance to express their concern about the environment, and concern about the environment is good…

Tanto è vero che i due argomenti “razionali” a favore del riciclaggio non sembrano tenere. Vediamoli:

… 1) the resource is actually valuable, but markets underprice it; and (2) landfills are scarce, dangerous, or need subsidies to avoid dumping, meaning that throwing resources away is too cheap…

Le risorse economicamente riutilizzabili sono sempre state riciclate senza farne una religione (anzi, facendone un affare):

Aluminum cans, some kinds of paper, and corrugated cardboard are all valuable, once they are sorted and packed into high-density containers where the volume is large enough for industrial-scale recycling. You may have seen homeless people picking through garbage for aluminum cans: They can sell… The fact that people can sell some recycled products means that there is a market…

Il fatto spiacevole da dire è che il riciclaggio oggi non costituisce un grande affare per la comunità, e le prospettive sembrano anche peggiori per il futuro:

As a business, recycling is on the wrong side of two long-term global economic trends. For centuries, the real cost of labor has been increasing while the real cost of raw materials has been declining. That’s why we can afford to buy so much more stuff than our ancestors could. As a labor-intensive activity, recycling is an increasingly expensive way to produce materials that are less and less valuable… In New York City, the net cost of recycling a ton of trash is now $ 300 more than it would cost to bury the trash instead…That money could buy far more valuable benefits, including more significant reductions in greenhouse emissions…

Se poi il problema fosse di natura ambientale perché non tassare le discariche o ancora meglio i materiali inquinanti? Perché ricorrere ad un “proibizionismo sprecone” come il riciclaggio obbligatorio?

… It would be much simpler and more effective to impose the equivalent of a carbon tax on garbage, as Thomas C. Kinnaman has proposed after conducting what is probably the most thorough comparison of the social costs of recycling, landfilling and incineration… He concludes that the social good would be optimized by subsidizing the recycling of some metals, and by imposing a $ 15 tax on each ton of trash that goes to the landfill. That tax would offset the environmental costs, chiefly the greenhouse impact, and allow each municipality to make a guilt-free choice based on local economics and its citizens’ wishes. The result, Dr. Kinnaman predicts, would be a lot less recycling than there is today…

Oltretutto, gli sforzi ambientalisti investiti in questo ambito non sono molto produttivi:

… Here’s some perspective: To offset the greenhouse impact of one passenger’s round-trip flight between New York and London, you’d have to recycle roughly 40,000 plastic bottles, assuming you fly coach…

A volte, poi, i calcoli sono decisamente approssimativi:

… New York and other cities instruct people to rinse the bottles before putting them in the recycling bin, but the E.P.A.’ s life-cycle calculation doesn’t take that water into account… Chris Goodall, the author of “How to Live a Low-Carbon Life.”Mr. Goodall calculates that if you wash plastic in water that was heated by coal-derived electricity, then the net effect of your recycling could be more carbon in the atmosphere…

Evidentemente, il problema non è l’inquinamento ma il culto religioso di una parte influente della popolazione:

… recycling intuitively appeals to many voters: It makes people feel virtuous… It is less an ethical activity than a religious ritual, like the ones performed by Catholics to obtain indulgences for their sins… Religious rituals don’t need any practical justification… They want to make these rituals mandatory for everyone else… It would take legions of garbage police to enforce a zero-waste society, but true believers insist that’s the future… The recycling movement is floundering, and its survival depends on continual subsidies, sermons and policing…

L’argomento che prende corpo puo’ allora essere riassunto così:

… Let markets do it, and if markets can’t do it shouldn’t be done!…

Anche i prezzi hanno una loro moralità che necessita di essere considerata. Non si creda infatti che il riciclaggio non sia costoso

… Recycling, including the costs of collecting the waste in tiny, mixed amounts, transporting the waste to a handling facility, sorting it, cleaning it, repackaging it, and then transporting it again, often for great distances, to a market that will buy the commodity for some actual use, is almost always more expensive than landfilling that same waste in a local facility… Despite decades of exhortations and mandates, it’s still typically more expensive for municipalities to recycle household waste than to send it to a landfill. Prices for recyclable materials have plummeted because of lower oil prices and reduced demand for them overseas…

E questo senza contare il prezzo del tempo libero di noi privati cittadini.

Certo, anche le discariche hanno un costo, nessuno lo nega:

… landfills should be priced at the sum of the opportunity cost of the space used for the landfill and the externalities and costs of managing pollution resulting from landfill disposal…

Ma chi si preoccupa degli spazi andrebbe tranquillizzato: gli spazi ci sono in abbondanza, possono anche essere recuperati a nuovo uso, e molte comunità rurali, contrariamente al pensiero dominante, ambiscono ad avere le discariche, sia per i cospicui trasferimenti che per il metano da riutilizzare come fonte d’energia.

… One of the original goals of the recycling movement was to avert a supposed crisis because there was no room left in the nation’s landfills… In reporting the 1996 article I found that all the trash generated by Americans for the next 1,000 years would fit on one-tenth of 1 percent of the land available for grazing… con possibilità di recupero: The United States Open tennis tournament is played on the site of an old landfill… Though most cities shun landfills, they have been welcomed in rural communities that reap large economic benefits… A modern well-lined landfill in a rural area can have relatively little environmental impact. Decomposing garbage releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas, but landfill operators have started capturing it and using it to generate electricity…

C’è poi l’alternativa degli inceneritori:

… Modern incinerators, while politically unpopular in the United States, release so few pollutants that they’ve been widely accepted in the eco-conscious countries of Northern Europe and Japan for generating clean energy…

Purtroppo, c’è anche una quarta alternativa:

… That alternative is illegal dumping, illicit burning, or other extra-legal “free” disposal….

Per evitare le discariche illegali, quelle legali andrebbero sussidiate originando – secondo i detrattori – dei costi occulti. Ma qui l’obiezione è facile:

… If charging the “real” price for landfill causes dumping, why wouldn’t mandatory (and costly) recycling have the same effect? After all, if recycling is expensive (though cheaper than the true cost of landfilling), then charging that cost will induce illegal dumping, right?… Wouldn’t we have to subsidize recycling, also?…

A questo punto esce l’arma segreta della soluzione “riciclona”, quella accennata più sopra: il moralismo. Con il moralismo possiamo fare a meno dei sussidi:

… We have to use another weapon to make mandatory recycling work, and not just be shifted over into illegal dumping. That weapon is moral suasion: you should recycle because good people recycle, and recycling is the right thing to do… landfill is no longer expensive; it’s evil…

I comandamenti del buon riciclatore assomigliano a quelli del Monte Sinai:

… The duties of good citizens came down to three things: (1) recycle everything; (2) sort it assiduously; and (3) wash it carefully…

Purtroppo, oltre alla “carta dei doveri” c’è la “carta dei fatti”:

… In many cities, the resulting separated waste is actually picked up, re-mingled, and landfilled, because it has no economic value whatsoever. But that’s okay, because the important thing is the moral act of recycling, not the saving of resources…

Ecco un esempio classico di zelo religioso:

… I phoned the public relations officers with the recycling departments in several small cities in the Northeast. I asked one extremely cheerful and energetic young woman how her city could justify asking people to put their garbage in the dishwasher. Isn’t that pretty expensive, in terms of human time, and the energy to heat the water, compared to the value of the garbage? Using the same tone of voice one would use to talk to a five year old— she clearly thought I was not the sharpest can lid in the recycle bin— she gave me the most concise explanation I have encountered in the whole genre. She said, “Oh, you have to understand, sir. Recycling is always cheaper, no matter how much it costs!” For her, and for millions of people like her, recycling is not an economic activity at all, but a moral duty… if recycling is good, more recycling is better…

Un altro esempio, entriamo in università:

… The Commons, the faculty dining room, moved with many of the other food service units to use paper plates, plastic utensils, and paper napkins. The nature of these products, made from low-quality fibers and stained with greasy food products, made them poor candidates for recycling, even by the usual friendly standards of universities. At first there were grumbles. Then there were outright protests. Students and faculty complained that “we all know it is wrong” to dispose of waste in the landfill…

Ma perché il moralismo fa male?

… When you cast policy issues in moral terms, you degrade the character of public discourse. You lead people to see conflicting priorities as an occasion for battle, rather than an occasion for compromise. You send the message that policy is best decided by appeals to one’s inner conscience (or, more likely, to the polemics of demagogues), rather than by appeals to impersonal cost-benefit analysis… Every time a misguided locavore makes the world a poorer place by choosing expensive local food, it’s because she’s absorbed the false lesson that prices are generallya poor measure of social cost – a lesson first absorbed, I suspect, at the feet of the recycling propagandists she first met in elementary school…

Questo non significa che il moralismo a volte sia utile:

… I’m on board, for example, with making people feel guilty about committing murder for hire. I might be on board with making people feel guilty about working as OSHA inspectors, or accepting jobs that wouldn’t exist without tariff protection, or installing solar panels solely because they’re subsidized…

L’inefficienza del riciclaggio andrebbe trattata come le altre inefficienze:

… When an airline can fly me to California for $ 200, and I’m willing to pay $ 300, but (because of monopoly power) the price is $ 1,000, I choose not to fly. That’s socially inefficient in exactly the same way that my failure to recycle is inefficient—I elevate my own selfish interests over a clear opportunity to create value for others (in this case the stockholders of the airline company) and to enrich the world as a whole…

Chiudo proponendo una linea guida che possa informare in modo ragionevole l’etica del cittadino: 

… respect for price signals even when price signals get things wrong, because price signals so often get things right…

***

Daniel Benjamin riassume bene in otto miti i punti deboli della politica “riciclona”. Primo: che mancherebbe lo spazio dove mettere i rifiuti…

… Various authors have calculated just how much space it would take to accommodate America’s garbage. The answer is: not much. If we permitted the rubbish to reach the height it did at New York’s Fresh Kills site (255 feet), a landfill that would hold all of America’s garbage for the next century would be only about 10 miles on a side (Lomborg 2001, 2007). To be more colorful, Ted Turner’s Flying D ranch outside Bozeman, Montana, could handle all of America’s trash for the next century—with 50,000 acres left over for his bison…

Secondo: che le discariche sarebbero un pericolo per la salute

… The claim that our trash might poison us is impossible to completely refute, because the charge almost always leveled is that landfills are a “threat” to human health and welfare. Almost anything can pose a threat, but evidence of actual harm from landfills… is remarkably difficult to uncover. The EPA itself acknowledges that the risks to humans (and presumably plants and animals) from modern landfills are virtually nonexistent. The agency has concluded that landfills constructed according to EPA regulations can be expected to cause 5.7 cancer-related deaths over the next 300 years—one every 50 years (EPA 1990, 1991; Goodstein 1995). To put this in perspective, cancer kills more than 560,000 people every year in the United States, and naturally occurring carcinogens found in celery, pears, and lettuce are all considerably more dangerous to humans than are modern landfills (Ames, Magaw, and Gold 1987; Gold, Ames, and Slone 2002)…

Se c’è un problema, c’è con le vecchie discariche del passato.

Three percent or less of methane produced by modern landfills ever makes it into the atmosphere…

Terzo: che il nostro problema siano gli imballaggi…

… Packaging can reduce total rubbish produced and total resources used. The average household in the United States generates less trash each year—fully one-third less—than does the average household in Mexico (Rathje and Murphy 1992, 216–19; Ackerman 1996). The reason is that our intensive use of packaging yields less waste and breakage and, on balance, less total rubbish. For example, for every 1,000 chickens brought to market… using modern processing and packaging, approximately 17 pounds of packaging are used (and thus disposed of). But at least 2,000 pounds of waste by-products are recycled into marketable products (such as pet food) because the processing takes place in a commercial facility rather than in the home. Most of these by-products would end up in landfills if packaging did not make commercial processing feasible… Over the past 25 years, the weights of individual packages have been reduced by amounts ranging from 30 percent (2-liter soft drink bottles) to 70 percent (plastic grocery sacks and trash bags)….

Quarto: che il commercio di spazzatura sia dannoso…

… The most cogent objection to the interstate trade in trash is that landfills may harm citizens living near landfills. These are costs that may not be taken into account by those who dump. Yet, as discussed in some detail under Myth 2, even the EPA acknowledges that the potential threat to air and water quality posed by modern landfills is negligible. Moreover, transporting rubbish across an arbitrary legal boundary (such as a state line) has no effect on the environmental impact of the disposal of that rubbish. And moving a ton of trash by truck is no more hazardous than moving a ton of any other commodity….

Quinto: che dobbiamo riciclare perché le risorse si stanno esaurendo

… we are not running out of natural resources. While recycling has the potential to extend the lives of raw material stocks, other activities, long practiced in the private sector, are already doing that. Available stocks of those resources are growing, and there is every reason to expect such growth to continue if the private sector is allowed to continue performing its functions. Consider forests. The amount of new growth that occurs each year in forests exceeds by a factor of twenty the amount of wood and paper that is consumed by the world each year (Lomborg 2001, 115). Perhaps partly as a result, temperate forests, most of which are in northern latitudes, are actually more expansive now than 40 years ago… Thanks to numerous innovations, we now produce about twice as much output per unit of energy as we did 50 years ago and five times as much as we did 200 years ago. Automobiles use only half as much metal as in 1970, and optical fiber carries the same number of calls as 625 copper wires did 25 years ago…

Sesto: che riciclaggio e ambiente sono sempre amici…

… Recycling is a manufacturing process, and therefore it too has an environmental impact. The U.S. Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) says that it is “usually not clear whether secondary manufacturing [such as recycling] produces less pollution per ton of material processed than primary manufacturing processes” (OTA 1989, 191). Indeed, the Office of Technology Assessment… goes on to explain why: Recycling changes the nature of pollution, sometimes increasing it and sometimes decreasing it….

Particolarmente minaccioso è il riciclaggio porta a porta

… This effect is particularly apparent in the case of curbside recycling, which is mandated or strongly encouraged by governments in many communities. Curbside recycling requires that more trucks be used to collect the same amount of waste materials, trucks that pick up perhaps four to eight pounds of recyclables, rather than forty or more pounds of rubbish. Los Angeles estimated that because it instituted curbside recycling, its fleet of trucks is twice as large as it otherwise would have been—800 versus 400 trucks. This means more iron ore and coal mining, more steel and rubber manufacturing, more petroleum extracted and refined for fuel—and, of course, all that extra air pollution in the Los Angeles basin as the 400 added trucks cruise the streets (Bailey 1995, A8)….

Settimo: il riciclaggio ci fa sempre risparmiare risorse…

… Using less of one resource, however, usually means using more of other resources. Fortunately, there is a way to measure the total resource usage of different waste disposal methods. I do this by examining the costs of landfill disposal versus recycling as alternative methods of handling municipal solid waste. The goal is to determine which method of handling municipal solid waste uses the least amount of resources as valued by the market…. It is apparent from this table that, on average, curbside recycling is substantially more costly—that is, it uses far more resources—than a program in which disposal is combined with a voluntary drop-off/buy-back option. The reason: Curbside recycling of household rubbish uses huge amounts of capital and labor per pound of material recycled…. Overall, curbside recycling costs can be as much as double the costs of the disposal option, a conclusion that is consistent with the estimates of both… Ackerman (1996) and Porter (2002). Adding curbside recycling is “like moving from once-a-week garbage collection to twice a week” (Bailey 1995, A8)….

I conteggi di chi favorisce il riciclaggio non tiene conto del tempo investito dai privati, ovvero della risorsa più preziosa che il riciclaggio brucia. Per questo giunge a conclusioni sballate.

I conti corretti mettono in luce che il riciclaggio di fatto danneggia le generazioni future…

… Mandatory recycling programs are counterproductive to sustainable living because they actually waste resources, leaving less for future generations….

Ottavo: senza obbligo di riciclare il riciclaggio non ci sarebbe…

… The claim that the private sector promotes premature or excessive disposal ignores an enormous body of evidence to the contrary. Firms survive in the marketplace only if they take into account all of their customers’ ownership costs. The amount of obsolescence built into products varies widely, and manufacturers respond exactly as they would be expected to if they were striving to minimize society’s total costs of ownership…. Private sector recycling is as old as trash itself… In a similar vein, 50 years ago, when labor was relatively cheap compared to materials, goods were built to be repaired, so that the expensive materials could be used for a longer period of time. As the price of labor has risen and the cost of materials has fallen, manufacturers have responded—in the interests of consumers and society—by building items to be used until they break, and then discarded. There is no “bias” against recycling; there is merely a market-driven effort to conserve resources… One of the most peculiar aspects of America’s obsession with recycling is that it has come at the time of our greatest wealth. History reveals that it is the poor, not the rich, who are able to make productive use of household discards. Before New York City’s garbage scows left the docks for offshore dumping in the nineteenth century, they were first trimmed (scoured) for anything that might be of value. The trimmers, who competed for the rights to work the scows, were predominantly Italian immigrant families, who lived, ate, and slept where they worked. As distasteful as the work was, it was for them the best of a bad lot (Miller 2000, 76–78)…

***

P.S. Nel  post ci sono citazioni anche da “The Reign of Recycling” di John Tierney.

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