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In Toronto both styrofoam and plastic bags are recylable, but that's beside the point.

What you might find more interesting, as an economist, is that in Toronto you have to pay for disposal of regular garbage (different sized bins, large ones are more expensive), but recycling is free. So there is a significant economic incentive to get a very small garbage bin, then 'mistakenly' put a bunch of stuff in the recycling bin that doesn't belong. Poor program design!

As for your options, I would vote for 2 and 4.

Joe, interesting, thanks for that. So the "mistakes" would be things like scrap metal, non-recyclable glass, that kind of thing?

7. Bloodymindedness. Imagine somebody whose base premise is that glass should be in the landfill anyway, and likely winds up there regardless of which bin you put things in, because the market value of glass just doesn't justify recycling it. Styrofoam in the blue bin signals disdain for the system.

8. Uber-Bloodymindedness. Recycling is a communist plot and putting styrofoam into the blue bin helps to jam up the works.

9. Indifference. If the blue bin is handier to put garbage in, and if nobody fines you for doing it, why not? [Economists care about externalities because individuals don't; should we be surprised where individuals take selfish actions with public cost?]

It's really kind of touching that you can't imagine folks' motives here. You couldn't imagine anything other than that "don't they know?!" could be responsible. Signals a purity of spirit.

Alas, I haven't got that.

Eric - Is recycling a culture wars thing? If so, then, yes, I can see that (8) would apply some places - but the area where I live is firmly on the pro-recycling side of the culture wars. So I don't see (8) applying around here.

On (7) - I think most people don't have much idea of the costs and benefits of recycling - I suspect people figure "I can't be bothered" rather than "the costs of recycling outweigh the benefits." Even if the latter is true.

In the case of an old selfish roommate, he started putting non-recyclables like styrofoam or pizza boxes into the recycling when no more would fit into the trash can.

I'd reckoned 9 was most likely, 7 somewhat likely, and 8 unlikely where you are (but very likely in some other places).

Here in Christchurch, I mostly avoided recycling because of 7 & 9 - albeit by putting nominal recyclables into the regular trash rather than by screwing up the green bin. That is, until they switched us over to having three bins. A smallish green bin for compostables that's collected weekly, and a mid-sized red bin for trash and big yellow bin for recyclables that are collected on alternative weeks. Your red bin fills up way too quickly if you don't put all the newspaper and cardboard and glass into the yellow bin. The trucks also have cameras, so folks putting styrofoam into the yellow bin stop having their trash picked up. Seems to work reasonably well.

You forgot laziness. Proximity to the door into the house and no need to lift the lid.. That is a savings of at least one fourth of a calorie.

A related question: Why do people spend a dollar's worth of their time to recycle 5 cents worth of plastic? Don't they know that they just made the world 95 cents poorer? And why do they worry about using up landfill space? Have they never heard of the economics of exhaustible resources?

Sounds like an interesting research project. :)

Here are two more possibilities.

A) If I make a mistake and put garbage in the recycling bin, someone is very likely to correct it, but if I make a mistake and put a recyclable in the garbage bin, it is going straight to the dump (or ocean-going vessel ;)).

B) If I make a mistake and put garbage in the recycling bin, that is a minor error, but if I make a mistake and put a recyclable in the garbage bin, that's a major error.

I've been told this one before:
-styrofoam and plastic bags are recyclable in the bins of other jurisdictions and I'd like Ottawa to do that too. If I keep putting my should-be-recyclables in, and Ottawa has to pay to sort them out anyway, the marginal cost of actually recycling the sorted material might become less significant. Also, it tells the city that you'd like those items to be recyclable.

Min and Megan -

I think your comments are really starting to get at the heart of it - this is starting to explain what's going on.

it's basically an empirical question, though, isn't it? Which is a costlier error: to put a non-recyclable in the recycling or to put a recyclable in the trash?

This is kind of a cool video that shows how the process of sorting recycling works: http://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/28794-how-do-they-do-it-recycling-machine-video.htm. What I take from that video is that some types of mistakes are harder to fix than others. Put, for example, a non-recyclable type of glass in with the plastic and glass recycling (e.g. ceramic dishes, cups and pottery; drinking glasses, window glass, light bulbs, and mirrors) - that's going to be a really hard mistake to correct by the time the recycling gets to the sorting facility and the glass is all in little bits. But perhaps a mistake like putting an old frying pan in the recycling (as someone did on my street yesterday) is easier to spot and correct.

I wonder if there's a way of getting a straight answer to this question.

#3 for me.

Our recycling instructions say "plastic containers (types 1 to 7)" are permitted:

They also say styrofoam is not permitted. Polystyrene is recycling number 6 (♸). So why are polystyrene containers permitted while chemically identical styrofoam is not?

Our recyclable collector has trained me to stop trying to toss in styrofoam, but I still hesitate when faced with other #6 plastics.

Here's what irritates me in Toronto. We used to have clear instructions about what grades of plastic are recyclable in terms of the standard numeric code stamped on every plastic item exactly for that purpose. Of course, people still put stuff in the wrong bins, perhaps for the reasons you mention, but if you actually wanted to follow the rules it was easy. Now it's like you say: items with property a are recyclable, items with property b are trash, where a and b are incommensurate, belonging to different categories, so that it is easy for an item to have both properties. Also, the list of properties is not exhaustive, so the status of some items is simply not defined.

Maybe maybe maybe this change was made after careful behavioural analysis and is demonstrated to improve compliance. But if I had to bet ...

Phil - Ottawa switched from the number code system a couple of years ago too - see https://www.rco.on.ca/news?news_id=349. It sounds like it was a combination of low compliance and provincial government subsidies - "But the provincial government, through an agency called Stewardship Ontario, spent millions of dollars to help to develop a market for the plastics that have been brought back into the recycling fold."

But this suggests that Megan is onto something - people can force cities to change their recycling policy but continually putting the wrong types of plastic into the recycling. Either that or abandon recycling altogether, or increase taxes to cover the higher sorting costs...

Jeff J - looking at that recycling video that I linked to in the comments above, I wonder if the weight of styrofoam is a problem - that paper is sorted from plastic by blowing the paper off the plastic, and styrofoam is so light weight is just flies off with the paper. Hopefully some recycling engineer will weigh in and explain.

Yes, I believe #2 is the correct answer. It is an important lesson to learn that passing an unenforceable law does not magically make people care about the thing the law attempts to accomplish. We can always try nudges or steep punishments for non-compliance, but I think it is worth coming to grips with the idea that recycling is not a very popular idea, despite what people wish to signal about their sense of environmentalism.

Frances - that's an interesting case for the feedback theory.

Switching to a tangent: I wonder if you have any remarks to make about the positions taken on layaway by Alex Tabarrok (http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2013/10/stayaway-from-layaway.html) and Erik Loomis (http://www.lawyersgunsmoneyblog.com/2013/10/layaway), given that Tabarrok's explanation is essentially 1. above, and avoiding 1. is a perennial concern of yours.

Loomis does not dispute Tabarrok's substantive points, but notes that Tabarrok does not actually answer the question of why people use layaway and that the reason is that he doesn't seriously ask it. Instead, Tabarrok answers a different question: why he himself does not use layaway. Which is not so interesting if, you know, you happen not to be Alex Tabarrok.

Option 7: it's a protest. There are plastics which USED TO BE recyclable in Ottawa and aren't anymore. I know people who still put them in, perhaps hoping the city will "take a hint."

As an aside, I know several families that don't "donate" metal for recycling. Instead, they crush it (aluminum, steel, other metal), store it in a garage and, a few times a year, take it to one of the metal recycling centres in Ottawa and get CASH for it.

In my case, because the Trash Nazis at my office decided that the little trash cans under our desks were really recycle bins, and the only trash can in my office is in the kitchen.

I don't think recycling is as much of a culture wars thing as some people claim it is. Some people--including its advocates--might like it to be. Like so many other policy issues, it is one where a very small number of people have strong if uninformed opinions, and the majority following along indifferently. I vote for 2 and 4.

Interestingly, I've heard several times from people who run recycling depots that roughly 50% of the collected material goes straight into landfill. The last time I heard this was a few years ago, but don't know if it's still the case.

Phil, love the last line of your comment! You probably won't be surprised that I find Loomis's position more interesting and persuasive than Tabarrok's for precisely the reasons you identify. Thanks for those links.

RPLong - but how can people be nudged into putting the right thing into the blue bin? Pictures? Those signs with "landfill" would just make the problem of putting non-recyclables into the recycling bin worse.

CJ - I think protest is part of it. I suspect (without any evidence) that some would-be environmentalists may do more to clog up the City's recycling efforts than the less environmentally committed types elsewhere in the city, because it gives them psychological pain to think that their stuff is good for nothing but landfill.

I have lived in several cities, and they all have different rules about what should and shouldn't be in the blue bin. For example, Guelph allowed

For me, personally, it is just pure laziness; I know that the recycling gets sorted at the facility level, with some going to the land fill (if they cannot secure a non-zero price from a recycler) and some being recycled. So if I am unsure about whether an item is recyclable or not, my default is to put it in the blue box. This is much easier (and perceptively less costly) for me than going to the city website and finding the list of what is recyclable and what is not. Supposedly the recycling truck has the discretion to leave my bin if it has non-recyclables in it (like Styrofoam in your example), but my bin has never been rejected.

IMO, recycling is a trade off between feeling better about yourself versus inconveniencing yourself.

People differ as to where they fall on this spectrum, and their opinions about the efficacy of recycling (I believe it has none) will also differ, effecting the level of virtue they obtain from engaging in it. When you don't obtain a lot of virtue, either because you believe that recycling is a net welfare loss for those items that the market is not willing to pay for or because you either don't care about your civic virtue or have other ways of obtaining it, then you don't do a lot of recycling.

I have one trash can bag in my apartment with a white plastic bag lining. When the trash is full, I take the bag and put it into the trash, and get a new plastic bag and line the trash can with it. Once a month or so, I bleach the trash can. As I dislike shopping, I usually only need to take the trash out once a week or so, but take it our more often if there is food inside.

I do not disassemble items according to a county website and then hunt for the appropriately colored bin, say scraping food out of a to-go bag into one colored bin for composting, putting the soft plastic bag into another colored bin, and the hard plastic forks and napkins into a third. I don't want to maintain multiple bins in my kitchen, as it triples the work of bleaching them out and I would use three times as many plastic liners. My kitchen is also small.

Once or twice a year I get a package at home, in which case if it is a big cardboard box, I break it down and put it into the recycling. If the box comes with styrofoam popcorn, then this goes into the recycling bin also.

That is enough mental effort for me to devote to acquiring virtue via trash management.

But I know certain kinds of people who do that. In my experience they fall into two groups, ones that have a lot of free time (e.g. retirees) or ones that highly value self-righteousness (e.g. certain types of upper middle-class suburban parents with younger children). The interesting sub-category is those people who highly value self-righteousness but have other ways of obtaining it -- e.g. very religious people such as Mormons or fundamentalists. In my experience, they already have enough virtue and don't bother with recycling. But those religions in which you obtain virtue by way of being an upstanding citizen with a good civic reputation -- e.g. Presbyterians -- will tend to recycle more because they need to do it in order to obtain virtue.

"ficacy of recycling (I believe it has none)"

Google seems to confirm that there is some evidence to support this.

The comment that I agree with most is CJ's option seven. But I'd like to add to it.

I used to live in Toronto and remember being able to recycle a lot---most plastics, plastic bags, styrofoam. Contrast this with where I was before Toronto, Northwestern Ontario, and where I am now, Philadelphia: both places recycle a fraction of what Toronto does. But in Philadelphia now, I STILL put all the stuff in that I did in Toronto. Why? This is where my comment overlaps with CJ's.

Option 7a: People put in material that isn't currently recycled because they hope that one day it will be. We're trying to materialize our vision of what items should be recyclable, and we hope the authorities will notice and follow suit. Consider it a form of voting.

Colin - "We're trying to materialize our vision of what items should be recyclable, and we hope the authorities will notice and follow suit."

I think you have nailed what people are thinking, but their reasoning makes no sense. The reason that Philadelphia says something is not recyclable is either that can't sort it or they can't sell it or both. Putting unacceptable materials into the recycling doesn't divert trash from the landfill; it simply makes the recycling process more expensive.

If the only alternatives are between a super-expensive recycling program that recycles everything and no recycling program at all, voters might opt for no recycling program at all.

rsj - yup, guilty as charged.

@Colin: I agree with your assessment in "Option 7a". It made be akin to a protest vote, even if it involves "spoiling the ballot."

Francis: if other municipalities CAN make a profit recycling the same material, why not us? Gatineau (from what my coworkers tell me) recycles almost everything. It's a rhetorical question. I suspect the answer is "incompetence" or "bureaucracy." It CAN be done, other municipalities have demonstrated. Apologies if this comes off as harsh; it bothers me deeply to throw items in the trash that I know are being recycled elsewhere.

CJ - thanks for this perspective, this is exactly what I was hoping to get from this post. In answer to your substantive point:

Other municipalities don't make a profit from recycling the same material - see e.g. the press release I quoted earlier ""But the provincial government, through an agency called Stewardship Ontario, spent millions of dollars to help to develop a market for the plastics that have been brought back into the recycling fold." The correct translation of "help to develop a market" is "subsidize."

The thing you have to ask yourself is: if the goal is to help the environment, is this the best way to spend money? I'm not convinced it is. It may be better to tell people "there is no way your used Tim Horton's cup can usefully be repurposed. If you want to do the right thing for the environment, bring a travel mug, or just don't buy that coffee."

Hi Frances,
Actually, coat hangers, plastic bags and polysterene i(styrofoam) are recyclable. Styrofoam typically isnt recycled due to lack of demand.

The Gatineau plant accepts the other 2 items you mentionned (http://www.tricentris.com/uploads/File/aide-memoire.pdf). The plant was open to visit during last month's Valorifete, I recommend a visit.

The Gatineau plant ask that you group your coat hangers together : "Regrouper les cintres de métal en paquets"

Same goes for plastic bags: just create a "bag of bags".
Best: bag of bags
bad: single bags (more of it goes through and pollute other materials)
worse: bags of something else (say, unshredded paper, because they dont have time to waste opening bags..)


I like Mike's point and realize I myself have done the same thing. The recycling instructions (I'm in Toronto) clearly say no clear plastic clamshell-type containers, but I have recycled them nonetheless. Why, I ask myself? It's because if I throw them out they will end up in landfill anyway, which is a dead loss, whereas in recycling I have some vague notion that they will be properly sorted and disposed of somehow. I also like Megan's point about sending a message about the types of items I would like to see recycled. It's aspirational recycling!

So, 4 and 5.

Obviously this is an issue where distaste drives behavior, regardless of the economic outcomes.

On a similar note, I observed last night in our quiet neighborhood how some people manage their surplus (that is, "waste") candy. When kids found out that there was a surplus because of low traffic, and visited homes a second time, households where people primarily wanted to dispose of the excess were happy to give it away, but those disgusted by "greed" refused, and were thus left to cope with their excess on their own. (A Bible was offered as an alternate at one address, to no avail.)

Of course, a lot of the stuff that is allowed to go to the recycling bin isn't being recycled either.

Mike, interesting, thanks for that link.

No worries!

I've done some consulting work for the plastics industry and the recycling Q is a really interesting one. What can/can't be recycled is often an economic question - is there an aftermarket for the product. That can change month-by-month, so the set of items we throw into the bin is a best case scenario for the items that can be recycled. My understanding is that there's typically almost no aftermarket for the recycled byproducts of coloured plastic pop bottles, so those almost always end up in a landfill, even though they're included in every recycling program in the country.

Via email from Jacques Rene Giguere(who is stuck on spam)

1) Styrofoam is usually used as food containers and as such are stained.
2) Styrofoam is easy to recycle. But it is so full of air that any significant transport emit more polllution than it saves. Unless you collapse it but most solvent that can do that are costly and toxic.
In the last 20 years, students at my college worked on the plastic recycling problem during the Expo-Sciences (Sciences Fairs) of which I had been president for a long time ( this economist began life as a physicist...).
The first team invented a way of sorting out plastic , using the difference in floatability of various plastic in different liquids of various density. They ended up winners at the World final and went on a trip to Stockhlom to meet the Nobel winners and be presented to the King and Queen of Sweden (finding 8 couture gowns for the girl and a long-tailed suit for the boy is a story in itself...)
A girl who began her work while in H.S. used citrus peel waste to extract limonene. Her process was more efficient than the one currently used ( limonene is a powerful solvent used in those oil-of-citrus cleaners). The limonene collapse the styrofoam bubbles and transform is into a small mass, esily transported and suitable for use as replacement for the product now used to floculate sediments in water-treatment plants. She won a trip to an international water competition in (of all places Stockholm). She is lost to science as she went into medicine.

If you wish for to increase your knowledge Worthwhile Canadian Initiative: Why do people put stuff that isn't recyclable into the recycling bin? simply keep visiting this website and be updated with the most recent news update posted here.

I've heard that you can also recycle scrap metal in Calgary, is that true? I love when you can recycle all kinds of things. It amazes me that there are still places where you can't recycle anything.

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