The Guardian: A waste of time

by Tim Worstall, Adam Smith Fellw (October 13, 2008)

published in The Guardian here

We need a proper cost analysis of the time we are now required to spend recycling, compared with its benefits: is it worth it?

The government thinks that your time is worth nothing. At least, that's the implication of this written answer in the Commons last week.

The UKip MP, Dr Bob Spink, asked the environment secretary "what estimate he has made of the average time per year spent by a household in sorting and recycling rubbish." An important question of course, for that time spent sorting items to be recycled is obviously a cost of such recycling schemes. The answer came back from Jane Kennedy, minister of state in the department, "No such estimate has been made".

An answer that means that, quite simply, we do not know whether recycling is a good idea or not. For we don't in fact know whether it costs us more to do it than we save by doing it ... for those who have imposed it upon us have not considered one of the major costs associated with doing it.

Starting from the very beginning: your time has a value. This isn't restricted to your working hours either: the time you spend cuddling your inamorata, building a model railway or in contemplation of a pint of Old Wallop has a value to you. That is why you do these things, because you value them. If, by law, we are going to insist that you give up some of that time, to do something we tell you to do, we need to value the time you're being forced to give up. Quite what value we can put on it is a little fraught. It might be that £10 an hour, something like the average wage across the country, is the right number. It might be £5.73 an hour, for that is the minimum wage, the figure below which it is illegal for you to sell your time. But it is some cash amount per hour, for you yourself have already decided that you'd prefer the cuddling, modelling or contemplation rather than working that extra hour for such a sum.

We'd also like to know how many hours you are being asked to give up to aid in the recycling effort, thus the question asked above. I've received a similar response when asking the same department directly: they don't know because they've never bothered to consider the point. There's almost no academic research on this either, the amount of time it takes to prepare to recycle. The best I've been able to find is something from Seattle, showing that it takes a household 16 minutes per week for a simple programme and 45 minutes for one including food and garden waste. We have some 24 million households in the UK, so for a simple system we're asking everyone to give up 6 million hours a week or around 300 million a year. At minimum wage this is a £1.8bn minimum cost of such a system. At the longer estimate of hours for a more complex system and using the average wage, we have a cost of £9bn. These are the numbers we now need to plug into our cost benefit analysis of whether we should in fact be recycling.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not against all recycling: no one who has bought and sold scrap metal for a living would be so stupid as to say that none of it makes sense. But we do need distinguish between things it is sensible to recycle and things that it is not. Steel, aluminium, copper, yes, clearly so, these make profits even when all of the costs are included and profit is the market's way of working out whether you are in fact adding value in a process. There are also other factors that we might want to include on our benefits side, things that aren't taken account of in market pricing. Say, perhaps, the methane given off from landfills, even the aesthetics of landfills themselves. Fine, add away: then we can work out whether recycling a particular product in a particular way actually makes sense or not. We assign values to all of the costs and to all of the benefits, tot them up and if B is higher than C then it's a good idea. If C is higher than B then it's a bad one for it makes us poorer by doing it.

It's also true that wittering on about "saving resources" doesn't get around this point. For time itself is a resource, one with a value as above. Indeed, it's not a difficult argument to make that time is the only truly non-renewable resource that we have and thus one that we really don't want to waste.

Now I agree that there's a little of tilting at windmills to all of this. Our targets for recycling aren't actually something in the power of our own government to alter. They are fed to us from Brussels, for matters environmental are a sole competence of the European Union. Local councils will be fined if they don't meet the targets and there's an end to the matter.

However, a few more numbers. We were told in the Waste Not, Want Not report that waste disposal was costing us £1.6bn a year and that if we didn't do something this could rise to £3.2bn. We thus needed to recycle more and reduce this cost … but hang on; recycling more also imposes this huge cost of our time. So are we in fact saving resources at all by pushing out our plans to recycle ever more of our waste? Or are we in fact consuming more resources than we're saving?

Here at Cif there are enough environmental and green type authors whose knowledge and brains we can pick. I'm perfectly happy to agree that the numbers I've used for the valuation of our time are back-of-the envelope stuff: however, they're the only attempt so far that anyone has made at all for the UK, as above, even the government hasn't tried to calculate them. So the labour cost alone of a simple recycling scheme is some £1.8bn a year and of a more extensive one, of the type being rolled out, is perhaps £9bn a year. I would say that this is vastly more than any benefits that we receive from that process. It's greater than the resources saved, it's greater than any environmental benefit, greater than any reduction in transport or emissions, greater than any rational calculation of what we get back for what we're being forced to put in.

So how about it? Caroline Lucas, George Monbiot, Oliver Tickell, Mark Lynas, Tony Juniper – there are enough people around here who should be able to prove me wrong. How much time is required to recycle, how should that time be valued, what are the benefits (valued in money please, so that we can compare costs with benefits), whether those benefits are environmental or more direct and, finally, show us that the benefits are greater than the costs. Please do add in CO2 savings for example, using the Stern review's estimate of social cost.

And no, saying that we've a new state religion and that we should all be required to worship Gaia for an appropriate time each week won't cut it. Anyway, it should be easy to provide these numbers – even though the government clearly hasn't done a proper cost benefit analysis, surely those urging us all to recycle more will have done so – won't they?

Slug path
Old Teaser