Heresy ahead.

At a recent git-together up in Clemson, my friend Dr. Hmnahmna washed out all the empty glass bottles and took them home to recycle. Nothing odd about that, except that “home” was in the middle of Virginia, 400 miles away. I believe the Doctor received cash for the bottles, but if not, then I hope he was compensated for his actions via the emotional high one gets from saving the planet or the satisfaction of doing one’s civic duty.

Either way, it reminded me of a conversation I had a while back. A person we’ll call “Rube” mentioned that he believes recycling helps save the planet and that he encourages people to recycle, but that he doesn’t recycle because neither the city nor his subdivision gave him a recycling bin.

I mentioned that I recycle some things such as aluminum or plastic when it’s convenient, but never paper. I figure, the more we recycle paper, the less demand there will be for trees, thus fewer trees will be planted.

It’s a simple economic calculation. Recycling has a benefit: companies can use recycled stuff to make new products without having to find or use new resources. Recycling also has a cost: the time, effort, and resources it takes to recycle that stuff. If the benefit is greater than the cost, recycle. If not, then don’t. One way to tell whether recycling is worthwhile is to see whether companies are willingly paying for recycled materials. If they aren’t, then perhaps it’s actually wasteful to recycle.

I pointed out that Rube had made a similar calculation. He weighed the benefits against the costs of recycling, concluded that the effort of recycling without a collection bin handy would not be worth the benefits, and decided not to recycle.

Rube glared at me with utter revulsion and asked if I was crazy. His reaction surprised me for a split second and then I realized that in my calculations, I had forgotten the moral aspect of recycling. You see, merely believing that “recycling is a cardinal virtue” makes up for not actually recycling.

The flip side is that actually recycling does not make up for the belief that “recycling is a matter of efficiency and economics.” Ignorance was no excuse; I begged forgiveness and recited the “Captain Planet” theme song 40 times as penance.