Recycling household garbage is an issue that offers many valuable lessons about applying economic principles to environmental policy. It is an area where public perceptions and political prescriptions are out of sync with the real environmental and economic issues. To sort out fact from fiction, I recommend a process that I call applying the "Kaitlyn test."

Kaitlyn is my neighbor who, when she was four years old, began every conversation with, "Whatcha doing?" Once this question was answered, the rest of the conversation was then driven by a series of "Whys?" with an occasional "Why not?" interspersed.

A hypothetical conversation between (an economically informed) Kaitlyn and a dyed-in-the-wool recycling advocate (in italics) might go something like this:

Whatcha doing? Recycling.

Why? Because we’re running out of landfill space.

But landfill capacity is growing, not shrinking. Fees charged for dumping garbage are declining.

Why are you recycling? Because solid waste facilities are ticking time bombs.

But all currently operating landfills present a risk of only one cancer incidence every thirteen years and the latest regulations will reduce this to one case every seventeen years. Properly fitted and operated waste-to-energy plants present a one in a million risk of a premature cancer death to a person standing at the plant fence line for seventy years.

Why are you recycling? Because we are saving resources.

But prices being paid for some recycled materials are very low in many parts of the country. Sometimes the prices are even negative — someone must be paid to take the recovered materials away. Doesn’t this mean that more valuable resources are being wasted to collect and reprocess these materials than are being saved by recycling them?

Kaitlyn, I think I hear your mother calling you.

In many ways, recycling is a "solution" in search of a problem. It is a very valid component of an integrated approach to municipal solid waste management in some areas of the country at some times; it is not the preferred approach in all areas at all times. Many curbside recycling programs are very uneconomical.

Paper recycling saves a renewable resource, not one that cannot be reproduced. Glass recycling can save fossil fuel if it can be collected economically and transported short distances to a reprocessing plant; otherwise, reprocessing glass wastes energy resources. Aluminum is recycled at a relatively high rate — 63 percent for cans; 52 percent overall — because significant energy costs are saved over what is required to extract and refine bauxite to make virgin aluminum.

Consumers are most deceived about plastics recycling, especially plastic packaging. They are convinced that vast amounts of fossil fuels will be wasted unless plastics are collected and reprocessed.

But plastics use less than 3 percent of all the energy consumed in the United States annually. Plastic products use 7 percent of the natural gas and 2 percent of the oil consumed. Plastic packaging is a fraction of the total plastic end uses and consumes less than 1 percent of all fossil fuels used in the United States. Thus, even if plastic packaging could be recycled at a 25 percent rate, the net saving in fossil fuel use clearly is trivial pursuit — 0.25 percent of the total.

Many materials have proven to be economically recyclable and overall recovery rates have climbed from 10 percent of municipal waste to 27 percent over the past decade and a half. And some bad ideas to force industries to do uneconomical recycling have been abandoned over this period. However, if we want to see recycling policy that is environmentally and economically sound, we need to rigorously apply the "Kaitlyn test" to all proposed (and current) solid waste management practices.