The government constantly tells us that recycling is a wonderful idea. TV advertisements bombard us with this message. Children are taught to recycle at school. But are the environmental benefits of recycling really worth the economic cost?
That cost is growing rapidly. The landfill tax, introduced to encourage recycling, will increase by an inflation-busting 14 per cent in April. This levy will cost UK businesses and householders £900m in 2007.
Then there are the costs of collecting and reprocessing the recyclable materials an estimated £400m per year, paid for by council tax payers.
Numerous EU waste directives are also being forced on different industries. The Waste Electronic and Electrical Equipment Directive alone cost British business £200m in 2006.
Despite all this expenditure, running into billions, it is difficult to identify any significant benefits from recycling except where it occurs commercially without government intervention, as in the traditional scrap metal business.
The amount of municipal waste being sent to landfill has declined, but then again modern landfill sites have few negative environmental impacts. They are lined so that pollution cannot seep into water courses. Unpleasant odours and dust are carefully controlled.
Often landfill has a positive role in rehabilitating landscapes scarred by quarrying, such as the Yorkshire Wolds.
It is a myth that there is no more room for landfill. Currently, landfill sites take up a little over one tenth of one per cent of the UK. Since rubbish rots and can be piled up, there is no practical limit on the amount of waste that can be stored. Any shortage of landfill capacity has been artificially created by the planning system and a government desperate to provide a rationale for costly recycling policies.
Another argument is that recycling saves energy and therefore reduces carbon emissions. Yet the amount saved is trivial, and there are far more efficient ways of reducing consumption for example, by ending subsidies to almost empty trains and buses.
Even if every steel can in the UK was recycled the amount saved would amount to less than one-thousandth of the country's annual energy usage.
Many people also believe that recycling paper saves trees. In fact, the opposite is true. Recycling reduces the demand for wood pulp and reduces the value of trees. Fewer are therefore planted. This is a shame because young forests are particularly good at absorbing greenhouse gases.
Recycling may also be having a damaging effect on many Third World countries. Some, such as Jamaica, are heavily reliant on exports of raw materials such as bauxite (to make aluminium) and iron ore (to make steel). By subsidising recycling, the Government is indulging in a form of protectionism, effectively reducing the demand for imported raw materials while artificially supporting the domestic waste-processing industry.
Poverty is the real enemy of a clean environment. In Africa, tens of thousands die every year from respiratory diseases caused by burning wood and dung in open fires for cooking.
Recycling both reduces the income of poor countries that rely on raw material exports and reduces economic growth in industrialised countries burdened with additional taxation and red tape.
Given that the environmental case is weak and that the economic case is non-existent, why does the Government continue to promote recycling?
One answer is that it doesn't have much choice. EU legislation means that unless the proportion of household waste recycled is increased dramatically, local councils will face huge fines of up to £150 per tonne. This is particularly worrying for boroughs such as Bradford and Scarborough, where recycling rates are well below the national average.
Within local authorities there are also those with much to gain from the growth in recycling. A growing army of bureaucrats has been employed to supervise the implementation of EU targets by microchipping wheelie bins and rummaging through other people's rubbish a Soviet-style nightmare that few could have envisaged even five years ago.
Many waste-processing companies have also gained from recent legislation, and these comprise an influential lobby in favour of further protection and subsidy for their industry.
The main losers are ordinary householders facing increases in council tax, higher prices in the shops and being forced to perform the pointless chore of separating out their tin cans and newspapers.
With the introduction of hefty fines for those who refuse to recycle, it remains to be seen how much state control will be necessary to enforce these costly and misguided policies.
Richard Wellings is Deputy Editorial Director at the Institute of Economic Affairs
Recent IEA publications on environmental issues include:
Climate Alarmism Reconsidered by Robert Bradley Jr.
Global Warming False Alarms by Russell Lewis.