Free Market Recycling

June 8, 2015
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Environmentalists often assume that free markets work against their goals. But the market is the best friend of the natural world because it generates constant pressure to innovate, to cut costs, and to use resources efficiently. The price system prompts consumers and businesses to minimize consumption of dwindling resources. To ease California’s water problems, for example, we need markets not regulatory controls.

The Wall Street Journal today has a pair of stories on scrap metal recycling:

Waste has long been a major U.S. export, providing material to be melted in foreign steel mills or made into new paper products. But the strength of the dollar has made American waste pricier abroad, cutting demand…

… That has been hard on the network of waste dealers and scrap gatherers who are the backbone of the industry. Bob Hooper, who goes by Hoop, finds discarded metal on curbs and in dumpsters around Pittsburgh and carries it to scrapyards in a rusting Chevy pickup with a bungee cord to keep the driver’s door shut.

… On a recent day, he hauled in more than 1,000 pounds of scrap, including two discarded refrigerators, a water heater and a broken microwave buried in egg shells and other moist trash. After gasoline expenses, he netted about $80.

From a related story in today’s Journal:

Wherever he goes in his Chevy pickup, Bob “Hoop” Hooper scans for discarded metal—a mangled bike, a broken microwave, even a beer can. “That’s like the No. 1 rule of scrapping,” Mr. Hooper, 48 years old, explained recently. “Don’t pass up metal.”

Scrapping—gathering metal and selling it to scrap dealers—is a tough job, involving excavations inside dumpsters, forays into dangerous neighborhoods and, lately, falling metal prices.

… Most mornings he hits the road around 9 a.m., and by late afternoon has filled the back of his pickup and earned anywhere from $40 to several hundred dollars at scrapyards. In the evening, he dismantles appliances and sorts valuable metals like copper and brass into plastic buckets. “It gives me something to do while I’m watching TV,” he said.

One regular stop is a housing complex with 31 dumpsters. On a recent morning, he found an umbrella and a mop in one. “It don’t seem like much, but as long as you’re getting something from every stop, it piles up,” he said.

Green groups often confer awards on politicians who press for more control over markets. But they should instead champion people like Bob Hooper. He is devoting his career to recycling, which is helping to reduce landfill waste. His work also boosts the economy, which we know because he is earning a net return in the marketplace.

Bob Hooper has a dirty job, but he is creating a cleaner environment the market-based way.

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