Changing the way we recycle

A couple of NZ city councils have recently considered changing the way they run recycling. Wellington and Christchurch currently fund their kerbside recycling scheme through rates. They proposed to switch to a system whereby recycling bags would have to be bought by residents, much like council rubbish bags.

There are a few benefits to switching to bags. First, the people who use the recycling service would pay for it, rather than it being funded by all ratepayers equally. Secondly, there would be a marginal cost to using the service, which would decrease usage.

The primary complaint of ratepayers was that paying for bags would mean that what was previously recycled went into the trash. This misunderstands the scheme: the cost of recycling bags was proposed to be lower than the cost of rubbish bags meaning that recycling would still save money. Furthermore, recycling isn’t socially or environmentally costless and we should seek to reduce the amount of recycling we do as well and reducing the amount of rubbsih we generate. Moving from a fixed cost to a variable cost regime for recycling would give residents some incentive to reduce the amount of waste they generate, rather than thinking it is costless to recycle.

The councils’ proposals sounded eminently sensible and probably welfare increasing, yet they were stymied by the outrage of ratepayers at being forced to pay marginal recycling costs. Was the scheme marketed badly or do people really prefer to pay average cost over paying for their own recycling? Do they not like the idea of their own costs savings benefitting them? I’m mystified!

  • I can’t help but think this misses a basic question: Is recycling worth it in the first place? From what I’ve seen of the costs and benefits of the Christchurch scheme the answer may be no.

  • Dave

    I think the context of the Christchurch complaint is that the Christchurch residents are getting a brand new gold-plated “free” recycling scheme with three different wheelie bins (recycling, garden waste, and rubbish), while the businesses in the article are aggrieved that they are the only ones that have to pay just because there’s nowhere to put the wheelie bins in the central city.

  • Eric Crampton

    It would have made a lot of sense to charge for recycling in Christchurch under our old scheme, where we paid $1.20 per garbage bag but $0 for recycling. The cost on garbage bags approximately covered incremental costs; there remained some subsidy to landfill use because the first N bags were “free”. Now that we pay nothing for waste going to landfill, it would be tough to start charging for recycling. What I wish they’d have done instead: make the recycle bin the smaller of the two, and accept only recycling that’s worth collecting in the recycle bin. By “worth” I mean materials that have net economic value.

  • DanT


    Okay – user pays. But to avoid there being distortions, let us be sure that there are user pays for kerbside rubbish collection levied at a comparable level (ie not skewing things in favour of kerbside recycling or simply throwing the recycling in with the rubbish).

  • @ Paul Walker

    I don’t know what the social costs and benefits of recycling are, Paul. If you have some numbers on it, or a link, that would be really interesting, thanks.

    @ Chch people

    As a Wellingtonian I only know what I read in that Press article about Chch recycling. Here we pay per bag for kerbside rubbish and the council wanted to introduce cheaper bags for recycling instead of funding bins through the rates. Eric’s proposal seems most like what our council wanted to do. I agree it would be strange to charge for recycling when rubbish pickup is costless.

    @ DanT

    We would definitely need to think about the relative social costs of dealing with rubbish and recycling. Perhaps your workplace has some useful info on it that you coudl share with us?

  • insider

    Isn’t it purely psychological – people note and resent the direct fee even though it is controllable, but pay no mind to the indirect and higher fee they can’t control. That’s just the way we are.

    NZBCSD released a survey that said people would buy biofuels if they were 10cpl less – well of course they would, even if that meant they were paying more for the rest of their fuel to make up the lost tax revenue that would be necessary to reduce biofuel costs.

    People would rather pay 80c for a 1000hr lightbulb now and $10 to run and buy replacements it even though they could get one for $4 that would only cost $3 to run and it would go for 7000 hours.

    We are creatures most stimulated by direct stimulus.

  • DanT

    Hi Rauparaha,

    How do you know where I work? Hehe.

    I can’t think of anything to hand on this, but in a spare moment will check it out. Suspect that kind of analysis has not been done…

  • “I don’t know what the social costs and benefits of recycling are,”

    Does anyone know the economic and environmental costs and benefits of recycling? ie does it cost more or less than dumping and have a greater or lesser impact on the environment?