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What the Turks Can Teach Us about Recycling

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Tags The EnvironmentFree MarketsInterventionism

06/10/2011Doug French
"Forcing people to spend time separating garbage turns the division of labor on its head."

After battling the teacher's union in Wisconsin, that state's governor, Scott Walker, proposed a state budget that would have eliminated mandatory recycling. The outrage came fast and furious. An editorial at TheJournalTimes.com began with

Recycling has developed into a service too valuable to toss on the scrap heap.

Some officials worry Wisconsin communities will revert to a sort of Wild West dumping ground if Gov. Scott Walker's budget passes as is. Under the plan, subsidies for local recycling programs would end and municipalities would no longer be required to run those programs.

The editorial went on to say recycling is cleaner than garbage, trims energy use, creates jobs, and keeps tons of waste from ending up in landfills.

The governor quickly folded his plan when he failed to get the backing of key Republican lawmakers, who said his plan goes too far. So Wisconsin residents can look forward to sorting and separating their paper, plastic, and cans under the thumb of Wisconsin authorities. It's now radical to believe that people should just throw unwanted items away. To allow people to do this is "going too far."

Forcing people to spend time separating garbage turns the division of labor on its head. Wisconsin residents could hire specialists to come to their homes to separate the garbage, but that would be costly and inefficient. Plus, the government mandate gives no consideration to which materials have value in the scrap market.

As Wisconsin's Governor Scott Walker learned the hard way, it's now radical to believe that people should just throw unwanted items away.

So while in certain cities of the United States, people are forced to sort through their own garbage, in a number of places in the world, residents throw away their trash with no worries. The trash will be sorted and removed by the estimated 15 million waste pickers in the world.

Spend any time in Istanbul and you see (mostly) men pulling what look to be large canvas bags strapped to steel frames on two wheels. They are everywhere — residential and commercial areas.

Before the municipal garbage trucks pull up to empty trash bins, these waste pickers comb through the trash, pulling out paper, plastic, glass, or anything else they know they can sell. The typical garbage collectors reportedly earn from 50 to 100 Turkish lira a week.

But there is considerable upside depending upon what a picker may find in the trash.

In the words of one trash picker,

Every garbage can contains a new dream. You go to a garbage bin. You dip your hand inside, and you start dreaming about what you might find. Perhaps it will be something valuable. And if you don't find it in this bin, you go to the next. In this manner, you can walk for seven or eight hours daily.

There are eskicis who have made 17,000 lira in a day. Mevlüt Çavuş is the manager of a Sarıyer junkyard and has been in the trash business for 15 years. He has two sons working for him, and the youngest will also work in the business when he's older.

A priest asked Çavuş to come clean up a church in Yeniköy. The result:

When I returned to the depot I discovered that silver statue weighing 8.5 kilograms and a candleholder in one of the boxes. I sold them for 17 billion lira [equivalent to 17,000 lira today] I went out and bought myself a Citroen car. We come across surprises like this from time to time in our profession.

Waste pickers collect materials for hours and then take them to depots where junk dealers buy and sell the thrown-away goods. Emir Altıngöller deals in recyclables by the kilogram, buying for 40 kuruş and selling for 60 kuruş. On the worst of days he makes 10 lira, while on the best of days it's ten times that. "He is thankful and content with his lot because he says he appreciates being self-employed," writes Fatma Turan for Today's Zaman.

Americans who are forced to recycle receive nothing for separating their glass and plastic and must pay a monthly fee to hand over their recyclables free of charge in the proper bins, on the appointed days, to employees making union wages and working for the local monopoly-protected waste companies. In Sweden all citizens must root through their trash. Per Bylund explains that Swedish recycling

works the way all centrally planned structures work: it increases and centralizes power while the attempted (expected) results do not materialize. In this case, the structure works: people do sort their trash in different bins — they have no choice. Also, government garbage collection companies do not have to do as much work while getting paid more than ever before. People are annoyed, but do not really react. Swedes generally complain a lot (about everything), but they do not resist; they are used to being pushed around by powerful government and have tolerated this fate ever since 1523.

In Istanbul, eskicis bear the risk that all entrepreneurs do. They don't get paid by the hour. What they fish from trash receptacles may or may not be valuable one day to the next, and competition is growing.

Murat Ayduda tells Today's Zaman that business a few years ago was terrible. "People were throwing iron into the trash and so was I. But things started to get better just a few months ago." But as prices have firmed more competitors have entered the market. "Back in the day there was only one junkyard in a city, but nowadays there's a few in every neighborhood."

This is how the market is supposed to work. And there is a market for trash as there is for anything else. There are employment opportunities for everyone, no matter the skill level. However, Americans would likely be horrified to see entrepreneurs pulling carts of other people's trash through the streets and living at junkyards. They needn't worry. Minimum-wage laws, business licensing, OSHA requirements and all the rest will keep some Americans rooting through their own trash to comply with government edicts.

"Private recycling is the world's second oldest, if not the oldest, profession," writes Floy Lilley.

Recyclers were just called scavengers. Everything of value has always been recycled. You will automatically know that something is of value when someone offers to buy it from you, or you see people picking through your waste or diving into dumpsters.

There is no question recycling is valuable, but like anything else, it's best left to the market to coordinate.

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