Google 'recycling' and what you get is a series of articles quoting scary statistics about the amount of waste we generate every year, tips for more effective recycling and calls to join the 'green revolution'. Combine recycling with almost every other search term you can think of ('recycling statistics', 'recycling facts') and you still get pretty much the same picture.
There is, however, a unique combination that will yield quite different results: 'recycling costs'.
Recycling is expensive. Even without taking into account the demands it places on people's time (a valuable resource), I think it is fair to say that most recycling programmes are loss making operations. While I could go on and on naming one local authority after another, the fact that private recycling operations are nowhere to be seen - with very few exceptions - neatly settles the argument.
When you read about a recycling programme 'paying for itself', what you see in effect is a covert tax on residents. When you see a recycling programme losing money, what you are witnessing is a public subsidy to the tree-hugger in all of us.
All the while, and completely discounting current welfare ('financial') considerations, it is at best debatable that recycling lives up to its purported raison d'etre - saving the planet. The environmental costs of recycling may well be far in excess of simply dumping waste. Extra trucks are needed on the road to collect the recycled bins, pumping tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. For many materials, the environmental cost of the energy used in recycling them is more than the environmental cost of simply tapping on nature's reserve to replace them.
Since the consumption of virgin materials or energy is not priced at marginal social cost, it is impossible to say with certainty whether a specific recycling operation is good for the environment simply by looking at the profit and loss account. For most materials, however, the available evidence seem to suggest that recycling is like shooting ourselves in the foot, all the while feeling we are doing the planet a great service.
Addendum: While looking at recycling, I came across this Wired article about GPI Atlantic's costing of the recycling programme in Nova Scotia. The headline finding was that Nova Scotia saved 'anywhere from $25 million to $125 million a year'. Here's more:
Simply adding up the costs of recycling and the revenue generated from sales of recycled materials would show that the program cost the province $18 million a year more than just throwing trash into landfills.
To get an accurate picture of the real value of Nova Scotia's recycling and composting program, the report considered a number of factors, including [...] the direct and indirect value generated from new employment in the recycling sector.
I assume that the recycling programme hired only chronically unempoyed, or even better, unemployable people - and I hereby petition the government to extend this beneficial policy and hire loads more in loss making public enterprises at subsidised wages. The direct and indirect value generated from employment of this type is surely worth it.