Say I buy a glass bottle, I can either put it in the landfill or recycle it. My understanding is, glass will breakdown into sand. (Not sure how well though, since we sometimes find glass from Roman times.) Alternatively we can recycle it.

But I was wondering wouldn't this put some people out of work? Such as the people who have to mine all the silica for use in making the glass in the first place. And considering it is more economic to recycle glass, this seems like fewer humans would be needed.

Therefore could I make the case that not recycling my glass bottle is helping with employment. On the other hand, recycling might be helping the economy as a whole and there might be more money in the economy for public sector jobs. Which is right?

  • $\begingroup$ Are you asking "which is right" in [economics] theory, or in practice? You've already received the theoretical answer: it's an ambiguous effect without getting into specifics of production & recycling processes [or any aggregate labor statistics of those, which do actually exist]. But you already seem to sense that theoretical ambiguity. So is your question about empirical evidence? $\endgroup$ – Fizz Oct 16 '19 at 8:11
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    $\begingroup$ en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parable_of_the_broken_window $\endgroup$ – Sneftel Oct 16 '19 at 8:47
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    $\begingroup$ The point of the broken window fallacy is that you cannot create value by destroying value, not that you cannot manipulate economic forces such that there are winners and losers. "The Economy" is not "a particular country's economy". $\endgroup$ – Sneftel Oct 16 '19 at 15:48
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    $\begingroup$ @zooby If the net benefit were positive, it would be the creation of the motorway -- and, distally, the creation of the right-of-way for the motorway -- which led to that benefit, rather than the resources spent by the homeowners to replace those destroyed houses. $\endgroup$ – Sneftel Oct 16 '19 at 15:54
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    $\begingroup$ You could throw all your garbage on the ground to create more work for janitors and cleanup crews. You could start fires to make more work for firefighters and rescue operators. You could become a bank robber to create more work for police and other security personnel. You could become a serial killer to create more work for forensics analysts and coroners. This argument could be taken to any extreme, but none of these contribute to the overall betterment of society. $\endgroup$ – Darrel Hoffman Oct 16 '19 at 17:35

Any invention that replaces human labor puts an end to that specific task. Glass recycling eliminates (or decrease) the need for silica-gathering task. Typewriter eliminates the need for printing press typesetter. Etc.

Those people whose tasks are eliminated will get reallocated to their most productive use. This might be in the form of job change (silica miner move to coal miner), or might be in the form of task redefinition (the book Prediction Machines describe how self-driving school bus might shift the main task of a school bus driver to an adult who oversees and "teaches" the schoolchildren.)

Going back to your question, recycling also creates new jobs. They need people to sort bottles, maybe drive a recycling truck, etc. So whether an invention leads to more or less job is ambiguous.

Added: While the effect on a specific industry might be quantifiable, if you take into account job mobility, etc. then the effect on the whole labor market is ambiguous.

Regardless, an invention that increases productivity should increase the size of the pie. We can produce more from the same resources. How that bigger pie is divided, however, is another very important question altogether.

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    $\begingroup$ (Re 3rd para) It's ambiguous only if we don't get into the specifics of each industry. Otherwise one may be able to answer it one way or the other for specific production and recycling processes. $\endgroup$ – Fizz Oct 16 '19 at 2:59
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    $\begingroup$ Just to extend with an example: in 1900, 40% of jobs were agricultural. In 2000, 2% of jobs were agricultural. If you ask people from 1900, they'll assume that the other 38% living in the year 2000 are now unemployed, because people from 1900 don't know what a sofware developer, SEO expert, smartphone manufacturer, ... is and they can't account for the employment that accompanies it. People will always find something to do. Automating a menial task opens the market to finding something more productive to do with the manhours saved through automation. $\endgroup$ – Flater Oct 16 '19 at 13:56
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    $\begingroup$ @zooby: The main point of recycling is not to lower manhours, but to lower environmental impact. This means that recycling does not necessarily lead to less employment. Consider the difference in needing to hire people to sort and wash the recycled glass, compared to indiscriminately throwing it all in a landfill and mining more silica. In theory, it's perfectly possible that glass sorting/washing leads to more jobs than the silica mining sector would lose out on. It might not be the case for glass specifically, but the general point still stands. $\endgroup$ – Flater Oct 16 '19 at 13:59
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    $\begingroup$ @zooby: Compare this to e.g. SpaceX recycling its booster rockets. Here, the main incentive is to not have to build new boosters (which takes more time and effort than fixing a spent one), and the main goal is to lower manhours spent. For this example, your argument is valid, but you'd still miss the point that lowered hours would lead to more/cheaper launches, rather than the frequency of launches being unchanged and less labor being available. $\endgroup$ – Flater Oct 16 '19 at 14:01
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    $\begingroup$ @Delioth: Less labor does incentivize a company to take on fewer jobs (unless they are able to just increase the workload - but then it's not "less labor" anymore either). Employees are effectively manhours to a company. When you need fewer manhours, you need fewer employees. No one is going to pay their employees for the hours they don't need to work due to lowered labor. $\endgroup$ – Flater Oct 16 '19 at 21:57

In the classical model, recycling (and most other changes in modes of consumption) doesn't change employment either way in the long term. The jobs gained by recycling are lost from other sectors and the jobs lost are gained.

Shifting away from the classical model, there are short term changes in employment from shocks in which recycling as a profession becomes more or less attractive to the point to induce workers to change jobs. During that switch unemployment will increase, but over time it should settle to its "natural" rate (which is determined by a host of unrelated factors).

Another factor in employment is in the skills possessed and required for jobs. Maybe many of the people currently employed in recycling are very low-skill workers. If these people lose their current jobs it may be difficult to find a job that they meet the requirements for. That would increase unemployment.

If recycling is actually less beneficial than the alternatives (as glass specifically may be), then employment in the long run may decrease as the economy becomes healthier.


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