Myopic Charity

Andrew Sullivan —  May 4 2012 @ 6:33pm

Virginia Postrel discovers that donating old eyeglasses makes no economic sense:

Recycling old glasses makes people feel generous and thrifty. They believe they’re helping people and saving money. They think the glasses they donate are “free,” because they don’t consider all the hidden costs of sorting and shipping them. And they don’t realize just how cheap manufacturing new glasses has become. If they really wanted to help people see, they’d send money.

Adam Minter, who is writing a book on recycling, puts this in context:

One of the themes that I'm hitting very hard in my book is that recycling is a fundamentally economic activity. Nobody sorts somebody else's garbage for free. Most of the developing world understands that, while the developed world – the EU and US, in particular – seems intent on seeing recycling as a moral activity (and a means of tribal identity) above all else. Unfortunately, when people view waste and recycling in moral terms, rather than economic ones, they have an unerring tendency to demand local governments set up recycling programs that are destined to lose money from the get-go (like curbside recycling in spread-out Houston). Meanwhile, the folks who know how to make money from recycling, like scrap yards, are denigrated and often subjected to totally unreasonable barriers to entry (and exit). Seems like similar dynamics at play in the glasses trade (with some obvious differences).