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When people think of recycling, they imagine a process that “helps the environment stay healthy.” When people recycle they think, “Oh, I’m helping  to save the environment! I am a good person!” The sad truth of the matter, however, is that recycling doesn’t help the environment in any way, shape or form.

In this article, I will focus on why recycling paper doesn’t help the environment, and not focus on plastics. Although there is solid evidence that recycling plastics doesn’t do much to help the environment either, I do not have room here to post all of the data supporting my claim. Thus I will exclusively discuss the pointlessness of recycling paper.

When people recycle paper, they must think about why they are recycling. That is, what is the ultimate goal of recycling? In this case, the goal is to save trees.

The general argument in favor of recycling is that doing so saves trees from being cut down. Proponents of the process claim that recycling paper not only saves trees, but also saves the energy that would be used to cut these trees  down in the first place.

On a superficial level, this seems like a solid argument. After all, what is the point of destroying trees and wasting extra energy when one can just choose not to? The answer to this question lies in simple economics.

I urge you to take Principles of Economics with Professor Michael Rizzo in the fall. On the first day of class, you will learn about incentives. No matter what anybody tells you, everybody has a price. If someone asked you to go to Iran and stay there for a day — just for the heck of it — you might say something along the lines of, “no way in hell.” If you were offered twenty billion dollars, however, you might change your mind.

Just as there are incentives for everybody, there are incentives for corporations and companies in conducting their business, including paper companies. In order to make paper, paper companies have to destroy trees and use the bark to make paper. This is where an environmentalist would say, “Ha! See? Paper companies destroy trees to make new paper! Thus you should recycle and use recycled paper so that they cease killing so many of our beautiful trees!”

What such environmentalists fail to mention, however, is that those same companies often plant new trees in order to grow more paper. In fact, many times these companies grow more trees than the amount that are destroyed. They do it because they have an incentive to do so — the incentive being profits that would come from selling paper, which would be made from the newly planted trees. Recycling paper, however, reduces this incentive.

When one recycles paper, one contributes the recycled paper sold in stores. When stores like Staples sell more recycled paper, they sell less non-recycled paper. As a result of stores having less demand for the non-recycled paper, paper companies make less paper because they know that they need to produce less of it. Since they need to produce less paper, they choose to plant fewer trees. This action, in turn, leads to there being fewer trees in the world.

Thus, by recycling paper — and trying to save trees — one actually reduces paper companies’ incentive to plant trees, which results in there being less trees than there would have been if one simply didn’t recycle in the first place. For this reason, when someone tells me to recycle paper, I just throw it in the trash.

Dashan is a member of the class of 2014.

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