ESPN, of all places, has some interesting policy commentary on recycling policy, prompted by a report that New York is cracking down on "thieves" who pick up discarded items before government contractors do:
The New York City Sanitation Department pays a company called Sims Municipal Recycling about $65 million annually to pick up and recycle metal, glass and aluminum. Notice what's happening here? Recycling is supposed to make economic sense. If it did, the recycling company would be paying the city. Instead, the city is paying the company. Montgomery County, Md., my home county, imposed recycling rules saying they made economic sense. Now the county charges homeowners $210 annually as a recycling tax. If recycling made economic sense, government would pay homeowners for the privilege of picking up their valuable materials. Instead, New York City, Montgomery County and many other government bodies charge citizens for something they claim makes economic sense....Often the goal of government-imposed recycling program is to use lack of understanding of economics to reach into citizens' pockets and forcibly extract money that bureaucrats can control....Notice what else is happening here -- New York City pays a company millions of dollars to do something "thieves" will do for free. The "thieves" harm no one, and could save New York City taxpayers considerable money. But then bureaucrats wouldn't be in control.
The characterization that "New York City pays a company millions of dollars to do something 'thieves' will do for free" is probably a bit of an oversimplification. The "thieves" won't pick up all of the allegedly recyclable stuff from every house in the city; they'll just cream off the most valuable stuff, while leaving the stuff that isn't valuable for the city contractors. Without that valuable stuff, the city contractor would probably have to raise the price it charges the city for that service of picking up all the not valuable stuff from every home, or that job would have to be done by the same sanitation workers who are having a tough time clearing the streets of snow. On the broader point, though, that sometimes the unregulated, chaotic free market — "thieves" — can better accomplish tasks than government does — this is an intriguing example.