Get rich stealing old newspapers and bottles!

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It's a sign of the times: rustling through the trash for recyclable goods to redeem for a few cents is no longer the vocation of the downtrodden. It's gone mainstream.

The USA Todayreports that a truck full of recyclables can be worth as much as $1,000, with newspapers worth $600. It's an organized industry featuring fleets of trucks and cell phones looking to take advantage of rising commodity prices. Much of the paper makes its way over to China where it's less plentiful. Some cities have laws against stealing recyclables because they rely on the revenue to fund the collections.

But here's what I wonder about, from an economic standpoint: if collecting recyclables is so profitable in thickly-settled areas, why bother with a city-sponsored effort at all? Wouldn't it make more sense to let enterprising individuals collect and sell the "merchandise" on their own, rather than putting a bunch of people on the town's payroll, and then using the police to enforce the monopoly? Certain services need to be handled publicly -- police, fire, etc. -- but does recycling really fit the bill? It makes sense when it's a public good in need of subsidy but when old newspapers can be sold for big profits, maybe we should just let the market work.
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