I have long suspected, but can't prove, that most of the recycling we do is worthless. I look in my recycling bin and think -- it's got to be cheaper to start with the raw material than what's in this bin. The problem is hidden system costs. For example, everyone thinks they are saving energy by recycling. But in my town, as in most towns, recycling basically doubles the vehicle miles driven by the sanitation trucks to get all the waste out, because we get a visit from the "trash" truck and later in the week get a visit from the "recycling" truck. Plus there is all that extra labor in the pickup and the sorting. And that is all before the processing costs. And all this is without even considering the staggering amount of "free" labor the recycling system gets from you and I as individuals.**
The Mises Blog has a link to the online video of a Penn & Teller Bullshit! show that takes on this very issue. Since its Penn & Teller, its both funny and smart, and comes to the conclusion that only aluminum can recycling really makes sense. All the rest is a big feel-good circle jerk that really saves no money or energy. Its particularly funny when they put about 15 different colored cans in front of one guys home and tells him each is for a different type of material. The one addition I would make is that reusing an object for its original use almost always saves money -- for example, we save Amazon boxes to use when we ship things out.
Along the same lines of hidden costs, this study sent to me by a reader looks at the total lifetime energy costs of automobiles, including their manufacturing and transportation as well as their fuel use. I can't vouch for it's accuracy, but the results are somewhat surprising -- for example, most hybrids have lifetime energy costs higher than average for vehicles.
** But recycling is easy! It hardly takes any time! Well, let's say it takes only an incremental 1 minute a week from each individual in the country to recycle (a number that is lower than the actual, I think). That translates to 260 million man-hours a year or the equivalent of 130,000 full time jobs.