Friday, February 6, 2009


Perform an experiment with me for a second. Close your eyes and picture your trash can full to the rim with your weekly refuse. Now close your eyes and picture Gillian Anderson naked. (The second one is just sort of an imaginary pallet cleanser, like sliced ginger during a sushi feast.) Now close your eyes again and picture your recycle bin full to the top with the week’s recyclables. If you’re like most people you imagine Gillian Anderson's boobs way bigger than they actually are, and you picture the trash as a steaming, festering heap of filth that looks something like Pizza the Hut from Spaceballs, while the recycling bin smells of fresh muffins and has butterflies and scantily clad fairies dancing around it. Why the difference? Both the recycling bin and the trash can are filled with items that you deem worthless. In fact, you want to be rid is this stuff so badly that you are willing to pay someone for its removal. Of course, the difference between the two is all in perception. We perceive the trash as going to some place that is very near to Hell on Earth where it is dumped into a lake of bubbling mud and sulfuric acid and is inhabited by filthy, rag-wearing scavengers that look like the cast of Mad Max mated with the cast of The Hills Have Eyes. Meanwhile, the recycling is swept away to Wonkaland by singing Umpa Lumpas that happily sort, clean and redistribute your old beer bottles to poor multinational corporations in need. It’s been beat into our heads so much that recycling is going to save the environment that it is now a subject that is beyond reproach. After all, it is government mandated. So, it goes without saying that recycling everything is a net benefit to the environment, and anyone that dares to question that fact shall be immediately subjected water torture with a mixture of patchouli and wheat-grass lemonade then put to death by beating with Birkenstocks about the neck and head. Seems like the perfect subject for us to dissect then, doesn’t it?

I live in an area of the country where the environment is religion, and recycling is the cross we bear for that religion. The three R’s are preached from every pulpit, and recycling is held above all other R’s. I’ve had this little devil on my shoulder for quite a while now whispering in my ear that something about this whole recycling religion just doesn’t add up. With the posts of the last couple of weeks I thought that this was as good of a time as any to dig a little deeper into what my gut feeling seems to be telling me. As it turns out, this has been the most resource intensive post that I have written to date. I have spent many hours pouring over report after report, sifting through journal articles and trade publications, and I still feel like the problem is overly complicated. But I think we should be able to tackle a few basic questions. Should we actually be recycling? Should it be mandatory? Should we have to pay? Is recycling a net benefit to the environment?

Recycling is one of the things that we do for the environment every day, and we have some sort of physical indicator as to how much we are helping. At the end of the week we look at our overflowing recycling bins and think, “Golly, I’m a swell person. I must have saved 100 baby seals, and, like, a million trees by keeping all of this good stuff out of the nasty, evil landfill.” The problem is that recycling is an industrial process that consumes energy and natural resources. Different trucks have to come to pick up our recyclables. It costs more to pick up recyclables because the trucks carry as much as ten times less stuff. The trucks deliver them to either a holding facility or a sorting plant. At the sorting plant a lot of effort and expenditure is invested into separating glass from plastic from paper and then further separating the types of material (clear glass from colored, etc.). Unusable material is landfilled. The separated materials are then transported again to a processing facility which (depending upon the type of material being processed) uses energy and chemicals to breakdown the recycled material into usable form. This step is hugely resource intensive and generates massive amounts of pollution. These facilities may or may not even be in the U.S. The waste from this process is also landfilled. The usable material is then shipped to the manufacturing facilities where corporations and the economy determine the value and usefulness. All of these separate steps obviously require human labor which, unlike all other resources, is the only resource in manufacturing that actually increases in value over time. Already you can see that recycling is a messy way to “clean up” the environment.

In 2002 the average cost to place a ton of garbage in a landfill in the U.S. was about $34. Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) contractors charged ~$70/ton to pick it up and deliver it to the landfill. The same MSW contractors charged municipalities ~$160/ton for collection and transportation of recyclables. Add on another $100/ton for separation and processing, and that leaves us with ~$260/ton – about $160/ton more than landfilling. Now the materials have to be sold to manufacturers which is where the municipalities hope to gain back some of this lost money. The problem is that most recycled materials (with some notable exceptions) still have no value, certainly not $160/ton. In fact, with the economy in its current state many MSW facilities must pay to dispose of their processed recyclables. Let’s be generous for a second and say that they can unload those materials for $60/ton. Of course they can’t, but I’m in a good mood today. That means that the output for municipalities with a mandatory recycling program must spend about $200/ton to recycle rather than spending $104 to landfill – net loss of $96/ton. Last week I mentioned that ~32% of all of our trash is recycled. If we assume that every municipality were to have a mandatory waste recycling program (curbside pickup) there would be a net loss of around $8 billion due to mandatory recycling in the best case scenario. The actual number is probably closer to double or triple that. Where do you think that extra money comes from? Yep, you guessed it – government subsidies - our taxes. $8 billion may not seem like that much in the scheme of things, but it’s about the same as if 214,000 people gave up their annual wages (on average) so we can pretend to help the environment. Seems like a better solution would be to pay those people to pick up litter full time, no?

Intuitively it seems obvious to me that all of the profitable opportunities for recycling were long ago ferreted out by corporations in order to reduce costs and eek out extra profit. Corporations recycle ~70 million tons of metal and 30 million tons of waste paper, glass, and plastic each year - an amount that dwarfs that of all MSW recycling programs combined. They have economies of scale on their side. Unfortunately, only disguised state and federal subsidies can make the MSW recycling from looking horrible. So, at least economically, mandatory household recycling programs don’t seem to make too much sense, but what about the environmental gains? Well, that’s going to turn out to be another bird’s nest to untangle; so let’s take a look at each of the major classes of recyclables (paper, glass, plastic, metal) to see how they pan out environmentally.

Plastic: As I’ve mentioned before plastic is not economical to recycle for most applications. It costs about $4000 to return $30 worth of material to the market. Since there are many types of plastics which can’t be mixed in making new material, they have to be separated, usually manually. Because of the costs of sorting, processing and transporting this waste plastic there is almost no market for it in the U.S. The fact of the matter is that most plastic collected in curbside recycling in America is either sent to landfills or sold to China when the economy is good. The small amount (only around 3% of our annual production) that is reprocessed into new products doesn’t necessarily save any resources since the reprocessing is energy intensive and causes pollution just as processing virgin petroleum does.

Glass: Next to oxygen, silicon is the most abundant element on the planet. We can probably just stop there. Only about 12% of our annual glass production is recycled. The glass that we do recycle is all mixed up, so, like the plastics above, it has to be sorted before it can be reprocessed. To make new glass sand must be melted which is very energy intensive. To recycle glass the recycled material must also be melted. So it’s almost a wash as far as processing goes, but collection, separation and transportation again puts glass on the possible naughty list.

Paper: Paper has the largest potential to help the environment since it is such a large portion of what we use and throw away. As I discussed a couple of weeks ago, paper production is hugely resource intensive. The one resource that most people are concerned with most in paper processing is of course trees. I see trees as a renewable resource. The U.S. supply of timber has been increasing for decades, and the nation's forests have three times more wood today than in 1920. Tree loss in the rain forest still occurs, but that is mostly due to cattle grazing (fekking cows), not paper production. I guess paper can be seen as an agricultural product, made from trees grown specifically for paper production just like corn coming from cornstalks. It’s obviously more complex than that, but the analogy holds. There’s a bit of an environmental Catch 22 here. When there's less demand for virgin wood pulp because of recycling, logging companies are likely to sell some of their tree farms, possibly to Wal-Mart, condo developers, or cattle ranchers which would result in a net loss of trees. Also, when new paper is made from trees, part of the process is fueled by wood by-products of the pulping process. Less virgin pulp means less pollution at paper mills in timber country, but recycling operations create pollution in areas where more people are affected: fumes and noise from collection trucks, solid waste and pollution from the mills that remove ink and turn the paper into pulp.

Metal: This is the only material that consistently retains value in the free market since mining and processing of ore are so energy intensive and environmentally destructive. Recycling aluminum saves 95% of the energy required to make aluminum from bauxite, and it doesn't change the physical properties of the metal. Using one ton of recycled aluminum prevents the use of 4 tons of bauxite and 700 kg of petroleum coke and pitch, and avoids the emission of 35 kg of aluminum fluoride. Ding, ding, ding! We finally have a winner! We already knew this though, since you never see homeless people pushing shopping carts full of milk jugs and office paper around...unless the milk jugs are full of something {shudder}. We still only recover 9% of the total amount of aluminum and 4% of the steel that we create every year. Let’s take a step back from the minutiae of individual process for a second and look at the big picture.

On the surface at least it seems to me that there are three main environmental goals of recycling: to extend the life of landfills, to reduce pollution associated with extraction of virgin materials from the environment (oil, wood, ore), and to conserve resources for future use. There may be some secondary goals, but I believe these are the big three that drive the whole engine. As I discussed last week, our landfills are not the horrible places we imagine them to be. If fact, I’d rather hang out at a landfill than go to the mall on any given day. Also, we do not need to be concerned with being buried in our own trash which is one of the buttons that fear mongers push repeatedly in discussions about the benefits of recycling. So that leaves us with the last two goals which, as it turns out, are a whole lot more confusing than they seem to be at first glance.

As we can see from the information above, the second stated goal of recycling (to reduce pollution) isn’t as obvious as one might initially think. If the recycling process were a zero sum game then this would be a very different article. Unfortunately, at the municipal scale transportation and processing appear to use up most of the gains that are made by avoiding placing these materials in the landfill, with the notable exception of metals (especially aluminum). Even the folks at Keep America Beautiful put an asterisk on their conclusions about the environmental advantages of manufacturing with recycled instead of virgin material. And I quote, "It is possible that the total energy requirements associated with increased recycling could be greater than manufacturing with virgin raw materials. For example, shipping recovered materials extremely long distances to end markets may negate any energy savings realized in the manufacturing process."

And (as you may have guessed from the way this discussion has been going) the goal of conservation of resources is not as simple as you would think on the first pass. The example of tree farms for paper above is a good case in point. Also, the need for resource conservation implies that the resource will be depleted at some finite time in the future if present consumption continues. However, the amount of resources that are available isn’t a fixed number like the speed of light or Planck’s constant. Future technologies and human innovation have to be taken into account. When was the last time you opened a tin can? Used lead paint? Manufacturing process change, and consumer goods are dynamic. Thanks to human ingenuity today we are 100% more efficient with our energy consumption than we were just 50 years ago. Cars are lighter (except for you tank-driving arseholes) and last longer. Structures are lighter, stronger, and use less material. Hell, even our fiber-optic phone lines carry hundreds of times more information than the old metal ones did just a couple of years ago. Packaging has been made both stronger and lighter, which results in less broken goods thus consuming fewer resources. The list goes on and on, and any analysis that doesn’t take into account human innovation will produce incorrect conclusions. Even the Worldwatch Institute, admits that there are no foreseeable shortages of most materials. Quoting again, "In retrospect the question of scarcity may never have been the most important one." We do run into a bit of a slippery slope here, however; since the fear of resource depletion and increased market prices may actually drive innovation in some cases.

What about the two other R’s: reduce and reuse? I don’t really want to go too far into these, but I will say that reduction and reuse have the potential for making a huge impact to manufacturing process and consumer products and thus the environment. Of course there are subtleties to the argument that maybe we will get into another day when my hands aren’t so tired of typing. For now, just imagine that what would happen if you had to pay by the pound for your trash removal. Think that would encourage anybody to waste less? I have a sneaking suspicion it might.

Undoubtedly, the recycling debate will rage on, but I hope I have confused the issue sufficiently. As it is right now I recycle nearly twice as much material by volume as I put in the trash. I will continue to do so because the trucks are already coming to my house weather I put recycled items out or not, and my town has decided seemingly on false assumptions that recycling is something that is important. My hope is that the processes involved in recycling used materials on a municipal scale either fall by the wayside or become remarkably more efficient. Recycling has been around for centuries and is an essential part of the market system. Industrial recycling and possibly even voluntary recycling actually do conserve resources and increase our wealth. However, mandatory recycling programs, in which people are directly or indirectly compelled to do what they know is not sensible, routinely make society worse off economically and environmentally. On balance, mandatory recycling programs create more problems than they solve particularly because they promote waste under the guise of environmental stewardship. Environmentalists may or may not genuinely believe they're helping the earth, but in this case it appears that they have been tilting at windmills.

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