Friday, February 20, 2009

Back in the Day

Blogger's Note: This is a cross-post from some Notes that I put in my Facebook profile last week. Those of you who are on Facebook will probably already have read it, but I thought that for those of you that aren't able to view my profile I'd let you take a quick peek into the life of Daniel P. Daniel. Hopefully some of the memories that I have jotted down ring a bell with some of you or remind you of some of your own memories that you have suppressed. Names have not been changed to protect the innocent since we are all guilty as hell...

I currently live 1000 miles away from the sleepy little Midwestern town in which I grew up. I moved away to go to college in 1991, although admittedly that was only 12 miles up the road. However, 13 years ago I made the trek out west to settle down and to start to grow new roots. I’m not sure if this happens with everyone that moves away from what they called their home for their entire lives, but it seems to me that faces and names and memories of long lost acquaintances tend to fade over time. Over the years those memories get stored in the back of my brain because there is no stimulus to bring them forward. Folks that still live in the area remember the names and faces of people from twenty-odd years past because they are constantly reminded by their surroundings. That’s the place Mike ran over the dog, or this is where I broke up with Sally. I’m not exposed to those external stimuli out here so the memories stay buried and get fuzzy, eventually they get lost altogether. But a couple of months ago something unexpected started to happen. Faces from the past started popping up on this site, and the memories that have been supplanted by my current environment started to surface. As an added bonus, I’ve had the enormous pleasure of chatting with some of the people that helped make me who I am - people that I had given up hope of hearing from long ago. Memories have been flooding in so I thought that I’d slap a couple of them down on (virtual) paper before they get sucked back into the haze. So here they are: 40 random thoughts and memories of days long past. Tell me if they ring any bells. Hopefully I don’t get anyone into trouble…

1. Nights at the Drunken Drive. For the uninitiated, the Drunken Drive was a seldom-traveled dirt road in the country populated only by 5-10 cars full of drunken teenagers and hundreds of cases of Bush Light. A party that was ready to be mobile at the first indication of an uninvited guest. The top-secret password for entry? Flashing your lights. Brilliant.

2. Bullshit sessions at Boater’s house until all hours of the night, of course accompanied with copious amounts of Bush Light or {eek} Bud Dry. Famous quote: “Do you think two cases is enough?” “It’s just the two of us going Aaron, and we’ve got school tomorrow.”

3. Gopher killing in the ’64 Newport. I miss that car. She had push-button shifting, an all steel dash, no seatbelts, could easily go 160 MPH, and handled like a dream on the shoulder where those damn gophers spent most of their time.

4. Bonfire parties. Seriously, when was the last time anybody went to a bonfire party? Traveling to whatever Little Ten town happened to have the spot and watching the girls drink themselves silly on Purple Passion and Peach Schnapps was definitely a favorite of mine.

5. Driving to parts unknown for all night drink fests with Bob and Kevin. I’m surprised that Ford Taurus didn’t need a paint job from all of the stomach acid that was spilled on it.

6. Roger driving at about 200mph with his feet because we were both sitting on the roof of his car outside his sunroof. In retrospect we should all be dead.

7. Awkward make-out sessions with the other team’s cheerleaders at basketball tourneys and track meets. Or just awkward make-out sessions in general. When was the last time anyone had a fumble fest where the goal was to mash with anything then get out of town? Just doesn’t happen anymore.

8. Ditch rides in Bob’s old three-on-the-tree pickup. I think we actually drove it through a cornfield once or twice. Awesome, Slabby Bab.

9. Almost getting expelled because I was “physically intimidating” McCheezney. Come on! All I did was push him down in the hallway because he was being a total fuck-stick. How is that being physically intimidating? Be careful how you answer or I’ll come to your house.

10. Going to an all night party at Roy’s house totally unprepared for waking up in the middle of a civil war rally. There’s something a little unnerving and wholly redneck about poking your head outside of your tent just in time to see a cannon go off.

11. Parties at Chadhole’s house in the trailer out back followed by midnight laser tag rampages with Black Crowes blaring in the background. Does laser tag even exist anymore?

12. Getting carte blanche once a year to terrorize the entire town. Remember dressing up in black and pasting every tree with toilet paper and every blank wall with a slurry of raw eggs and shaving cream? Now that’s just good wholesome vandalism. My mom always used to ask if we had enough shaving cream… Thanks, Mom.

13. Freshman hazing that was sanctioned by the school. We should all have been arrested for assault, technically. I mean, I had to dress up like a pregnant nun for fekk’s sake. And there’s nothing like making an impressionable kid carry your books, sizzle like bacon on the spot, and push a penny across the floor with his nose. Try that now and you’ll wind up doing squat thrusts in the cucumber patch at the state pen.

14. Parties at the fight house. Ah, teen angst at its finest. The pit in the back of Chris’s and Chad’s house in DeKalb (the house was torn down, by the way) was the perfect place to beat the ever-loving crap out of each other for no reason. I could still use a fight house every now and then.

15. Being chased by a wild turkey at Beth’s house one cold February morning while fighting off a hellacious hangover. I probably looked like Buster Keaton running around the farm yard in my socks fending off a rabid bird with a bag of cat food. Thankfully I was the only one around to witness the event. The turkey could not be found for comment…

16. Kamikaze and Purple Passion parties at Julie’s house. Even today when I smell a kamikaze (the drink, not the pilot) it brings me back to all-night drunk fests with the upperclassmen.

17. Grabbing a couple of 40’s with Big A and Nancy before school every day on our senior year. Nothing like slugging down a 40oz. bottle of Miller Lite then pretending to pay attention to some bullshyte homeroom nonsense. Thanks again, Mom.

18. Skate trips to DeKalb with Aaron, Donnie, and Jeff. These were usually followed by blending shakes out of whatever we could find in the pantry at Donnie’s house and at least once followed by a trip to the E.R. for a stomach pump because Donnie O.D.’d on nutmeg.

19. Sneaking out of the house just about every night for moonlit walks and booty calls. You know who you are. Curfew my arse! I used to stop and chat with the town cop when we would happen to pass on the street. “Where you headed, Dan?” “Ah…couldn’t sleep?” “Me neither. Stay out of trouble.” And off I went to whatever debauchery was ahead.

20. Beer can pyramids at Gus Macker tournaments. The shear volume of beer consumed by three or four individuals at these tourneys must have impressed the hotel housekeepers. Captain’s Quarters, Bitches!

21. Spaghetti sandwiches and the Big Stinky at A’s house in the country. If you haven’t had the pleasure of seeing a Big Stinky in action you are truly missing out on one of life’s most vile inventions, and the spaghetti sandwiches aren’t too far behind.

22. Marathon text adventure video game sessions at Mike’s and Jeff’s houses on the Commodore 128. For all of our law-breaking and underage drinking, we were still just nerds at heart. How about the computing power on that 128? She’s a beaut.

23. Being chased by machete-wielding Shabbona townies down a dirt road outside of town. I guarantee that Nancy’s Ford Escort (or any Ford Escort) has ever been driven that fast in reverse. Bo and Luke would be proud.

24. Inadvertent school evacuations because Justin and I underestimated the smoke-producing capacity of potassium permanganate, sugar and match heads. I’m surprised we didn’t permanently disfigure someone with the unsupervised science experiments we performed on a regular basis.

25. Study sessions at Rachel’s house. We actually studied…most of the time.

26. Plastering the school with Hitler photographs because McCheezney was such a douche bag. Oh my holy God was that guy a jaggoff!?! I used to delight in sending him subscriptions to Playgirl and Butt Lust magazines. My guess is that he liked it as well.

27. Homecoming. The fall air. The buzz in town. The bonfire. The weeks of preparation. Contests at school. The parade. The dance. The game. It was all…electric.

28. Pillaging the IGA whenever Bubba or Nancy happened to be working. How much does this cost? Nothing? How many of these can I fit in my bag? I’ll just come back for more then.

29. Lusting after Beth, Tammy, and Donna when I was a freshman. A more accurate statement would be that I (and the entire male contingent of the Waterman student body) lusted after them from the time our ancestors climbed out of the primordial ooze. Just couldn’t help it, Ladies.

30. The millions of games of 21 and 32 played regardless of weather, and the numerous victims of my free-throw prowess and furious slam-dunking onslaught. The constant smack-downs must have been demoralizing, guys. I should have let you win more often.

31. Hanging out at ball games and track meets with Josh, or just walking around town having the odd heart-to-heart. We weren’t trying to solve the problems of the world, we were just trying to figure shit out. Awesome.

32. On again, off again relationships with everybody (and then everybody else). Let’s face it. We basically lived on a ship in an ocean of corn. It was inevitable that everyone was going to date everyone else, right? I think I even made out with Bob a couple of times. I still miss it.

33. “Discipline yourself so others don’t have to!” If you know the originator of this quote, you probably just shot coffee out of your nose all over your keyboard.

34. Bouncing a sheep’s eye lens into Mrs. Tuntland’s cleavage in science class. It’s the small things in life, you know?

35. Playing pool and ping-ping in Crawford’s basement while drinking all of his dad’s booze. We always pulled the classic “replace the vodka with water” trick as well. How did we ever get away with that shit?

36. Beating up on the Mooseheart kids at whatever game they chose. How could they suck so bad at everything? The Newark clowns weren’t too far behind.

37. Concerts at Alpine Valley, The Vic, and The Aragon Brawlroom with the Malta boys. We saw some smokin’ shows back in the day: Smashing Pumpkins, Black Crowes, Lenny Kravitz, Neds Atomic Dustbin, Jesus Jones, etc. Well maybe not Jesus Jones, but I think you’re picking up what I’m layin’ down.

38. Literally waking up in my dog’s doghouse after a bender with Freddie C. Hey, at least we made it that far. At least I think we made it that far.

39. Going to the midnight basketball leagues in the city to play ball with the gang-bangers. Doin’ some dunks and draining some threes on the boys from the big city was always fun. I got next.

40. Midnight showings at the movie theater in DeKalb when Rach, Chad, and Matt worked there. There was nothing quite like chunking down a cooler full of beer in the aisle and watching a new release with a select few of the Maltonians. Top marks there.

Anything sound familiar? Did it clear the cobwebs out of the dark corners of your brain? Just me then? In retrospect I don’t see how any of us avoided incarceration or cirrhosis of the liver. It seems that we grew up in a place and a time that was somehow protected from the ills of the world. If our kids are even half as lucky as we were I think they’ll be O.K. It’s good to see some familiar faces around here (on Facebook). Let me know what you think and definitely feel free to add to the list.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Honestly, Abe...

Let's lighten it up a little. It seems like all of the posts for this year have been dedicated to trash or excrement of one kind or another, so I thought we should shift gears a little bit before things get really weird. This week marked the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln who is widely considered to be one of our greatest American presidents. “Honest” Abe has become something of a folk hero to the people of the U.S. He is a father figure to our nation, and it is impossible to mention the name of Abe without picturing a lanky man in a button-up shirt with his sleeves rolled up to his elbows wearing a top hat and sporting a scraggly beard while chopping wood outside his log cabin in Kentucky. I grew up in Illinois where people proudly proclaim that it is the Land of Lincoln from the top of every...uh...cornfield across the state. The main streets of every city and town are ubiquitously named after him, and every child in the state is subjected to great Lincoln folklore that places the man on a pedestal above all others. His mythology is so great that I found this actual quote, “...Abraham Lincoln was born in a log cabin in Kentucky which he built with his own hands...” Seriously, people. He is viewed as the Great Emancipator - the man that declared war on slavery and brought equality to every person in this country regardless of race. But did he? Does he deserve the god-like status that history has bestowed upon him?

I find it curious that even though Abraham Lincoln declared and presided over the most costly and divisive war in U.S. history that nothing bad is ever said about the man. Of course red flags start going off in my misanthropic brain right there. At least 620,000 American soldiers died in the Civil War which only lasted from 1861-1865. Possibly as many as 250,000 civilian casualties were tallied as well. This adds up to more fatalities than all of the other wars from the Revolution to Iraq combined. GW got lambasted over ~3k casualties in an eight-year effort on foreign soil. Imagine if he declared war on South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Texas. You think Rove and Cheney are evil…

I think part of the problem is the misconception that the Civil War was fought to end slavery. It is simply not true. When the war started in 1861 there were more slaves within the Union than outside it, and Lincoln hadn’t the slightest intention to free any of them. In an interview at the time he said, “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it.” And in a campaign speech three years before the war he said, “I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races; that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people…And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.” Nice. A little different than the “Four-score-and twenty” quotes that always get batted around, eh? However, admittedly this view isn’t too far out of line with the everyday point of view of Americans at the time. Hell, it’s still the point of view of most of white America today weather they come out and say it or not. Although Lincoln wasn’t in favor of abolishing slavery at the outset, he did, however, campaign against expansion of slavery in the U.S., which was a somewhat radical idea at the time.

The actual reason Abraham Lincoln’s northern army invaded the southern seven states was purely to regain the federal tax revenue that would be lost if they were allowed to secede peacefully. I find it glaringly strange that less than 100 years after the original 13 colonies seceded from British rule, and the founding fathers stated first in the Declaration of Independence , then in the Articles of Confederation and lastly the Constitution that the states were all “free and independent” (and thus retained the right to peacefully remove themselves from the Union) that Abraham Lincoln took it upon himself to negate that possibility at any cost in order to preserve the taxation powers of a large federal government…exactly what the colonies fought against to begin with. Kind of makes the Union sound a little like a Roach Motel - "Guests check in, but they can never check out."

During the war Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus and ordered the military to arrest tens of thousands of political opponents. He propagandized the war by closing ~300 newspapers and censoring all communications. Throughout the Union, Democratic voters were intimidated, and there is some evidence that elections were rigged (although this wasn’t uncommon before or even after Lincoln. Isn’t that right, President Gore?). In New York City, hundreds of protesters against conscription were shot, and it wasn’t uncommon even for outspoken congressional protestors to be arrested or deported. Also, in total disregard of the second amendment of the Constitution, citizens of the unfortunate Border States (Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri and West Virginia) were disarmed, and in the name of war private property was often confiscated. I suppose one could argue that during any civil war drastic measures must be taken since it is an almost impossible situation, but I would think that at least some of this information would tarnish Lincoln’s squeaky clean image. Much like Andy Dufresne from the Shawshank Redemption, Abe Lincoln was able to swim through a river of shit and come out clean on the other side. How is that possible?

I think it is more than coincidence that Abraham Lincoln, the penultimate American folk hero, was the fist Republican president of the U.S. As such, he is considered to be one of the flagships of the party image, and it simply won’t do to take a look at the man behind the curtain lest the party have to admit that the era he presided over was one of the darkest in American history on many levels. So they must prop him up as an iconic hero and loudly condemn anyone that dares question otherwise. Also, with the advent of the modern school system textbooks came into vogue, and there was fierce competition between publishers to gain a stronghold on burgeoning and impressionable American history students. Which book do you think sells better to grade school teachers: a book that dissects the atrocities committed during the civil war by a president that looks like Grandpa, or a book that is full of pictures that creates heroes for the children to look up to regardless of what that actual facts are? Not too difficult to see through the looking glass at that one. Heroes sell to children and keep them from dicking around too much in the classroom, and those children turn into adults that don’t ask questions.

Hero or dictator, Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States. He successfully led the country through one of its greatest internal crises, preserving the Union (weather it needed to be should be debated) and, as a side benefit, ending slavery in the process, and for all of his efforts he became the first president to be assassinated. He was a brilliant politician and orator who was forced to make some impossible decisions that undoubtedly changed the fate of the world today. Were his actions always in line with the greater good? Almost certainly not, but it is not possible to say if anyone else would have faired any better or any worse. That’s the problem with history, isn’t it? You can’t change the outcome no matter how much you second-guess another person’s decision-making abilities. You can, however, change public opinion of someone over time, and elevate ordinary men up to a pantheon of iconic heroes as a means to whatever end you choose, which in my opinion takes away from their actual legacy, good or bad. We should learn from history, not profit from it since the two motives almost invariably clash. I can’t help but wonder what Honest Abe would think about his rock star status today. Anyway, however you choose to view the man, I’ll leave you with some of his immortal words, “Be excellent to each other…and party on dudes!”

Happy 200th , Abe.


Friday, February 6, 2009

Debunking...Recycling?

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.