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Isn’t it nice when laziness is the right thing to do…

I received three emails in the last month asking if I’d like to be the “green ambassador” for my department at work, to support our new recycling program. I cringed and ignored each message until someone else finally volunteered. It’s times like this that I curse Penn & Teller.

I haven’t personally conducted a cost and benefit analysis on recycling, and intuitively it seems like a positive thing to do. But most pseudoscience takes advantage of exactly this type of situation – a situation in which the answer seems intuitive and the masses are unlikely to actually research it.

I love Penn & Teller – their magic, their Bullshit! Show, Penn Radio…you name it. Penn’s a nut and I may not agree with him 100% of the time, but I always find his point of view interesting, thought provoking, and worth hearing. And I agree with him a lot. One of the things I like is that P&T are unafraid to attack institutions, even when it will upset people – like recycling! Penn embodies the value of “no sacred cows”. But, on Bullshit!, I expect to see Penn debunking religion, ghosts, and psychics, so when I saw recycling as one of the topics, I thought – he’s going to have to convince me. I was fighting the big three compelling misconceptions about recycling:

1. It has environmental benefits
2. It has economic benefits
3. It makes you feel like a good person

But not everyone thinks so.

Most of what people believe about recycling is based on misinformation.

-Daniel Benjamin, Clemson University, author of The Eight Myths of Recycling.

Enthusiasts say that recycling conserves energy, resources, and money. But does it really? Here are a few things I learned on the show:

Trees are of major concern to the well-meaning people at my work, who claim we should be recycling our paper. But trees are a renewable resource. Tree farms grow as many trees as are needed to meet the demand for paper. And ironically, since recycling lowers the demand for trees, it ultimately reduces the number of trees we grow.

It also takes additional energy to transport, sort, store, and clean the recycled goods. According to Daniel Benjamin,”Los Angeles has estimated that due to curbside recycling, its fleet of trucks is twice as large as it otherwise would be – 800 vs. 400 trucks. This means more iron ore and coal mining, more steel and rubber manufacturing, more petroleum extracted and refined for fuel – and of course all that extra air pollution in the Los Angeles basin as the 400 added trucks cruise the streets.”

But there must at least be cost benefits. Right?

In almost all communities it is more expensive to recycle than it is to landfill.”

-Daniel Benjamin

“Rubbish”, the term for unrecycled garbage, just has to be transported and discarded. Recyclables, as mentioned above, must be transported, sorted, stored, and cleaned. It costs $50 – $60 to process a ton of rubbish, as opposed to $150 per ton of recyclables. Three times as much. Who pays for this? Us, in the $8 billion annual subsidies that our taxes support. And for what? The cool products you can make with recycled materials? Penn says, “Here’s the unromantic truth. You can make better quality, less expensive versions of that shit if you just start from scratch.” **

If the environmental and economic benefits of recycling aren’t real, what exactly are we feeling so good about?

Recycling may be the most wasteful activity in modern America. A waste of time and money. A waste of human and natural resources.

– John Tierney, The New York Times. See entire article.

Now, that doesn’t feel good.

So, when all of this environmental conservation hype started at my work, I pulled out my P&T DVD for a review session. It’s a pretty damning case if you ask me. But I’m no expert environmentalist. What do you think?

Entire Bullshit! episode here!

**There is one recyclable that the show gives credit: aluminum. It costs less money to recycle an aluminum can than the make a new one. So if you’re recycling aluminum cans, you can feel good about it. No government subsidy necessary.

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31 Comments

  1. I saw that episode of "Bullshit!" and the only little point that still occurs to me is that garbage does take up space. P and T point out that there is a whole lot of land available for landfills, but still, land is finite. It was quite the eye opener for me, though. I have been a supporter of recycling for my adult life, and now I see that it's not nearly the issue I thought it was. "It's a pretty damning case" indeed.

    I really loved their "gag" with all those trash cans that backfired when the recyclers thought it was all a fine idea.

  2. The Penn & Teller show mentions paper, aluminum, and plastic, and made a pretty clear case that recycling paper and plastic are both wastes of money. However, the show didn't mention glass at all. I am curious if glass is in the same boat as paper and plastic. Last time I checked, the world isn't suffering from a shortage of sand. And it would take the same amount of energy to melt silica sand as it would to re-melt recycled glass, so unless the pre-treatment of raw silica sand is really that costly, I don't see there being much to recycling glass either. Although I would like to find more data on that…

  3. And as for the issue of land: yes, it takes up space, but we see that recycling is really not worth the energy for a lot of other issues. This is especially true with recycling paper, which has to be de-inked and treated and bleached all over again. That produces even more chemical waste that you can't just bury like you could easily have done with the paper.

    There will always be trash to get rid of and it has to go somewhere, so why go through the wasteful duplication of effort to recycle crap that nobody wants, and then pay them to take it anyways? Landfilling is the only good option. Incineration is there too, but I'd rather bury the garbage than have to breathe it in every day.

  4. While aluminium is definitely worth recycling most other metals are too. Because of the immense energy requirements of mining and processing, and the land impacts of mining, recycling metals is feasible on both environmental and economic grounds.

    Just think of all those scrap metal dealers. As a rough guide, if someone is willing to pay you for the waste, rather than having to pay them to take it away, (and assuming no subsidies to distort the picture) it is worth recycling.

  5. One point I doubt is considered when slamming paper recycling is that tree farms are to forests almost what a field of grain is to uncultivated open land. Less recycling means more tree farms, at least in some areas of the world.

    Another point, that's obviously not covered in the quoted articles, is that if LA has a twice as large fleet of vehicles due to curbside recycling as they'd have without then there's something wrong with their recycling program, not with recycling overall. In my municipality paper is picked up every three weeks, in other Norwegian municipalities the trucks have separate chambers for different materials.

    I don't know where the truth lies between the overselling of the benefits of recycling and anti-recycling rants that mostly attack that exaggerated image, but I'm going to keep recycling paper for now.

  6. Loved that episode, well, all of them actually. I can tell you that recycling paper is generally a pretty poor choice. For starters you can only recycle it about 5 times before the individual fibers that it’s made of are too degraded (short) to be used for anything. After that, you have to start with fresh wood.

    Also trees, as mentioned are a renewable resource. In the USA today we plant 5 trees for every tree we cut down. That’s right. We replant 5 times as many trees as we harvest. In addition, forestry is an infinitely better land practice than almost anything else, including row crop agriculture. In forestry we typically disturb a site about three times in 35 years, apply almost no fertilizers or pesticides, and almost always replant. Row crop ag. produces many, many times the pollution. The land is going to be used for something as long as people have to pay taxes on it, they are going to want it to make at least that much money back. When you investigate all the land use options, forestry is an amazingly good choice in terms of the environment.

    So in essence, when you use paper, you are making a particular land use more profitable, and encouraging people to convert more land from unfriendly uses like row crops to a friendly use like forestry.

  7. It seems like the critics of recycling are thinking short term. We may have pleanty of land now, but eventually we'll start running out of space for landfills. Plus how much of our land do we want to use for landfills? Recycling reduces the growth of landfills.

    Plus if something still has uses, why just let it fill up a landfill?

  8. A quick answer is that although in theory it may be advantageous to use everything we can as many times as we can instead of just dumping it, in practice there are other factors to consider. The primary being energy use. If it takes more energy to recycle a particular item than to make a new one, and in some cases substantially more, does that change the equation? I think it does. Especially when you consider how we get almost all of our energy. From non-renewable sources, from politically totalitarian states, and from extremely polluting and environmentally damaging means, both in its extraction and conversion to useable forms.

    If our options are to use slightly more landfill space and reduce the amount of fossil fuels we consume and the pollution this consumption produces, or recycle everything we can to save what is in many cases a renewable resource (like paper) and increase our demand and consumption of those non-renewable resources, I vote for the former.

    Of course I understand this is a gross over-simplification of the issue and that this doesn’t work for every recyclable material, but it does for many. What concerns me is the knee-jerk reaction from people I usually agree with that “Recycling = good, killing trees = bad”.

    Butch

  9. By all means if the bathwater is dirty, whoi can argue with throwing the baby down the drain? This is short term thinking. Suppose we had, let’s say in coastal California, a town like Santa Cruz, built an extra water line when the reservoir and water line was originally put in, a line to take the treated water back up to where it could be dumped and recharge the reservoir. But we didn’t, even though it would’ve been pretty cheap then and would be extremely expensive now, and even though it would’ve solved the water problem there. Why didn’t they? Simple, they didn’t have to; there was loads of water.

    Just as there was loads of fish in Lake Tahoe, enough for a massive fishery that certainly didn’t need controlling. So we had a massive fishery that petered out instead of a large fishery that was sustainable. But there was no need to try to build in a system to solve the problem for the future, bacause who cares about the future, and there were plenty of fish. And passenger pigeons, and bison, and fish, and fish and fish all over the world and old growth wood like everyone wants, and certainly there was no need to solve a problem that didn’t exist at the time. Far better to wait until the problem is so huge that solving it may not be possible, or at least is prohibitively expensive.

    Cause then we can just point to how expensive it is to fix and ignore it anyway. Isn’t libertarian life fun?

    P&T have their points on some of their shows, but they fall down badly whenever the facts run counter to libertarian philosophy (which is often, given libertarian philosophy).

  10. "Recycling is always good" is the assumption I had for many years too. And there are materials that can be recycled relatively easily.

    But when recycling starts requiring substantially more energy and labor than producing the goods that are being recycled, then a primary benefit is being lost. As Butch points out, paper is a good example: making it consumes a lot of water, and recycling it even more.

    Bjornar has a point too: the recycling process can be made more efficient. For generations, energy has been relatively cheap and abundant in the US, so we've had little incentive to make better use of it. All aspects of contemporary US life are energy-intensive, including recycling.

    We will have more options in the long term if we investigate as many avenues of change as possible as soon as possible. I certainly see professional skeptics like Penn and Teller as essential to that process, even if I don't always agree with them.

  11. Anthrosciguy, you appear to have missed most of the comments written before yours. The main concern that is being voiced is that when deciding to recycle or not to recycle it is important to consider how much pollution is involved in the process of recycling, which is seldom done. If you take this into account, it turns about the recycling is not always the least polluting option.

    If we turn to your example of a reservoir, we notice that you forget to take into account how much energy it takes to pump water into a reservoir. The energy to do that has to come from somwhere, and even nowadays the majority of that energy will come form burning oil or coal. To solve this, they would have ahd to construct a complicated system of wind or solar power plants along with the reservoir, and that would have been exhorbitantly expensive (not to mention the polution involved in manufacturing the parts for those power plants, which is greater than sero). So, that decision of far from straightforward.

    Considerations that are not simplistic are very much not out of place here.

    Nonetheless, as always, science comes to the rescue. Keep funding research on these and other problems, and solutions, the likes of which we coudl not have imagined, will come. Eventually.

  12. I believe anthrosci guy is invoking tragedy of the commons, which certainly applies here. As long as we can keep throwing stuff away, we will.

    I recycle–whether it's good or not–to try to keep stuff out of landfills. period.

    Land *is* a finite resource, and here in Michigan, with a high water table, leachates are a major problem. It's extremely difficult to build a landfill that won't ever leak. Incineration isn't a better choice for some materials. Sigh.

  13. oh, I forgot to mention–composting!! composting is a great way to get rid of a lot of stuff.

    I wish more cities would implement composting programs. Some private entrepreneurs are collecting food waste to compost or cook to resell in different ways (hog slop, amended soil).

    My compost pile is so hot, it even has a myspace page :D

  14. In the three 'R's (reduce, reuse, recycle), I think we pay far too little attention to the first one. The amount of packaging that accompanies many consumer goods is outrageous, and could easily be reduced substantially. I'd like to see significantly less volume going into landfills, but not at the higher costs much current recycling means. One way to do that is to reduce the amount of garbage we produce. Our local governments all talk about "diversion" when I think we should all be talking about "reduction."

    -Paul

  15. Back in Scotland we always used to bring our Irn Bru bottles back to the shop (you got 20p back on a bottle that cost 80p!) – they weren't broken down and recycled, they were just shipped back to the company which then reused them. Now that I think about it I hope the really really washed them well :)

    I'm not sure, but I think that sort of recycling may be more efficient than just dumping the glass.

  16. Tree farms have many problems: they're monocultures, so they're subject to disease, and they don't support the rich diversity of wildlife that a real forest does. They're often grown on flat farmland, so they don't replace hillside watersheds that were cut down, which leads to erosion, flooding, and mudslides. They're also heavily subsidized, because corporations profit from them, but the state pays for fire protection.

    Worse than that, a tree farm in the US may be more expensive than cutting a real forest in another country, so the consumer has few choices other than recycling to preserve a forest.

    "We replant 5 times as many trees as we harvest." That's because many trees die before they're harvested. You could say that in 1845, the Irish had a lot more than two kids per family, but you'd be wrong to assume that meant there were an increasing number of Irish people.

  17. "Cause then we can just point to how expensive it is to fix and ignore it anyway. Isn’t libertarian life fun?"

    I am frequently astonished at how often environmentalists pretend there are unlimited resources at our disposal. Let's remind ourselves what "expensive" implies in this context: it means the proposed solution to whatever environmental problem we're talking about is going to use a lot of resources that could be used to solve some other problem facing us (perhaps another environmental problem, perhaps not).

    Acknowledging the reality of economic tradeoffs appears to be taboo among the environmentalist movement, to its detriment. Bjorn Lomborg had the 'nads to say so, and is largely reviled (a bunch of you would probably enjoy his book, by the way, if you haven't read it already).

  18. One of my neighbors, who works in a recycling sorting plant, told me that much of the 'recyclables' end up in the landfill anyway. Except for aluminum and some paper there is not enough market for it.

    If you want to 'feel good' the best way is to focus on the first 2 Rs, Reduce and Reuse.

    I try to avoid plastic whenever possible. For the groceries I bring a cardboard box – a typical weekly grocery may need 10 plastic bags = 500 plastic bags a year! I always ask for meat and fish to be packed in waxed paper – no styrofoam. I give the empty wine bottles to friends who make wine, burn all paper and cardboard, compost all food waste, and the stuff that can't be composted like meat scraps, I also burn. With a real hot fire you can incinerate just about anything (my place is heated with wood).

    With that I hardly take more than a small bag of garbage and a blue box to the landfill once a month.

  19. I would agree that there is much about recycling that is commonly believed based on misinformation, and that there are categories of goods that are efficient and others that are inneficient.

    On the whole, I rather liked this episode of Bullshit, though I suspect that looking into it, I will probabaly find the matter more complicated than they portray it as being.

    I would take issue with the "no sacred cows" aspect of the show. They have plenty of sacred cows, but they are of the Libertarian variety. Anytime anything that relates to government regulation is discussed, they distort the issue to make it look as if the anti-regulation folks have it all right. I work in environmental compliance, and therefore have some knowledge of the matters discussed int heir episodes on global warming, the endangered species act, recycling, and even the second-hand smoke one. In each case they are highly selective in who their guests are, how they edit the interviews, and the exact information presented to make it appear as if there is no issue when there is one.

    Magpie, you are correct that there is a tendency amongst many environmental activists against discussing economic trade-offs. However, among those of us who actually do the work, these discussions are common place and an important part of what we do (and, if you actually examine the National Environmental Policy Act – the umbrell environmental law int he U.S., it's an important part of that law).

    I would point out that the reason why Bjorn Lomborg is reviled is not because he points out anything new, but because he is very selective an manipulative in the data he presents, at times in his book presenting data that is out of date or not widely accepted even by the folks who disagree with him so that he can knock down a strawman.

  20. I know I’m probably late with this response, but here goes anyway. In regards to the point about US tree farms being monoculture, I call bullshit. I work in them almost daily. They are not as diverse or as species rich as an uneven aged stand for sure, but when you compare it to the most common alternative land use practice of agriculture it is staggeringly more diverse. If you want to see true monoculture go have a stroll through a soybean field. If your concern is really about species richness and diversity, you’d do much better to fight against rice, soybeans, corn, and wheat products.

    It’s a false analogy to say tree farms are worse than “natural” forests. In the real world those aren’t the only alternatives, and in fact leaving it alone is seldom even an option. The choices are more along the lines of tree farms, or row crop agriculture, or subdivisions/sprawl mart. People who own the land have to pay taxes on that land. They are going to make the land productive in one way or another. Of the practical options, tree farming is vastly superior.

    If you want to something really good for the environment use more paper and wood products, but make sure the products you use are harvested in a sustainable fashion. This not only lets you use a biodegradable product made in an environmentally friendly way, it encourages better land use practices.

  21. I think it might make sense to recycle potentially-toxic non-biodegradables like plastics rather than landfilling them even if it does take more energy than creating new plastics. Why? Well, because I'd rather have that stuff recycled than placed back into the environment where it will just sit and do nothing for thousands of years before something finally breaks it down, even if landfill area were not a concern.

    Metals, as established, give a positive return from recycling anyway, however you measure it.

    But the other stuff? Like paper? Yeah, trash it. Paper is broken down easily, anyway, so it's not a big deal. Anything that can be broken down and digested in less time than plastics are probably ok to just be tossed in a landfill.

    However, I still say there's value in recycling plastic.

    (At least the petroleum-based stuff! I've noticed that my favourite coffee shop now serves up plastic cups made from vegetable oil that's actually biodegradable. Yay, science!)

  22. Oh, forgot to mention — bah! — that I agree with Plittle that far too little attention is paid to the Reduce (and also Reuse!) parts of the cycle. If anything, that's the most dangerous part of recycling: it focusses attention away from the other parts, which are at least as important, if not more so! It's sort of a cop-out answer that lets people feel like they're solving problems when it's really just part of the solution, if not simply a stop-gap.

  23. Joshua, as it turns out, because of the way that materials tend to be packed together in landfills, paper does not break down very easily, and because it does not collapse the way that the plastic does, it can become a bigger wasteo f space in landfills than plastic does.

  24. That's interesting.

    So what's the preferred way to dispose of paper? Should there be specialised facilities for disposal of paper that prevents the wasteful packing that occurs in landfills?

    (Presumably, recycling is off the table because of the other deficiencies discussed, such as the toxic chemicals used in the bleaching and the water wastefulness.)

    For that matter, what's the best way to dispose of plastics? It doesn't seem to me that, like with paper, either landfilling or recycling of plastic is particularly desirable.

  25. Weird, I cooked up a follow-up post last night. Where did it go?

    Anyway, I was asking what the alternative solution is, if neither landfills nor recycling are really desirable for disposing paper and plastic?

  26. I personally reuse my old newspapers as starter material for my fireplace in the winter, for mulch in the garden in the spring, and I shred it and add it to the compost pile at all other times. Same goes for a lot of other paper we use.

  27. It looks as though the US is far behind the rest of Western civilisation when it comes to recycling.

    In the U.K. the waste is self-segregated, meaning it doesn't take much energy to separate and clean the raw materials for recycling, as this can be done before it's sent away to plants by consumers themselves.

    Paper recycling is less contaminating to the environment than making paper from scratch, as it takes much less energy, water and causes less pollution than felling a large amount of trees and pulping the wood for paper use. The bleaches used in paper recycling don't usually contain chlorine based bleaches, as hydrogen peroxide will do. This breaks down into water and oxygen. Very green.]Butch is wrong in saying "you can only recycle paper 5 times", then you have to start from scratch. You only need to add a small amount of fresh pulp to recycled pulp to make it useable again.

    In most of Europe, we have to send a proportion our rubbish to land-fill sites in China and other countries (as our ladfills are filling up very quickly) not even close to the UK or mainland Europe. The extra energy used in transportation is an extra burden to say the least.

    Recycling metals such as steel and aluminium can be cheaper than making it from scratch. Steel is cheap, as it's imported from developing countries, like India, but recycling reduces the reliance on foreign imports.

    So, in essence, if you do it correctly, recycling can be effective and the three points can have some meaning.

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