Sunday, April 20, 2008

It aint easy being green, part 2

If I have to hear someone brag about how superior they are because they recycle I think I am going to puke. Oh sure, I have done it too... mostly because I think its funny to make other people feel bad... but really lets just agree to stop, okay? I am also going to have to call foul and introduce a rule:
  • If you are required by law in your municipality to recycle, you cannot brag that you recycle.

I dont mean stop recycling. Or to be more specific, I dont mean stop recycling entirely. I mean to recycle where it makes sense.

You might ask: How, dear Spork, do I figure out when it makes sense and when it doesnt make sense to recycle? There is one answer, but it has a few corollaries.

  • It makes sense to recycle when the recycling pays for itself. Or even better, when it makes a profit.
  • A major corollary here (and it applies to almost anything) is this: If the government mandates it, then it wont make sense. The bad thing here is that even if it did make sense, once the government gets their grubby paws on it they will find a way to make it lose money.
I know, I know. What I am saying is heresy. Why in the world would anyone say NOT to recycle? I think its best not to start there. I will instead start with what it does make sense to recycle:
  • Iron/Steel - in large quantities make perfect sense. And in fact this has been going on for years and years without any prodding from the government. There is almost no steel product made that isnt made of some amount of recycled iron/steel products. It pays about 14 cents a pound so you had better have a lot. It may or may not make sense to have a special truck just to pick up your tin cans. (The price is "last I checked..." I dont update stuff I rant about so this may be way off in days, months or years.)
  • Aluminum - absolutely. Aluminum is really expensive to extract from bauxite and it takes a whole lot of stuff to make only a little stuff. It might make sense to drive a truck around to pick this stuff up. But you really should do the math and figure it out. On the plus side, the recycled cans are infinitely recyclable and are much cheaper to process than digging it out of the ground.
  • Glass - probably is okay to recycle. It is an infinitely recyclable product and it is somewhat cheaper to melt the old stuff than to start from scratch.
But I think we might have to stop the list there.

Dont get me started on plastic.

Plastic is basically made from crude oil. And you might say "we need to reduce our oil consumption." Okay, maybe. But it isnt like if we stopped making plastic we would actually reduce the amount of oil we consume. They break oil down into various components. Some are used to make gasoline, some go into Quaker State, some goes into diesel. And some is used to make plastic.

In essence, it is a clever use for what used to be a waste product. This is the ultimate in recycling. This is the "everything but the oink" that we apply to the pig except applied to raw crude. (Mmmmmm, pork.)

Recycling plastic would make sense if it made money. It doesnt. You see as long as you are driving your car or heating your house or leaving on a jet plane, you are driving the use of oil. As long as they make fuel out of oil, there will be raw materials for plastic.

But you might point out that manufacturing of new plastics from recycled saves oil and saves landfill space. No, I dont think it does. It doesnt save oil because its a by product. We still are using the same amount of oil as before.

It doesnt save landfill space because you still have a by-product. You either have to make something with it (that goes in a landfill) or put it in a landfill as a by-product.

And if you dont like plastic (because it is related to oil or it makes your grandmother cry or whatever) then by all means: recycling isnt the answer. Recycling plastic is nothing more than a government subsidy to the plastic industry. While it is true that making new plastic from recycled plastic requires less raw materials (that have to go somewhere). Making plastic from recycled material means your tax money is going to pay for the manufacturing of plastic. Why you say? Because recycling plastic costs more. It costs more because you have to have a special truck (which uses fossil fuels) drive around and collect it. You then have to sort it. And clean it. And process it.

They will tell you that it is cheaper to make new plastic from recycled plastic. And in some ways that is true. It is true because the horriffic cost of the recycling truck and the processing plant is taken on by you when you pay your garbage collection bill. This makes a super cheap raw material that is already preprocessed. So yes it is cheaper.... for the manufacturer. But it is not cheaper overall. It is only cheaper because a government has collected an involuntary tax (tacked onto your garbage collection bill) and used that money to subsidize the plastics industry. And they didnt even send you a thank you card.

There is also a huge glut on the market for all the municipalities that are trying to sell their ultra cheap subsidized pre-processed plastic. And it is not uncommon that the plastic you put in your recycling bin today actually gets trucked around town in a special truck, sorted, washed, processed, baled.... and put in the landfill. Your tax dollars at work. Wouldnt it have been easier to just put it in the trash in the first place?

Trees. They are really pretty. I personally love them a whole lot. That is one reason I moved out to live in the forest area. So of course recycling paper makes sense. You dont cut down the beautiful trees. You couldnt be more wrong.

They dont cut down huge pretty mature trees to make paper. They cut down huge pretty mature trees to make houses. And furniture. But it is rare you hear people rant about how you should live in smaller houses (which in turn use less furnishings). In fact, it is usually the ones living in the biggest, newest houses that make the biggest noise on recycling.

Let me let you in on a secret: If you are really into saving trees, the ultimate in recycling is to buy a small house that already exists in an established neighborhood.

Paper does come from trees. Just not mature trees. It comes from farms that plant trees, cut them down young, pulp them and plant new ones. Its like growing wheat. In fact, if you didnt grow the trees for paper, the farmer would likely plant a different cash crop. And you still arent going to have trees there.

And paper recycling isnt all its cracked up to be. It is a nasty dirty business. A business that actually generates toxic waste. If you throw an ink stained bit of paper in the trash, it goes to the landfill in a tiny quantity.

If you chemically wash the paper with harsh chemicals, you get a mass amount of toxic sludge. But that is okay, because it is "good for the planet."

And if you listen to Al Gore (whom I might have mentioned, I think is an airbag) you will hear him say how new growth forest is good for the planet and reduces carbon. Yadda yadda yadda. Okay, so if you were to invest in new growth forest to help the planet, what do you think you would be investing in? That's right: paper production. Paper is a constant supply of new growth forest products.

So if you recycle paper, you generate toxic waste and you are using subsidies to decrease new growth forests -- that thing Mr. Gore so admires. In effect, you are spending your tax dollars to do the OPPOSITE of what you intended.... which is quite often the case of how government works.

So please. PLEASE. Stop bragging about recycling until you stop driving your car, stop heating your house and stop using electricity from the grid. And if you live in a big new house, you are a tree killer. Oh, and thanks for killing the earth.

Earth hater.

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