Recycling Still Sucks

I recycle. Seems the thing to do. And it’s mandatory at my work. But I have become very dubious of “zero waste” initiatives that try to use biodegradable and recyclable materials in everything. I have long suspected that these efforts wind up using more energy and generating more waste than just throwing things away, negating any supposed gain in landfill space. I’m not against recycling. I just want the increasingly onerous mandates to be supported by some kind of evidence … any kind of evidence.

John Tierney criticized recycling 20 years ago as a huge waste of time and money that did little to benefit the planet. 20 years later, he finds that it is still a huge waste of time and money that doesn’t benefit the planet:

Despite decades of exhortations and mandates, it’s still typically more expensive for municipalities to recycle household waste than to send it to a landfill. Prices for recyclable materials have plummeted because of lower oil prices and reduced demand for them overseas. The slump has forced some recycling companies to shut plants and cancel plans for new technologies. The mood is so gloomy that one industry veteran tried to cheer up her colleagues this summer with an article in a trade journal titled, “Recycling Is Not Dead!”

While politicians set higher and higher goals, the national rate of recycling has stagnated in recent years. Yes, it’s popular in affluent neighborhoods like Park Slope in Brooklyn and in cities like San Francisco, but residents of the Bronx and Houston don’t have the same fervor for sorting garbage in their spare time.

The future for recycling looks even worse. As cities move beyond recycling paper and metals, and into glass, food scraps and assorted plastics, the costs rise sharply while the environmental benefits decline and sometimes vanish. “If you believe recycling is good for the planet and that we need to do more of it, then there’s a crisis to confront,” says David P. Steiner, the chief executive officer of Waste Management, the largest recycler of household trash in the United States. “Trying to turn garbage into gold costs a lot more than expected. We need to ask ourselves: What is the goal here?”

The goal? The goal is to do what radical religions always do: make people inconvenience themselves and sacrifice for the supposed greater good as a method of control. Even if stone tablets descended from heaven proving that recycling was bad for the planet and always would be, the environmentalists would still want us to do it. Because the inconvenience, the sacrifice, the annoyance, the cost is the point.

But the benefits? The are increasingly elusive:

Here’s some perspective: To offset the greenhouse impact of one passenger’s round-trip flight between New York and London, you’d have to recycle roughly 40,000 plastic bottles, assuming you fly coach. If you sit in business- or first-class, where each passenger takes up more space, it could be more like 100,000.

Just a reminder: many of the politicians pushing these mandates fly on private jets. You could recycle every plastic bottle you touch in your entire life and not offset the environmental impact of Al Gore making a single trip to Paris.

Even those statistics might be misleading. New York and other cities instruct people to rinse the bottles before putting them in the recycling bin, but the E.P.A.’s life-cycle calculation doesn’t take that water into account. That single omission can make a big difference, according to Chris Goodall, the author of “How to Live a Low-Carbon Life.” Mr. Goodall calculates that if you wash plastic in water that was heated by coal-derived electricity, then the net effect of your recycling could be more carbon in the atmosphere.

The national rate of recycling rose during the 1990s to 25 percent, meeting the goal set by an E.P.A. official, J. Winston Porter. He advised state officials that no more than about 35 percent of the nation’s trash was worth recycling, but some ignored him and set goals of 50 percent and higher. Most of those goals were never met and the national rate has been stuck around 34 percent in recent years.

“It makes sense to recycle commercial cardboard and some paper, as well as selected metals and plastics,” he says. “But other materials rarely make sense, including food waste and other compostables. The zero-waste goal makes no sense at all — it’s very expensive with almost no real environmental benefit.”

Landfills are not a problem. You could store all our garbage for the next millennium in a tiny tiny fraction of the space we have available in the country. Many communities welcome landfills because they bring money, have almost no environmental impact and generate energy from methane. Recycling does benefit the environment for aluminum cans, cardboard and some paper. So you should recycle those things. But for plastic, glass and compost, the benefits are minimal while the cost — in terms of money, in terms of pollution, in terms of the loss of freedom, in terms of wasted time and effort — is enormous.

Final thought from Tierney on the real reason for this crap:

It makes people feel virtuous, especially affluent people who feel guilty about their enormous environmental footprint. It is less an ethical activity than a religious ritual, like the ones performed by Catholics to obtain indulgences for their sins.

Religious rituals don’t need any practical justification for the believers who perform them voluntarily. But many recyclers want more than just the freedom to practice their religion. They want to make these rituals mandatory for everyone else, too, with stiff fines for sinners who don’t sort properly. Seattle has become so aggressive that the city is being sued by residents who maintain that the inspectors rooting through their trash are violating their constitutional right to privacy.

No doubt, someone will “debunk” Tierney’s points. People are already saying, “well, plastics last forever!”. But that may not be true. They’ll drag out the arguments that they use for alternative energy, that it will become profitable any day now, arguments that are somewhat strained. They’ll talk about the exaggerated danger of plastic in the seas. They’ll accuse him of being a Koch-brothers Republican business jerk who doesn’t care. But I doubt they’ll address his criticisms head on. Because they haven’t for the last twenty years.

Look, I like recycling. The idea of throwing things away instead of reusing them offends me. Not as environmentalist, but as a conservative who doesn’t believe in wasting money or material. I want to believe that this is all benefiting the planet. But it’s getting really hard to make that case.

Ban Bag Bust

A few years ago, a bunch of liberal cities began to ban plastic bags. They claimed would help save the Earth, cutting down on landfill use and eliminating a harm to wildlife. I was very skeptical for a variety of reasons.

Well, this is my shocked face:

In Austin, for example, a post-ban survey found that single-use plastic bags accounted for only 0.03 percent of the total litter collected in the city in 2015. Assuming the pre-ban rate was closer to the 0.12 percent in nearby Fort Worth, that marks a roughly 75 percent reduction of single-use plastic bags in Austin’s landfills.

But, as the Austin assessment pointedly notes, reducing the use of a product that’s harmful to the environment is no guarantee of a positive environmental outcome. Among the main environmental benefits of Austin’s ban was supposed to be a reduction in the amount of energy and raw materials used to manufacture the bags. To that end, the city encouraged residents to instead use reusable bags. Those bags have larger carbon footprints, due to the greater energy required to produce their stronger plastics, but the city figured the overall impact would be lower, as consumers got acquainted with the new, more durable product.

What the city didn’t foresee is that residents would start treating reusable bags like single-use bags. The volume of reusable plastic bags now turning up at the city’s recycling centers has become “nearly equivalent to the amount of all of the single use bags removed from the recycling stream as a result of the ordinance implemented in 2013,” according to the assessment. And those lightly used bags are landfill-bound, because recycling isn’t any more cost-effective for reusable plastic bags than the single-use variety.

Some of these issues could be addressed through the increased use of reusable canvas bags. But canvas is even more carbon intensive to produce than plastic; studies suggest consumers would need to use a single canvas bag around 130 times before they start achieving any net environmental benefit as compared with a single-use plastic bag. And, for some consumers, the higher price for canvas bags may be prohibitive, in any case.

That’s actually understating the case. Canvas bags have to be cleaned regularly. I previously noted a rise in ER admissions in cities that banned plastic bags because people were eating contaminated food:

This is something the environmentalists have never understood. People don’t do “bad” environmental things because they hate cute little fishies; they do it because it’s the least bad option facing them. So environmentalists, for example, ban styrofoam cups in favor of paper cups and then are shocked when it turns out paper cups cost more energy to produce and create more waste. They go on about food miles and then are blindsided when it turns out that flying in your lamb from New Zealand is better for the environment than growing it locally.

People dispose of grocery bags for a reason: to get rid of the dirt, bacteria, blood, etc. that comes off of raw food. This problem can be overcome by washing reusable bags. But … that cuts into the supposed environmental benefit. If you wash it every time, it would taken hundreds of uses before a reusable bag would match the environmental impact of a plastic bag.

Actually, is likely that canvas bags will never consume less energy than a plastic bag. This is of a piece with a larger effort in the environmental movement that is emphasizing recycling and composting, which are extremely expensive in terms of energy. By my math, that’s trading a problem we don’t have (a lack of landfill space) for a problem we do (global warming).

But the plastic bag ban was never about the environment, really. It was what one person called “brick in the toilet” environmentalism. It was about doing something even if that something has no tangible benefit. It was about making the public sacrifice some convenience because sacrificing convenience seems moral. Who cares if it works as long as you get everyone marching along to the government’s drum?

One of the things I’ve said for years about the environmentalist movement is that they need to decide what they want: style or substance. Do they actually want to improve the environment or do they want to look they’re improving it? We see, over and over again, environmentalists advocating policies that feel good but do harm: opposing nuclear power, “food miles”, “earth hours”, banning plastic bags. I think it’s clear that they’ve made their choice. If we are going to save the Earth, the ideas for doing it are going to have to come out of the conservative and libertarian movements.

Greens Silent on Commie Planet-Wrecking … Again

During the Cold War, there was a predictable pattern to Eastern Bloc environmental concerns. The Communists would engage in some awful mind-boggling environment-destroying big project like draining the Aral Sea. Not because it made any economic sense to do so but because it glorified the state. Then the greens would say absolutely nothing about it.

How times haven’t changed:

Nicaragua’s plan to build an Interoceanic Canal that would rival the Panama Canal could be a major environmental disaster if it goes forward. That’s the assessment of Axel Meyer and Jorge Huete-Pérez, two scientists familiar with the project, in a recent article in Nature.

In their article, Meyer and Huete-Pérez explain how the $50-billion project (more than four times Nicaragua’s GDP), would require “The excavation of hundreds of kilometres from coast to coast, traversing Lake Nicaragua, the largest drinking-water reservoir in the region, [and] will destroy around 400,000 hectares of rainforests and wetlands.” So far, the Nicaraguan government has remained mum about the environmental impact of the project. Daniel Ortega, the country’s president, only said last year that “some trees have to be removed.”

Have you a word about this from Greenpeace? Or the Sierra Club? Or any of the organizations that are currently throwing a fit about Keystone XL, a far far less destructive project? That’s to say nothing of the unconstitutional way this project was approved, the fact that all proceeds from it for the next 50 years will go to the Chinese company building the project, the lack of experience for the team building, the extremely dubious economic case for the canal and the farmers being evicted off their land. If even one of those things were happening in the US, we’d be hearing about it on MSNBC every night.

I’m not usually one for the Balloon Juice Fallacy. But the study about the environmental devastation was published a year ago. And there’s a history here, as I noted above. Ortega is a former communist and Chavez-type socialist. The greens have been reluctant to criticize far-left politicians for their environmental destruction. And that’s a polite of saying the completely look the other way. Because environmental damage cause by industry is bad. Environmental damage done for “the people” even when the people are far-left politicians lining their pockets? That’s OK.

GoreSat Finally Orbits

One of my pet peeves is the contention that conservatives and Republicans are “anti-science” while liberals and Democrats are “pro-science”. Having been in the field for twenty years, I’ve observed little difference in how well science is funded under the two parties, with a slight bias in favor of Republicans. And while it’s true that Republicans are more dubious of science on the big topics du jour — global warming and evolution — that doesn’t mean they are more anti-science in general. When it comes to GMOs, vaccines or nuclear power, the Left is way more anti-science.

My dislike of this meme is embodied in the person of Algore, who has a reputation as this great scientific mind but has always crossed me as a poser: someone who pretends to be a friend of science because he wants to look smart (and, in his case, wants to advance a big government agenda). He wrote a well-praised book — Earth in the Balance — that was shredded in P.J. O’Rourke in All The Trouble in the World and proved to be massively wrong on many issues. He touted a plan to move the United States to alternative energy within ten years that was total science fiction. His advocacy on global warming — hypocritical advocacy — touted doomsday scenarios and marginal studies. It was ultimately a disservice to the climate debate.

But if you want Algore in a nutshell, I give you the Triana satellite, a version of which was launched today. Triana started with this crackpot idea of Gore’s to have a satellite launched which would sit in the L1 Lagrange point and take pictures of the Earth. That’s it. It would take pictures of the Earth to “raise awareness” of our climate. NASA devoted $100 million to this boondoggle, without any peer review, and desperately tried to get scientists to find some use for it. The best they could come up with measuring Earth’s albedo and cloud patterns, although Triana was not what you would have designed with that science program in mind. When the SOHO spacecraft was having trouble, they came up with a plan to put instruments on it to measure solar activity, since the L1 point is good for that.

Triana was mothballed after Bush won the White House but was resurrected by Obama. The satellite — now named DSCOVR — has been revamped so that its primary mission is to measure solar storms and provide and early warning of space weather. The Earth picture thing is an afterthought. Notice that’s NASA’s video doesn’t mention Algore’s original Triana mission at all.

If anyone other than Algore had proposed Triana, burned $100 million on it and had NASA scramble to find an actual scientific use for it, they would have been laughingstock. But today the press is filled with stories about how this is Algore’s “dream” even though his original proposal had nothing to do with DSCOVR’s primary mission.

DSCOVR is a good mission and I’m glad it launched today. I’m even gladder that it was launched by SpaceX. Space weather is a serious issue and we desperately need to address the impact that a severe solar storm could have on our planet (think about a world-wide power grid meltdown to get the picture). But let’s not pretend this has anything to do with Algore. This is NASA making some very good lemonade from a $100 million lemon.

I Would Do Anything for the Planet, But I Won’t Do That

Reason writer Ronald Bailey hung out with some of the recent climate protesters at the People’s Climate March. I’ve written about their convenient embrace of science when it suits their biases before, but Bailey really gets into the awful thinking that underpins much of the modern environmental movement:

Among the chief capitalist villains: Monsanto. The assembled marchers fervently damned the crop biotechnology company despite the fact that modern high yield biotech crops cut CO2 emissions by 13 million tons in 2012-the equivalent of taking 11.8 million cars off the road for one year. By making it possible to grow more calories on less land, biotech crops helped conserve 123 million hectares from 1996 to 2012. Many of the protesters oddly believe that eating locally grown organic crops-which require more labor and land to produce less food- will somehow help stop global warming. Vegans are right that eating less meat would mean that more land could be returned to forests that absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. On the other hand, researchers estimate that lab-grown meat could cut greenhouse gas emissions by 96 percent relative to farmed meat.

Fracking aggravated a lot of the demonstrators. Artful placards alluded to another f-word as a way of indicating displeasure. Many asserted that fracking taints drinking water. Yet just the week before the parade, new studies published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by research teams led by the Ohio State University’s Thomas Darrah and the U.S. Department of Energy found that the controversial technique to produce natural gas does not contaminate groundwater. And never mind that burning natural gas produces about half of the carbon dioxide that burning coal does.

Another low-carbon energy source was also a cause of stress for the demonstrators: nuclear power. Some demanded that the Indian Point nuclear power plant on the Hudson River be closed down. This particular petition is just perverse, since nuclear power is a big part of why New Yorkers emit a relatively low average of 8 tons of carbon dioxide per person each year, compared with the U.S. average of 16.4 tons per capita.

There is no such thing as perfect energy technology. Even solar and wind involve massive land use, enormous rare earth metal consumption and, at present, fossil fuel backup. Moreover, wind and solar are limited in the absence of a revolution in battery technology. You can’t run airplanes or big cargo ships on alternative energy. You can barely run cars on them.

Until a revolutionary technology is developed, the best way to fight global warming is to delay it as long as possible. GMO crops delay it by decreasing land and fertilizer use. Fracking delays it by cutting carbon emissions in half compared to coal. Nuclear delays it by replacing fossil fuels completely. All of these things have contributed to the US and Europe cutting their carbon emissions without sacrificing economic progress and have bought years, possibly decades, for us to come with a breakthrough technology that can replace fossil fuels.

The problem is that these technologies exist in the real world and the environmentalists want to live in fantasyland, where you can solve complex scientific, technical, social, political and engineering issues with wishcasting and marches; where there are no tradeoffs; where completely revamping our society is something you can do through legislative fiat.

Thankfully, enough people live in the real world that we’re making real progress … without putting capitalism on the funeral pyre.