Recycling religion


Recycling does have benefits but they don’t always exceed the costs:

We can and should divide recycling into three different and distinct tyeps. There’s the recycling that makes a profit at standard market prices. We’ve been reycling gold on these grounds for many millennia now, old cars are melted down to make new ones and so on. That there’s a profit to made in doing this shows that value is added by doing it: the addition of more value meaning that we’re all getting richer. This is fine, in fact it’s just great.

Then there’s recycling that costs vastly more than is gained from having done it. You can recycle just about anything if you expend enough energy on it but no one would advise trying to turn used concrete back into Portland cement. Better by far to bake some more cement and put the rubble into the hole we’ve just dug.

There’s also the class of things where the pure market numbers don’t provide a profit but we’d like to recycle for other reasons. When there’s an externality perhaps. Cleaning up a radioative waste site might not be profitable for the metals extracted from it but it could still be something we want to do anyway.

The danger is that we get confused about those possible other reasons. And then end up deciding that we should pursue that second, highly detrimental, type of recycling. And that’s where the “recycle everything” movement is today. It’s become an almost religious observation, one that’s continent wide, that recycling stuff is a good thing to do in and of itself. But there’s no actual reason to do this. There’s no shortage of holes in the ground to put landfill into, only a shortage of licenced holes. There’s no general shortage of resources for us to make new stuff from. But we are told that we must recycle ever more material, well, just because we must recycle ever more material.

We should take a step back from this sort of emotional observance and recycle only that which makes a profit. But trying to be rational about even secular religions never does get us very far, does it?

Recycling is always portrayed as being better for the environment.

But that isn’t necessarily so.

The environmental impact of energy used in and pollution caused by recycling can be greater than dumping.

If it doesn’t stack up environmentally it probably costs more in financial terms too.

The adherents of the environmental religion preach recycling.

Reducing and reusing will almost always be better options and in many cases rubbishing could be too.


Reduce recycling to save resources


Those doing their best to tread lightly on the earth are supposed to reduce, reuse and only then recycle.

However, recycling gets the most publicity and generally makes people feel they’re doing something for the environment.

But how good is that something?

Not as good as many think.

I thought this was a fun little finding. And it leads to the conclusion that we’ll have to stop people recycling things. In order to save those precious natural resources. Via Mike Munger comes this:

Abstract: In this study, we propose that the ability to recycle may lead to increased resource usage compared to when a recycling option is not available. Supporting this hypothesis, our first experiment shows that consumers used more paper while evaluating a pair of scissors when the option to recycle was provided (vs. not provided). In a follow-up field experiment, we find that the per person restroom paper hand towel usage increased after the introduction of a recycling bin compared to when a recycling option was not available.

Essentially, the finding is that Jevon’s Paradox works in reverse as well. Jevon’s is the idea that making more efficient use of a resource doesn’t necessarily mean using less of that resource. . . 

. . . When people think that paper towels will not be recycled they use x amount of them. When they think they will be they use x + y amount of them. Recycling thus increases the usage of paper towels. Now, we might argue that as the paper towels are indeed recycled then of course resource usage declines. But this isn’t actually so: recycling paper quite famously causes more resource use than cutting down (and of course planting) a few more trees.  . .

.So, an interesting thought for the lead up to the new year. Save the planet’s precious resources by recycling less. For Jevon’s Paradox does indeed reverse.

This suggests we’d better get back to the old fashioned practices of my parents’ generation for whom reducing and reusing was second nature because recycling might be doing more harm than good.




Wool carpets grow greener


Wool is the quintessential green product – natural, renewable, breathable, fire resistant and – at least in New Zealand – grown on free-range sheep.

The fire-resistance makes wool carpets popular in aeroplanes.

Even without that, the other factors ought to appeal to consumers with a green conscience and a New Zealand company has developed something to make wool carpets tick another environmental box:

Carpet manufacturer Cavalier Bremworth has unveiled a world-first carpet backing product it hopes will secure its environmental footing in the market.

It will reduce around 1200 tonnes of waste from landfills each year because it’s made by recycling your old carpet – but only if it’s made from wool. 

It looks like regular old carpet, but replacing the usual jute backing with a recycled wool product has taken two years of development, so Cavalier Bremworth is quite excited.

“Jute is an imported product and it has variable supply and cost,” says Desiree Keown, Cavalier Bremworth marketing manager. “We’ve now secured a product made entirely in New Zealand using New Zealand labour, made entirely from New Zealand recycled carpet so it’s a perfect story.”

It is estimated Kiwis dump 5000 tonnes of carpet in landfills each year. Synthetic carpet takes 50 years to break down – even pure wool takes a year.

But Cavalier Bremworth will slash that waste by a quarter. It plans to recycle 1200 tonnes of old wool carpet, turning it into new carpet backing.

Natural, renewable, breathable, fire resistant,  grown on free-range sheep, using recycled material that reduces waste – how hard can it be to sell that?


Where’s the proof?


A lot of people believe this:

We all know recycling is good for the planet . . .

But where is the proof that it is and the cost of collecting, transporting and recycling rubbish is justified by the benefits?

Recycling definitely reduces the amount of waste that ends up in landfills.

It could well be better than burning, burying or whatever other methods people who don’t use landfills do with their rubbish.

But is it always better for the planet?

My question is prompted in part by the memory of a newspaper story read some years ago,  which I haven’t been able to find on-line, of the air and water pollution from recycling plastic in China and the damage to the health of the workers.

It’s possible that was an isolated case that recycling plastic has improved since then and that other forms of recycling do more good than harm but I don’t know for sure.

I have no problem accepting that reducing and reusing are better for the environment but I have yet to see anything to prove that recycling always is.

Reduce, reuse but don’t always recycle


It would be difficult to counter the contention that reducing what you use and reusing what you can is better for the environment than consuming and dumping more.

But the environmental and economic benefits of the third R in the environmental mantra – reduce, reuse, recycle are more questionable.

Marion Shore of the Waitaki Resource Recovery Centre reckons recycling is like aspirin for the headache of over consumption.

In talking Sense on recycling Offsetting Behaviour questions the cost of recycling.

He also quotes Kevin Libin in the National Post who finds that claims on the benefits of recycling often fail on both economic and environmental grounds.

San Francisco’s Department of Waste recently calculated it paid $4,000 a tonne to recycle plastic bags. Its resale price for the recycled product? $32. . .  “Besides the financial, the economic cost, you’ve got the environmental cost” of recycling unwanted material. “The trucks running out there, burning fuel … you have to use energy, you’ve got CO2 emissions.”

That’s why curbside recycling requires, wherever it’s implemented, millions of tax dollars to stay afloat: the inputs required are greater than the savings.. . . 

Often the effects of aggressive residential recycling programs harm environmental goals. Citywide blue box programs typically mean a whole new fleet of trucks: Calgary now has 64 more diesel-burning rigs retracing the same tracks its garbage trucks did just a few days earlier, roughly doubling carbon dioxide emissions and other pollutants.

Libin gives several more examples of how the benefits of recycling don’t stack up and quotes a study which found that incinerating rubbish with energy recovery was often a better option than recycling.

The article is worth reading in full and confirms my contention that there are good reasons to reduce and reuse but there are serious questions about the benefits of recycling.

The new three Rs


The three Rs used to be Reading wRiting and aRithmetic.

Now they stand for reduce, reuse and recycle.

As a child of children of the depression who had a Presbyterian upbringing I have no argument with the economic and environmental sense of reducing and reusing. But I am yet to be convinced that the enivronmental and economic benefits of recycling outweigh the costs.

There is no doubt recycling reduces the amount of waste put into landfills which in turn reduces the headache for councils which have to deal with ever growing mountains of waste.

But I’ve often wondered if the energy used in transporting and processing paper, plastic, glass and other recyclable materials justifies doing it. My doubts over whether recycling was better for the environment were compounded by a news story a few years ago, which I’ve never seen contradicted, about a plastic recycling plant in China which was causing huge air and water pollution and severe health problems for its staff.

Now the ODT reports that recyclable materials are piling up because the market for them has slumped. That may have nothing to do with the environmental costs and benefits but it is a sign the economic benefits are now outweighed by the costs.

Recycling is the easiest green initiative for individuals. If your town has kerbside recycling it’s just a matter of chucking things into the right bin with just a little more effort required to wash anything which is dirty.

It takes a bit more efforts in towns without the service and the country where you have to take your recyclables to a depot but that can usually be done enroute to somewhere else.

It’s not hard to make small gestures towards reducing and reusing – taking your own reusable bags to the supermarket does both;  and washing the empty vegemite jar and refilling it with homemade jam is easy.

But serious reduction and resuse requires restraint and effort.

However, unlike the old 3 Rs where all Rs were equal, the first two of the new 3Rs – reducing and reusing are almost certainly superior to the third – recycling.

Neatness not a natural state


Some are born neat; some achieve neatness and some have neatness thrust upon them.


Those who are orderly by birth or habit find it difficult to tolerate or even understand the rest of us who are not and I don’t blame them because untidiness irritates and confounds me too. However, while I like neatness and know it makes life much simpler and less stressful it’s not a state which comes naturally to me.


I blame it on being a child of children of the depression who had been brought up with the injunction waste not, want not. Let’s face it anyone whose mother washed, dried and reused plastic sandwich wrap decades before recycling became trendy is going to have a problem determining what’s wanted and what’s waste.


This helps to explain why I can’t throw out left over food straight away but must pop it into the fridge and wait until it dies quietly first. Similarly I can’t get rid of other things as soon as there usefulness or beauty has passed.


Instead they must serve their time in storage then only after the passing of months or even years has led to a further deterioration in both appearance, and value and when something with a more pressing need for cupboard space forces them out can they be discarded.


This totally irrational and unnecessary determination to keep things which have long since passed their useful-by dates means that neatness is a rare and fleeting state with me and the last time I came as near as I even get to total tidiness on the domestic front was some months ago when a spruce up of the office was thrust upon me by some relatively minor alterations which resulted in significantly more storage space.


My farmer, encouraged by the addition of new places to put things and with some not insignificant assistance from both our office fairy and accountant cleared up his territory which made the contrast with the disorder on and around my desk even more marked.


Accepting the inevitable I began the massive job of turning the chaos of my corner into some semblance of order. Two and a half days later the desk was clear, drawers were tidy, shelves were stacked in an orderly fashion, loose bits of paper were filed securely and the fifth load of rubbish was burning in the drum.


Encouraged by the novel experience of being able to find what I wanted at first glance I moved with the enthusiasm of a new convert from the office to the hall cupboard and set about tidying that too. Then I tackled the bedroom where anything that hadn’t been worn for more than a year was taken out to be given to an op-shop.


Fired with success in this quarter I advanced with missionary zeal to the spare room where a similarly cathartic process took place. From there I strode with determination in my heart and a large rubbish bin in both hands to cut a swathe through the mess in the kitchen, living room and finally the laundry.


My excitement over the resulting and unusual sate of order from one end of the house to the other was boundless. I not only knew where things should be, I could be totally confident that that’s where they would be.


With the house much neater life became much easier, but alas the tidiness was temporary.


Slowly and insidiously chaos crept back, furnishing me with the proof that for those of us on whom tidiness is thrust the real challenge lies not in attaining neatness but in maintaining it.



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