Thursday, August 19, 2010

Don't recycle your green glass, plastic or paper. That's right, trash it for the planet.

Recently in the news, the Mayor of New York expanded the state's recycling program to encompass more plastics; supposedly, this will divert 8,000 tons of plastic from landfills each year. My question is, what's so bad about throwing garbage in the trash?

With all our trash in the Dakotas, as it should be.
Maybe this makes sense to New Yorkers -- their state did birth the "trash crisis" myth which has followed American politics home like a stinky dog. However, recycling has remained a national craze, even though landfills are generally cheap and available across the country. Fun fact: If all American trash were brought to one huge landfill, and "you keep filling up this landfill for 100 years, and if you assume that during this time the populations of the United States doubles, then the landfill will cover about 160,000 acres, or 250 or so square miles, with trash 400 feet deep." Source. That may seem like a lot, so to put it in perspective, see the attached diagram which compares the 3,717,813 square miles of the lower 48 to this hypothetical landfill. Doesn't look so big now, does it?

Recycling colored glass, paper and plastic isn't just unnecessary; it's also inefficient. Let's count the ways:

Green Glass:
Glass is made from sand, perhaps the most cheap and plentiful stuff you can find other than dirt. We're not running out of it. Making glass is relatively simple: heat the glass, shape it, then allow it to cool. Recycling glass that has color added becomes much more complicated. It takes chemical processes I can't even spell in order to clean out the waste products and allow the glass to be reused... generating even more byproducts that are released into the environment. There's a glut of ground green glass (try saying that three times fast) and no one wants to use it, so basically all that recycling was wasted effort.

The problem with plastics is that there's so many different kinds of them; each comes with a little number on the bottom which the consumer is supposed to reference and then recycle accordingly. The time lost, just from millions of people going through this mundane and unnecessary exercise, probably outweighs any economic benefit from reusing those plastics. Even discounting people's valuable time, recycling plastic doesn't save natural resources; "when the equation includes the energy used to synthesize the plastic resin, making plastic containers uses as much energy as making glass containers from virgin materials." The source for this is a Berkeley environmental organization, so you know it's not just angry libertarians. In other words, hug a tree, then throw that plastic bottle away.

Speaking of trees, we've got lots of them.  In fact, American forests have expanded substantially over the last century, largely thanks to improvements in agricultural productivity which allowed more land to return to its natural state. Paper pulp mostly comes from tree farms these days, so the environmental impact of virgin paper is pretty small. Recycling that paper pulp after it's had inks, dyes, and other junk added to it is another story. All those chemicals have to go somewhere, so the recycling process creates its own little clean-up problem afterward. I'm no chemist, but I'm pretty sure it's harder to dispose of dioxins than old newspaper.

Bottom Line:
If recycling were efficient, private companies would send trucks around asking for your trash, and government wouldn't need to promote it. This will never happen, which shows that recycling is popular not because it helps anything but because it makes us feel good inside to "do our part" for nature. With environmental campaigns bombarding the general public with guilt appeals and claims of impending disaster on a near-daily basis, it's no surprise people need something to clear their conscience. I think it It's time to buck the trend, and feel good about disposing of trash the efficient way - in the garbage - instead of making every can, bottle, and paper product into a pointless political statement. Being wasteful never felt so good.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting perspective. It is worth noting that glass made from a mixture of silica that comes from fine white sand or pulverized sandstone, combined with smaller amounts of an alkali like soda (sodium bicarbonate) or potash to lower its melting point, and lime (from limestone). Hey, is dirt the most plentiful substance on Earth? How about water? ;-)