Does sorting bottles and cans really save the earth? You may have heard the rumor that the whole thing is a big sham - either a misguided to make ourselves feel better about our wasteful lifestyles, or worse a conspiracy of crystal-wearing, tree-hugging hippies.
You may have noticed a number
of geeky environment-related posts
on Unsought Input. Some of our writers like to think of themselves as environmentalists. Now, before you click your back button, I should explain: no one here will ever tell you to stop driving and live in a cave! We are positive, progressive environmentalists who come to our green views through a love of innovation, efficiency, scientific progress, and yes, even market economics
So, is recycling a bunch of bullshit
designed to make us all feel better about ourselves? Does putting glass and plastic in a green bin actually damage the environment more than help?
Penn and Teller seemed to think so in an episode of their show, Bullshit. Bullshit is a great show, it's very entertaining, and they call out psychics and feng shui practitioners on their unsupportable claims. It's also filled with things that are less objective debunkery and more Penn and Teller opinion.
The duo have a number of reasons for disliking recycling. For example, there is no shortage of landfills and believe recycling uses more energy than it saves. They liken it to a dogmatic religious practice. Are they right? should we give up and put throw our used printer paper in with the coffee grounds and litter box tailings?
Well, according to The Economist, recycling is worth it
in almost every case. For those of you unfamiliar, The Economist is hardly a bastion of feel-good hippyism. In American terms the magazine is notoriously fiscally conservative (which is sometimes called economic liberalism in Europe).
In a recent article they report the results of a study by the Technical University of Denmark and the Danish Topic Centre on Waste:
The researchers then looked at more than 200 scenarios, comparing the impact of recycling with that of burying or burning particular types of waste material. They found that in 83% of all scenarios that included recycling, it was indeed better for the environment.
If you live in a community that does single-stream garbage collection, you might wonder if they really do sort out the recyclables. Chances are they do, and single-stream systems can actually be some of the most efficient:
San Francisco, which changed from multi to single-stream collection a few years ago, now boasts a recycling rate of 69%â€”one of the highest in America. With the exception of garden and food waste, all the city's kerbside recyclables are sorted in a 200,000-square-foot facility that combines machines with the manpower of 155 employees.
The big question about recycling is really a series of separate, somewhat related questions. First, are we really running out of landfills? Of course not, we have several deserts and oceans just waiting to be filled. Now, to ask the actually meaningful question: are we running out of landfills near large population centers that generate the trash? That answer is a lot closer to yes. It turns out most people don't want to live next to a dump, so dumps are getting harder and harder to build. Suburban sprawl only makes it worse.
Second, is recycling economically worth it? Recycling is indeed subsidized in most cities. But the answer to this question depends on things like commodity prices, new technologies and innovations, and whether or not you try to count the market externalities
Finally, does recycling have a net environmental benefit? This is actually a huge question, and life cycle analysis is not easy to do. How far back to you go? If you go all the way back to the energy expended on mining raw materials, transportation, etc., then the answer tends to be yes.
Now, does this one study prove for all time that recycling is worth doing? Of course not - that would be rather dogmatic. But it is further evidence, with a thorough methodology. This is how science works. For example, here's another paper that examines the significance of assumptions in life cycle assessments
like this one. When was the last time a religion or superstition publish a report examining possible issues in their underlying assumptions?
Earlier I called Bullshit a great show, and it is. So how did they get it wrong on this issue? Penn and Teller are absolutely brilliant when it comes to debunking flim-flam artists, because they have years of training and experience as flim-flam artists themselves. Magicians and psychics (and the like) use the exact same techniques in their work --the difference is that magicians tell you it's a trick, and not supernatural god power. When the show ventures into other topics, though, the quality varies depending on the experts they rely on.
So, to recap:
- Recycling? Good.
- Dogmatic crystal-wearing, tree-hugging hippies? Bad.
- Penn and Teller on flim-flam artists? Good.
- Penn and Teller on scientific topics? Not so much.