The Economist examines recycling
June 10, 2007 8:43 PM   Subscribe

An interesting and in-depth article at The Economist about the state of recycling. It discusses the past and future of recycling as well as the flow of materials, energy and monetary costs, and technology involved. Info on local programs and other related stuff can be found at the EPA's recycling site.
posted by BlackLeotardFront (26 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
Even so, when a city introduces a kerbside recycling programme

lolbrits.
posted by delmoi at 8:48 PM on June 10, 2007


i can has sustainability?
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 8:50 PM on June 10, 2007


Very informative article. I don't have much to add, other then that I find the idea of roving villages of poor Chinese peasants disassembling western garbage, which gets recycled and ultimately sold back to the west as new consumer products to be very cyberpunk.
posted by delmoi at 9:08 PM on June 10, 2007


I love that diagram of eddy currents and spectroscopic sorters. The Economist always has the sexiest charts, graphs and maps.
posted by tepidmonkey at 9:21 PM on June 10, 2007


Heather Rogers wrote a great book about this very topic.
posted by footage at 9:22 PM on June 10, 2007


I only read The Economist for the charts and graphs.
posted by shoepal at 9:28 PM on June 10, 2007 [3 favorites]


There was a recent New Scientist article that predicted that some metals, such as tantalum, indium, hafnium and terbium, among others, would be depleted in anywhere between 5-20 years because of the increasing demand for computers and gadgets. We're going to be getting gouged by Chinese peasants any day now.
posted by stavrogin at 9:42 PM on June 10, 2007


If done right, there is no doubt that recycling saves energy and raw materials, and reduces pollution.

Oh, I think Penn Jillette just canceled his subscription.
posted by dirigibleman at 10:29 PM on June 10, 2007


I think Penn Jillette just canceled his subscription.

Don't fret, the motherfuckers will retract any minute now.
posted by mwhybark at 10:40 PM on June 10, 2007


Oh, I think Penn Jillette just canceled his subscription.

It was like the sound of a million Penn and Teller fanboys crying out as one and being silenced.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:57 PM on June 10, 2007


The Economist has undergone quite a shift over the past 10 or so years from being skeptical about global warming and environmentalism in general to being quite optimistic about it.

March's Technology Quarterly had a bit about the promise of solar power. They are keen on carbon trading schemes now. This article on recycling is the opposite of what they have written in the past. They have said in the past that the benefits of recycling are dubious.

Given that on many things the Economist is probably the closest voice to the technocrats who tend to run things, it indicates that we are headed toward a future where the environment is taken care of by the elites using democratic and market mechanisms. It'll be similar to today with a few extra taxes.
posted by sien at 3:44 AM on June 11, 2007


Can you reduce the amount of material to begin with? Can you design the product to make recycling easier?

If done right...


Yes, if the manufacturer pays for recycling and dump space (space used * time before it degrades) and pollution clean-up and (for high-litter items like candy and cigarettes and shopping bags) litter clean-up and so on, recycling will work because businesses will design to make recycling much easier or, in many cases, unnecessary. But it's a hard thing to push under political administrations for which business always comes first and the future is expected never to come at all.
posted by pracowity at 3:46 AM on June 11, 2007


Even so, most kerbside recycling programmes are not financially self-sustaining.

This is the key economic fact which I'm surprised the Economist didn't really go into. Recycling is not economically viable because it has to compete with solutions that use the environment for free. This is a classic tragedy of the commons, and the solution is to either privatize the commons (technologically impossible), or to regulate its use until its associated market failures have been patched over.

So tax landfills and incinerators until recycling becomes the obvious thing to do for genuine economic reasons, rather than because of a vague sense of guilt.
posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 4:07 AM on June 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


I once worked in a large-ish art studio (think:syndicated cartoon strip and licensing support) We produced a huge stream of scrap paper. We had dedicated recycling bins for the paper and all the artists made sure all our scap paper made it into those bins.
Our grounds crew came through weekly to collect the paper.

Then, one day, we discovered that the company business manager had decided to store all the scrap paper in a large barn, rather than drive it over to the recycling center. He wasn't happy with the price they were paying for scrap paper and determined that it was more cost-effective to store the paper and then burn it.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:47 AM on June 11, 2007


Interesting article, but it doesn't answer the two major questions I keep asking myself about recycling.

First, why is #1 and #2 plastic not always #1 and #2? Many of the urban recycling programs I've used specify that PET/PETE and HDPE are only acceptable if they are bottles, no other shape. If there's no difference in the plastic, why not accept it all? If there really is a difference in the plastic, why the hell is it marked the same?

Second, has anyone ever found a recycling program that accepts anything other than #1 and #2 plastics? I see #5, #7, or other numbers on containers; I have yet to see a recycling program that accepts these, curbside or at the main plant. Why not? If they aren't commonly recycled, why do responsible companies keep using these plastics? If they are recyclable, why don't more curbside programs accept them?

I'm willing to pay more in city taxes if it means that my landfill contributions are smaller. And I'm interested in the German model, making companies responsible for their own packaging. (Lunchables would be out of business, no? 3 lbs of plastic and cardboard to wrap up five crackers and a cheese stick? Who came up with that idiotic idea?)
posted by caution live frogs at 5:37 AM on June 11, 2007


Then, one day, we discovered that the company business manager had decided to store all the scrap paper in a large barn, rather than drive it over to the recycling center.

Very similar things happened in Ireland on a larger scale when pay-by-weight trash charges were introduced recently.
posted by anonetal at 6:21 AM on June 11, 2007


...when pay-by-weight trash charges were introduced recently.
I guess I needed to be a little clearer about my anecdote...We weren't being charged for our scrap paper. The recycling center would pay you per-pound for the scrap paper you brought in. Our business manager thought he should be paid more than what the recycling center was paying, so he stored the paper until he had enough to do a large burn.

Considering the people who would haul the scrap over to the center were already salaried grounds crew, it was hard to figure exactly what he felt a good price might be for the scrap. I mean...he was willing to make NO money whatsoever on the scrap by burning it.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:31 AM on June 11, 2007


Thorzdad: Gas money to haul it?
posted by delmoi at 7:43 AM on June 11, 2007


If done right, there is no doubt that recycling saves energy and raw materials, and reduces pollution.

I don't think this really disqualifies Penn's arguement. The same can go for landfills that are run right (eg. harnessing the methane gas bi-products to create electricity). Wasn't their arguement rather that not all things recycle efficiently? If I remember the episode correctly, the conclusion was that aluminum had the highest effenciency when it came to recycling, whereas plastics produced more pollutants if recycled than if made from scratch. Paper was simply a toss-up, due to the costs involved.
posted by samsara at 7:50 AM on June 11, 2007


Very similar things happened in Ireland on a larger scale when pay-by-weight trash charges were introduced recently.

Yes, because they put the disposal bill directly on consumers, too far down the line, rather than on manufacturers and sellers who could avoid creating and distributing much of the garbage in the first place. The consumer might still end up paying for garbage disposal, but the cost would be unavoidable -- built into the cost of buying the item -- and there would be pressure to keep the cost low.
posted by pracowity at 7:51 AM on June 11, 2007


I don't think this really disqualifies Penn's arguement.

what's his argument?
posted by andywolf at 9:47 AM on June 11, 2007


i'll shut up
posted by andywolf at 9:48 AM on June 11, 2007


caution: Our regional district takes plastics marked 1 through 6. The 7 marking means that it is some other plastic not covered by 1 through 6, so it would be pretty tough for anyone to accept that for recycling, since they have no idea what it might be.
posted by ssg at 10:33 AM on June 11, 2007


Hm, well, if The Economist is for recycling, there must be something terribly wrong with the idea and it must be resisted tooth and nail.
posted by mwhybark at 5:38 PM on June 11, 2007


A much more frightening story about Plastic
posted by iurodivii at 6:54 PM on June 11, 2007


If there really is a difference in the plastic, why the hell is it marked the same?

The chasing arrows sign with a number inside is a plastics industry resin code. It has absolutely nothing to do with recyclability as there is no national standard for this type of thing. The plastics industry would love for you to think all plastic is recyclable but it's just not the case.

Second, has anyone ever found a recycling program that accepts anything other than #1 and #2 plastics?

See above, but usually the reason is there is no viable market for the other types of plastic. Recycling collectors need to be able to turn around what they collect, that's the point of recycling. If there is no customer within a reasonable distance who will pay for number 3+ plastics, it won't be collected.
posted by look busy at 11:59 AM on June 12, 2007


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