My Fill of Recycling

By Lloyd Graff

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Martin Winterkorn, the CEO of Volkswagon, is now unemployed because his company dealt improperly with the waste from 12 million diesel cars.

Waste is a hot topic again. An XPRIZE of $20 million is now being offered as a challenge to make useful, economically viable products from the carbon dioxide waste, which pours out of coal and natural gas fired power plants all over the world. The unfortunate people who live in Singapore, Malaysia and Beijing are now walking around with masks. They deal everyday with the awful debilitating haze which blankets their air.

In America we recycle our plastic water bottles almost like a religious ritual. Kids who have grown up on environmental orthodoxy since they were three think that they are saving the planet one yogurt cup at a time.

I think we need to think about what’s important in the waste world and what is just a waste of time and energy.

I buy into the consensus view that CO2 from power plants burning coal and natural gas is a legitimate hazard. But I think the fervor over recycling, versus just burying our leftovers like we used to do in the good old days, is misplaced. Most of the lovely forest preserves in the Chicago area are covered up landfills. In New York City the gorgeous tennis facility where they play the U.S. Open Tennis Tournament is a former landfill. Let’s give garbage its due. Dig a big hole in a strategic spot and a decade later you may have a spectacular piece of real estate.

John Tierney has written extensively about the reign of recycling. In his recent piece in The New York Times he argues quite persuasively that for regular people the only environmentally sensible products to recycle are aluminum, paper and cardboard. Plastic and especially food scraps are environmentally wasteful to recycle. He says it would take 40,000 recycled plastic bottles to offset the greenhouse effect of one passenger’s coach round-trip flight from New York to London, 100,000 bottles to compensate for business class trip. If you rinse the bottles that figure would be even higher as it puts more carbon in the atmosphere from obtaining the water.

The environment virtues of electric cars have been strongly promoted by Tesla and Toyota, but the bottom line carbon dioxide savings versus an efficient gasoline engine are minimal if you figure in the carbon dioxide coming from the coal burning power plants that are charging the batteries each day.

I have heard the blind recitations from the waste groupies about saving the planet by joining Seattle and San Francisco in moving toward a “zero waste” policy by recycling every button and hot dog wrapper, but it does not make either economic or environmental sense to go that far.

From the financial side, the recycling business is in the toilet. It is cheaper to produce virgin material in many cases than to recycle, even if you accept the argument that greenhouse gases are a significant cost to the people and the planet. I remain hopeful that the best and brightest minds, with the new economic incentive of the XPRIZE, which is funded by a big utility, NRG, and the Alberta Oil Sands Group, will figure out a good way to recycle the carbon dioxide waste of electricity generating power plants and manufacturing facilities. Meanwhile, plenty of communities will happily host environmentally safe landfills for a fee, and I can guiltlessly send my food scraps down my disposal and throw out my accumulating plastic bags without any tinge of remorse.

Question: Do you feel guilty when you don’t recycle?

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29 thoughts on “My Fill of Recycling

  1. Leo

    “In America we recycle our plastic water bottles almost like a religious ritual.”

    Really? Got any studies to back that up?

    My guess is that less than 30% of plastic water bottles get recycled.

  2. Russ Ethridge

    Take a look at the lead story in last Sunday’s New York Times business section. It follows a story (also in the Times) from 1996 that concludes that other than paper and some metals, most recycling by individuals is an environmental negative. Yes, it makes me feel good, and I suspect it would be uncomfortable to explain to people why throwing away your glass is actually better for the environment than recycling it. There are many things we do not based on science or good information but because we feel good or are influenced by bad information pr the irrational agendas of others..

  3. Rick

    Lloyd, I read Mr. Tierney’s article too. Interesting! I work in a city proud to be “a community where 95 percent of residents recycle and more than half of the community’s discards get recycled or composted”, according to the city website. It’s vexing to think that we are in reality harming both the planet and the economy by doing so. Things are not always as they seem, eh?

  4. Jack

    I always recycle even though much of what I put in the recycle bin ends up in the landfill.
    Have a friend that worked on “the hill”, he would tell stories about all the recycling trucks dumping their load of recyclables with the trash on the hill.
    Liberal Politicians don’t care if recycling does good or not, just so it makes them look good to the voters that fall for their BS.
    Have to go rinse my yogurt container.

  5. Dan Herzog

    One thought relative to recycling plastic bottles is that they are not biodegradable. You can dig as large a hole as you like and bury the millions of plastic bottles that are emptied every day and you will not get a spectacular piece of real estate in a decade or in fifty decades. My hope is that our brightest minds will invent an alternative to the current plastic bottles that result in the positive effect you describe when buried. I once spoke to the owner of a plastic bottle making facility. He said that if an organization like Walmart told drink makers that they would no longer sell products in non-biodegradable bottles, an alternative would be created within six months. The right incentive may be all we need.

  6. Keith Garrison

    Hi Lloyd,
    In my city, Newport Beach Ca. the city takes care of all the recycling. All the home waste is collected and then dumped on a conveyor and sorted into its various recyclable groups. I am all for this type of recycling as it is a 100% solution, and no one has to think about separation of their home waste! What do you think?

  7. allen

    Do I feel guilty when you don’t recycle?

    Not even a bit.

    A couple of decades ago I read a book “The Ultimate Resource”, which I highly recommend, would take all the waste generated for some improbably long number of years. A hundred? Five hundred? I can’t remember and don’t really care.

    Since the original reason for recycling was that we were going to buried under a mountain of waste the book provided the proof we weren’t. Now the rationalization is global warming which is as much of a fraud.

    Oh, and one of the factors that’s never included in the calculations about recycling is the cost of labor necessary. That’s just assumed to have zero value and where you can mandate recycling it’s pretty much the case. But enforced, unpaid labor has a name all its own and we fought a great, big war over it. The reasons to do that sort of thing ought to clear and incontestable. The reasons to mandate recycling, besides changing when necessary, are hardly incontestable.

  8. Marvin

    the efforts of the entire population of the earth to be “GREEN” can’t make up for the gasses expelled into the atmosphere by 1 Volcanic Eruption in 10 years. Do you know how many active Volcanos there are check it out some are under the oceans.

  9. Seth Emerson

    Electric cars do make more sense when when Coal is not the generator. (Like here in California) and the non-pollution benefits add to that. Installing US-sourced rooftop solar helped me assuage some guilt about running the Computer (or A/C) too much. My “statement” on plastic bottles is to not buy them. My wife does not agree. (Happily beer is usually in glass bottles.) But the other (marked) plastic that comes in does go to the recyclers – and then to . . . .?? Aluminum and deposit plastics are sold back and paper cardboard goes out weekly. Sometimes I have to stop my wife from bringing home aluminum cans while we are on vacation. There comes a point, dear!!

  10. Misterchipster

    My business recycles almost all of its byproducts, most are slightly positive on the balance sheet but most are closer to a zero sum game. We do it because it often allows us to break even on the disposal of byproducts we can no longer use and don’t have the room to store for whatever reason. It is good business to minimize waste both economically and politically.

  11. Jim

    I am a large supporter of recycling. The reports of large masses of plastics floating through the oceans disturb me greatly. With that said, I live in the low population density of the Midwest and we are often told how recycling is not economically viable. But I have been in the corporate manufacturing world since 1982, I know that decisions are based on cost. That is why the US went from returnable glass soda pop bottles to plastic, which then paved the way for water in plastic bottles and the waste. Since I have a daughter and hope to have grandchildren, I certainly hope that at some point society comes to the realization that molding billions of single use bottles of virgin materials a year is not good for future humans.

  12. brawlerman

    I have one comment, according to the article Jim Tierney
    said “it would take 40,000 recycled plastic bottles to offset the greenhouse effect of one passenger’s coach round-trip flight from New York to London, 100,000 bottles to compensate for business class trip.” Does this make any sense? So depending on which seat you are in changes how much greenhouse gases are made on a particular flight.

    1. Beth

      Bigger seat size uses a bigger percent of the overall greenhouse gases generated by the entire flight?

  13. realismat work

    I hate to see someone writing about carbon dioxide ( a completely odourless , invisible , non-toxic plant food – that mothers breathe out onto babies at 40000 ppm ) segued into “pollution ” and causing “people to wear masks ” which has nothing at all to do with carbon dioxide .
    Casual missreporting of carbon (soot ) vs C02 harmless gas which MAY cause an infintesimal amount of greenhouse warming – not yet proved .
    The ecoloons are trying to reduce CO2 by bankrupting the Western world whilst China builds a new coal fired power station every 10days and cry laughing at Western stupidty

  14. Robert

    Metal including steel and aluminum are the only materials that actually saves $ by recycling. Everything else costs more including energy and carbon emissions to recycle. Paper and cardboard should be buried not recycled if you believe atmospheric carbon is causing global climate change. There is no better way of returning carbon to the ground than wetting it and burying it, then let bacteria break is down. I myself believe that mandmade carbon emissions are more beneficial than detrimental. It is called plant food and plants grown better the higher the atmospheric carbon content provided the temperature is not too cold.

  15. Joseph

    Paper, cardboard, glass, and aluminum are very successful products that we have been recycling for a long time. Reuse of these products definitely saves energy and manufacturing costs compared to using all virgin material.

    Oh, don’t forget one of the oldest and most successful recycled products — The Automobile. From the beginning, a hundred years ago, automobiles have ended up in junkyards after their normal service life or an accident. Usually there are still hundreds of usable parts that are reused by other owners of like vehicles. Yes this is recycling in a very pure sense. Often no additional raw materials or manufacturing are required to put a component into service again. In other cases components like an alternator, starter, or engine are harvested from a junk car, sent to a rebuilder and are refurbished saving on things like making new castings or other durable components. Lastly, the remains of a picked over and parted out vehicle still has plenty of recycling value in the steel of its body. The high quality steel scrap from our automobiles is a highly sought after commodity the world over. In 2014 the U.S. exported 15 million metric tons of steel scrap, down from 24 million metric tons in 2011. That’s just the exports. According to the Steel Recycling Institute in North America. “Scrap steel is used in everyday products, including packaging, appliances, automobiles and construction. Each year, more steel is recycled in North America than paper, aluminum, plastic and glass combined.” Steel producers in the United States use more than 70% recycled steel to make new steel. I’d say steel is a pretty successful recycled material.

    Plastics are a different story. If and this is a big “IF”, you could successfully isolate only materials made of plastic from the trash waste stream, you would be left with a large variety of different kinds of plastics that are not compatible with each other to be recycled together. With this mixed plastic material you can make plastic park benches and plastic rail road ties, but this mixed (contaminated) material loses many of the distinctive properties needed for many specific plastic items. So this can not be considered “Re”-cycling but should only be considered “Down”-cycling, as you really only get products of a lesser quality from these materials.

    Now they do have plastic sorting equipment that can separate polypropylene from polyethylene from ABS and such, and they are getting better and better at it. But there are so many plastic formulations and so many plastic objects of varying size, it makes it virtually impossible for recycling equipment to sort to 100% levels. Even one small piece of the wrong kind of plastic, mixed in with plastics of another type, is well like “a fly in the ointment”.

    In Europe they have done a really good job of working with industry in limiting the differences in plastics, to obtain a cleaner waste stream to be sorted later. There are European auto makers that mandate their suppliers make the plastic components in the interior of their cars be of one type. They can then be sure of what plastic they are recycling. We need clever ways like this to deal with products we make, from cradle to grave.

    I don’t agree with Lloyd’s “Dig a big hole” landfill approach, because I think we can improve on methods of recycling and lifecycle design of products. An alternative to recycling for many one time use plastics, like those used for food products is compostable plastic. This type of material is usually not made with oil but with plant material like corn stalks. It degrades with sunlight, water, heat, and microbes in the soil. This doesn’t happen instantly but over time it will break down to water, soil, and it’s original CO2. This is a lot better than the thousands of years it takes to break down some other commonly used plastics. People need to learn about industrial compostable plastics as a real and workable alternative to the failed plastics recycling programs currently in place.

  16. Peter

    Guilty??? Are you kidding me? Absolutely NOT. I rarely recycle. More resources and waste occur in people’s eating habits. According to the FDA and USDA, Americans waste over 40% of the food grown in America. Plus over 70% of Americans are overweight or obese with over 30% being obese. So not only are we wasting huge amounts of food, we are also eating way too much. Bigger bodies mean very unhealthy people eating up medical resources, more jet fuel, more body waste, more material for clothing and the list goes on. Even EMT’s need autoloading stretchers cause they can’t lift people up anymore. Americans are gluttonous people and are in a continuous buy, throwaway, buy, throwaway cycle. Streets are also filled with liter everywhere from piggish people. We whore this buy throwaway cycle out to China’s manufacturing who continues to engage in massive pollution with zero to little regulations on them. Look around you, fat massive Americans with Chinese made junk everywhere. Garages are pack with shit, sheds pack with shit, basements pack with shit yet they complain they can’t make ends meet. Walmart, Christmas Tree Shop, Dollar Tree, Dollar General all filled with cheap total garbage products. Americans continue to scratch their heads wondering why there are no longer good paying jobs. We have $1.2 trillion in college student loans out there with students getting useless degrees wondering how they are going to pay the loans back on a McDonald’s salary. They beg the liberals to promise them a bailout. So you want me to feel guilty on not recycling? If you believe in the fairy tale of climate change then stop the gluttonous behavior but we all know Americans can’t stop chewing the nonsense. Now go and eat your GMO foods and wash it down with your HFCS candy drink.

  17. dk

    I kept track years ago with soda & beer bottles.
    Time to load them in the car, drive to store, schlep them into the machines…..
    It cost me about .60 per hour to complete the exercise, (including fuel costs to transport) so it’s really not a 5c refund. Costs more to take them to get the “refund” than it does to chuck them in the trash. From that point on, and to this day, they all go in the dumpster.

  18. David Katz

    i have read and thought a lot about this. The best book on the subject is called, “Use Less Stuff”. In fact you don’t even have to read the book; just read the title. The book explains the fallacy of many recycling efforts and the power of just figuring out how not to use the thing in the first place. Re-purposing , upcycling, re-using, and not-using are environmentally the best alternatives to recycling. These are also good concepts to use in our businesses.

  19. S. Balder

    Lloyd, Isn’t Graff-Pinkert in the recycling business? I mean hasn’t your company taken tooling and machines which would otherwise get melted down into Harbor Freight screwdrivers, serviced modernized and repaired them, then resold them to manufacturers who put them to productive use for another couple of decades? Seems that add a lot of recycled value to the economy. I’m a single-man shop who rebuilds a different type of machine and I feel like my operation is very good for the economy and the environment- the only thing that goes to the landfill is what comes out of my shop vac or dust pan. Parts are sold on Ebay, whole machines are given new life, metals are recycled (’cause I do own a few Chinese screwdrivers!)

    Thought provoking post, as usual!


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