Friday, September 18, 2009

Tossing out Recycling

I recycle. I believe we (humanity) waste a lot of energy on disposable plastics and packaging and that this has a significant impact on the environment. Yet I have a bit of nagging doubt about the benefit of recycling rolling around in the back of my brain and I can’t seem to shake it.

Magicians Penn and Teller did one of their HBO “Bullshit” series about recycling – strongly criticizing it, as they can only do in their humorous and often profane style. I chalk some of their views as mantra from the usual Libertarian sources (of which P&T are… the “flaming” kind). Still, as my wife often says, sometimes there is a “grain of truth” to an issue. And I think the grain of truth in the criticism of recycling is that it actually may be somewhat wasteful in itself.

Consider this: most people I know wash or rinse out their recycling before they put it in the recycle bin. Each time I rinse out my morning yogurt container, I wonder how much water I am wasting. Think about this for a moment – using pure, clean drinking water to rinse out a container that you are discarding. You know, many concerned scientists warn that the world may soon face a shortage of fresh water is poised to be the next global crisis.

I notice that I am using a lot of water on stuff I am throwing out – between glass and plastic, we fill a garbage can size recycling bin about every two months. I have been considering dumping the rinse water into a bucket so I can actually MEASURE how much water I am wasting on stuff I am throwing out.

Another thing "green" issue has been bothering me also – lighting. I've switched from incandescent to compact florescent light bulbs (CF). They are a bit annoying when you first turn them on as they have to warm up a minute or two before they reach full brightness. No big deal. But it turns out that burned-out compact florescent bulbs should not be tossed the trash as they contain toxic mercury. CF bulbs must be disposed of as “toxic waste”.

Some European countries have outlawed CF lights as has California (pretty close to European as Americans get). But, what is their plan for disposing of all the millions of dead CF bulbs and their dangerous component of mercury?

Another thing I notice during our weekly garbage pick up. Before recycling took off in the public consciousness, there was only one garbage truck coming through our neighborhood. Now there are two – that means double the impact, double the fuel, double the energy to make two vehicles, double the personnel to operate them. My garbage bill just increased this year.

I don’t know what the answer is. When I was a kid we had milk bottles which we took back to the store (after the Milk Man stopped delivering it to our porch weekly). The bottles would need to be washed, that would take water… and the bottle need to be transported. Which is more efficient and energy neutral - washing and reusing containers or washing and throwing away single use containers?

Maybe the key is not to create the packaging in the first place. For example, I hate buying two packages of five screws when I only need six. Likewise I hate having to get a pair of scissors to open a shrink wrapped package of compact fluorescent light bulbs.

I am starting to lean toward the thought that recycling just might indeed be Bullshit.


Mary Witzl said...

My husband and I have this argument all the time. You raise valid points here: I agree that washing out cans and bottles with clean water is a waste: that's what I save my cruddy old dishwater for. And I also worry about what they do with CF light bulbs -- and a lot of other dangerous things like half-full Nitromorse (for stripping paint) tins, old paint, adhesives, etc. Some of those recyclable material collection trucks, however, are run on used cooking oil here. Which is a doubly great way to recycle, surely? (God, I hope it is...)

A few years back, our local region promoted the use of composting bins. I bought two for a couple of bucks -- huge things -- and recycle all sorts of stuff in them, including cardboard and newspaper. I get great compost for my garden, but best yet, our garbage output went down by about 75%. Sometimes we don't even bother to wheel it out, and I'm sure our neighbors have had the same experience. I think the key here is showing a little intelligence instead of making knee-jerk assumptions that all recycling=ecologically sound practice. But showing a little intelligence is what it's all about, isn't it?

Robert the Skeptic said...

Indeed, I take P&T's position with a grain of salt. Recycling aluminum is clearly cost-effective in view of how much energy goes into making it. And true, my garbage can does not fill up as quickly due to recyclable items being handled separately.

On the other hand, the market now has a glut of recycled paper. The price drops and it is now more economically viable to consume new paper sources.

I recall a story about Ireland where, upon starting to charge customers for plastic grocery bags, there was a net increase increase in the demand for plastic garbage bags... people had been using their plastic grocery bags for trash bags.

There is a lot of commercial and business push behind creating packaging which we eventually end up needing to recycle.

kara said...

i don't rinse almost anything i recycle. they don't mind, i promise (as long as giant chunks of things aren't in there). i can't stand seeing plastic containers in the garbage. i don't care if it takes more energy to get them out of landfills, i'm fine with it. it's a job someone wouldn't otherwise have.