Consummate dilettantism!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Much Ado About Nothing

Why the Recycling to Which You Are Accustomed May Not Be Recycling at All

The premise on which "recycling" is based is a simple one, and to all appearances eminently sensible. In a world whose resources are limited, man must attempt to reuse what he has used or run the risk of overusing what he has. That is, used paper must be refashioned into recycled paper, used plastic into plastic, used aluminum into aluminum, &c. But often people fail to check their assumptions when recycling: There is something of a cultist aspect in the entire endeavor.

The key words here are "renewability" and "sustainability." A product is to be judged by its performance in these categories. But what is often omitted is the plain fact that "renewing" something isn't effortless. As with any process, energy is required; one cannot simply turn used plastic into new plastic without an expenditure thereof. And herein lies the fatal error: A recycling of physical items simply obscures the energy cost inherent in the process of creation (or re-creation). It is easy to see the costs of creating new paper: The cutting down of trees, the clearing of land, &c. But the cost of renewing paper is just shifted: The energy used in renewing the paper is non-renewable, and, depending upon the method of energy acquisition, the costs are just as obvious. Indeed, in most cases, it is more energy-intensive to recycle old items than to find new ones. There are, of course, some exceptions (aluminum is the most notable), but this holds true for most things. Recycling is often not only not economically feasible but also inefficient and even environmentally destructive.

This, by the way, is the same fallacy that accompanies the mythologizing of hybrid cars: To borrow a phrase from the noted Milton Friedman, there is no free lunch. It may be the case that the production of electricity for battery-operated cars is easier on the environment than gasoline production and emission, but one must recognize that hybrid cars, unless their electric energy is derived from fully renewable sources, are not "emission-free."

But perhaps this energy expenditure is worth it. After all, maybe it is better to use more energy in the short run to preserve our natural resources. Perhaps the derivation of energy used in recycling taxes the environment less, perhaps the supply of the material from which the energy is derived is in abundant supply (and thus less worthy of conservation), or perhaps the source of energy used in recycling is renewable. One cannot hide the fact there is only a limited supply of plastic and paper. Won't we run out of trees or plastic? In most cases this "problem" is much exaggerated. Sometimes the non-renewable source is only partially non-renewable or even renewable: Paper comes from trees, which, although limited in number, are living organisms that can multiply and reproduce. They hook into, in the wisdom of The Lion King, the circle of life, the primeval cycle of renewable. But most often, as the brilliant economist Julian Simon theorized, there are substitutes for the resources which we think are utterly critical to our survival. Although whale blubber was once the method of choice for light, this is no longer the case, and whale blubber is no longer sought. Many, many resources are fast becoming irrelevant. How foolish would environmentalists in a paperless future sound when proclaiming the destruction of trees for paper! The notion of "peak oil," too, is bunk: As the price of oil increases, incentives will abound to either find more or to use something else. In the words of Donald Bordeaux, we will never run out of oil, not because there is an unlimited supply, but because demand will always change to meet supply. Indeed, on this counting, recycling may even be counterproductive, affording us the unaffordable luxury of sticking to primitive resources like plastic and paper when we could be searching for newer, better technologies.

There is no limit to human ingenuity. The human mind, not government, not God, not Gaia, has created out of nothing the vast wealth of the developed world. Why have material conditions improved as they have? Whence has come this astonishing increase in wealth? The ultimate resource, again borrowing from Simon, is the mind. What is truly infinite is the output of ideas, whose momentum is ever-increasing and whose power is monumentally tangible. It is not what we have but how we use what we have that matters.

No comments:

Post a Comment