The Speculist: Recycling and Alternatives


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Recycling and Alternatives

Per Bylund writes about the Swedish government's coercive recycling regulations:

...[E]verybody is recycling. But that is the result of government force, not a voluntary choice. The state's monopolist garbage-collection "service" no longer accepts garbage: they will only collect leftovers and other biodegradables. Any other kind of garbage that accidentally finds its way to your garbage bin can result in a nice little fine (it really isn't that little) and the whole neighborhood could face increased garbage collection rates (i.e., even larger increases than usual — they tend to increase annually or biannually anyway).

So what do you do with your waste? Most homes have a number of trash bins for different kinds of trash: batteries in one; biodegradables in one; wood in one; colored glass in one, other glass in another; aluminum in one, other metals in another; newspapers in one, hard paper in another, and paper that doesn't fit these two categories in a third; and plastic of all sorts in another collection of bins. The materials generally have to be cleaned before thrown away — milk cartons with milk in them cannot be recycled just as metal cans cannot have too much of the paper labels left.

The people of Sweden are thus forced to clean their trash before carefully separating different kinds of materials. This is the future, they say, and it is supposedly good for the environment.

What is interesting about this Soviet-style planned recycling is that it is officially profitable. It is supposed to be resource efficient, since recycling of the materials is less energy-consuming than, for instance, mining or the production of paper from wood. It is also economically profitable, since the government actually generates revenues from selling recycled materials and products made in the recycling process. The final recycling process costs less than is earned from selling the recycled products.

However, this is common government logic: it is "energy saving" simply because government does not count the time and energy used by nine million people cleaning and sorting their trash. Government authorities and researchers have reached the conclusion that the cost of (a) the water and electricity used for cleaning household trash, (b) transportation from trash collection centers, and (c) the final recycling process is actually less than would be necessary to produce these materials from scratch. Of course, they don't count the literally millions of times people drive to the recycling centers to empty their trash bins; neither do they count, for instance, energy and costs for the extra housing space required for a dozen extra trash bins in every home.

Not to get into the politics of whether the Swedish government should or should not enforce such a vigorous model of recycling, I wonder how reclaiming refuse for biofuel production might fit into such an environment? All the wood, paper, and organic waste which is currently going for recycling or trash disposal might be converted into energy instead. I'm not sure this would make things any easier, but I would venture to guess that (at least) folks wouldn't have to sort paper into different varieties or wash out their milk cartons before disposing of them.

There has been quite a bit of interest in cellulosic ethanol lately; I wonder how enthusiastically its widespread production from waste materials would be received by environmentalists? While you would no longer have paper ending up in landfills, you would have it being "used up" in the form of energy production. Whereas, with recycling, the paper will last a lot longer -- although certainly not forever.

So are we better off strictly recycling, or with a mix of recycling for metals and plastic, while reclaiming energy from paper and other organic waste?


Here in San Diego we don't have to sort out any of our recycling. Metal, paper, plastics (only some types of plastics, though), they all go into one recycle bin. I've always wondered why the difference. I know the recycling company separates everything out with a combination manual and automated assembly lines. So why does that work here but not other places?

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