Friday, October 10, 2008

On Bullshit.

Recently, I was introduced to an episode of "Penn and Teller's Bullshit"; this one about recycling. Of course, recycling is supposed to be a great thing, but is it? According to the show, recycling isn't as good as we make it out to be, which is understandable. But is it really so bad that the public requires an entire show dedicated to it, or are Penn and Teller just running out of material? After all, there's only so many religions in the world.

The Argument against Recycling

First claim: Recycling doesn't save energy.

After some superfluous bit about how far people will go to recycle, Penn and Teller get to their first point. The argument against recycling, they say, is that it doesn't actually save energy. And this should be a very good point, since that is exactly the reason most people cite when asked why recycle. The reasoning? According to Penn, recycling items increases energy use (gathering, sorting, cleaning.) Of course, this wasn't really backed with numbers, charts, pictures, or any sort of evidence. In fact, Penn didn't even elaborate on the point. Apparently, we're just to take his word for it.

However, Penn is right in saying that the processes included with recycling a product definitely use energy, but he is wrong to say that it isn't beneficial. Recycling aluminum may reduce energy use by 90%; steel by 50%; paper by 25%; and glass by 4-32%. Air pollution is also reduced (95%, 85%, 74%, 20%.) [Middleton]

Admittedly, the numbers seem a bit off. To claim that recycling aluminum may eradicate air pollution nearly completely is pretty extraordinary. But a look at the chart of the processes to make aluminum brings plausibility to the claim:

1. Mining > 2. Bauxite > 3. Bayer Process > 4. Alumina > 5. Electrolysis > 6. Aluminium > 7. Rolling, drawing, casting, etc. > 8. Consumer products > 9. Waste. [Middleton]

Normally, the process ends there, and the waste is sent to landfills, etc. However, recycling the waste leads to a flow chart which leads back to step number 7. So we find a chart like so:

7. Rolling, drawing, casting, etc. > 8. Consumer products > 9. Waste > 10. Remelting > 7. Rolling... [Middleton]
And, of course, the benefits become explicit. By recycling we cut six steps out of the process and replace them with two (gathering and processing/remelting.) Even more so, some of the steps known to exacerbate enviromental issues the most are cut out; most notably mining. However, something different may be said for plastics. Due to their heavier chemical compositions, recycling plastics may not be as useful as other items.

Penn's first claim, that recycling doesn't save energy, doesn't hold up. Had he given a more maximal claim, referring only to plastics, he may have held some ground, but he didn't. Next to saving energy, recycling provides myriad of other benefits. These range from lower production costs, less air pollution, less water use, etc. First claim: busted.

Second claim: This can actually be put into standard form rather easily.

  1. In a free market, people pay for what benefits them.
  2. Recycling programs are payed for by taxes, namely, subsidies.
  3. Subsidies support "questionable" or "obsolete" programs.
  4. Such programs aren't in the interest of the people in a free market.
  5. Therefore, recycling is bullshit, and doesn't actually have benefits.
I'm expecting some hard hitting facts, and specifically facts which support premises "3" and "4". Are all subsidies in support of "questionable" programs? Is something being beneficial really sufficient in reality for people to pay for it? Already I'm thinking that it certainly is possible for subsidies to support useful programs. I'm also questioning the validity of a free market, especially its ability to invest in everything beneficial.

To sway my mind, Pen should offer up some evidence here. And he does. The show offers two figures regarding the cost per ton for collection of waste - waste against recycled waste. Waste, according to the EPA official they interview, costs $50-60 for collection and processing (dumping). Recycling on the other hand costs three times that much. Not only this, but another authority on the subject reveals that at the time of filming, New York (state or City isn't specified) was spending $33 million (I assume; only the number was given - it was not stated if it was a net loss, total spent, or anything else.) Hefty amount of money, right? Well, should it be in regards to New York State, then the cost is roughly $1.70 per person ($33 million divied up among 19 million people.) This isn't exactly what I would call a big mark against recycling.

But let's assume that recycling doesn't provide any economic benefit. This still doesn't quite get the job done, we have other benefits to account for also. As we saw before, recycling provides other incentives: reduction in energy use and air pollution, even water usage. It also cuts out several steps, especially when it comes to recycling metals (mining comes to mind.) All of these, it seems safe to say, save money. And if not directly, then at least eventually. The idea behind recycling is to prolong the amount of time we have to use our resources, before they run out. Once nonrenewable resources peak (that is, we use half of the total amount on Earth), the cost associated with processing and using them grows greatly. Take, for example, peak oil. The production of oil, graphed over time, follows a bell curve. At the top, or peak, of this curve is the point at which we have used half of the world's oil supply. Then then production lingers off due to greater difficulty to extract and process it. Price however, is different. Once the peak is reached in the curve, the price to use oil goes up. This is because oil becomes more scarce, more difficult to process, and we are forced to use lower quality oil left over from the 'good ol days.' And this is true of any nonrenewable resource; its not some theory, its simply a phenomenon.

Perhaps an argument, in this case, could be made against paper. Trees are most definitely a renewable resource (whether or not you would be able to tell based on our actions is a story for another time.) So perhaps it would make less sense to recycle paper... But then you need to lay down the costs for planting trees to make up for waste paper and recycling paper. Not to mention the enviromental impacts, which may have economic consequences in the end also. Second claim: not plausible.

Third claim: Not really a claim.

This one is more like retracing steps. The show goes back to elucidate on recycling plastic and paper. Like I just said, there may be a case against paper. And a point the show doesn't make, is that plastic replaces the use of other resources and may last much longer.

So, third claim-thing: valid point!

Fourth claim: Recycling creates "shitty" jobs.

The point here is that recycling includes many steps. Some of these steps require people to do manual labor, such as sorting material. As Penn puts it, these are useless jobs because recycling is useless (the net effect on the world world would be greater if these jobs were on an assembly line instead.) As we've seen, this isn't the case so much. There are benefits for recycling, so these jobs are justified. Of course, this includes the money which is put back into 'the system' from the income of the workers. Fourth claim: bullshit.

Fifth claim: recycling doesn't save space.

After blaming the entire enviromental movement on the aforementioned EPA official, Penn, and yes, Teller, both make the case that recycling doesn't save space.

And a good case it is. Landfills are ensured to not allow any sort of toxic substance to leak into groundwater. The methane gas which rises up from the decomposing whatever is captured and used as a power supply. When a landfill is full, its prime spot for parks and things of the sort.

After making this good argument however, a clip is shown, making the claim that recycling is just a way of telling people how to live their lives. You know, the whole 'the gov't is trying to control us' bit. Yadda yadda, blah blah, I think that's called scare tactics. Epic phail.

Regarldess though, fifth claim, minus the fear bullshit: excellent point indeed!

Final Thoughts

Well, it seems some sound arguments were definitely made against recycling. Perhaps we should think more skeptically of recycling plastics and paper, though the show didn't convince me that any final word was out. Next to those two materials though, recycling is very much a good thing, despite the arguments thrown at them. Recycling really does save energy, money, and most importantly resources.

The last segment regarding landfills is a very excellent point to bring up; landfills are actually of great use, if used correctly. And this, at least I think, goes against the folk perception of landfills: giant piles of trash which serve no purpose other than to be shitty. And to an extent, that is what they are. Fortunately for us, humans occasionally reveal their capacity to use reason to conjure elegant solutions out of situations in which no one would suspect solutions to be found. However, "Bullshit", at least for this episode, was tainted with bullshit.

Reference: Middleton, N. (2003). The Global Casino (3rd ed.). New York: Hodder.

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