Does Global Warming Upend Environmental Thinking?

While a few holdouts still imagine a conspiracy of climatologists, most libertarians accept the reality of global warming. I’ve actually been convinced of this for a while, and a few years ago was convinced that manmade emissions were the primary cause.

So I’ve been looking for ways to reduce my own footprint. I walk to work, I drive a reasonably efficient car, take public transportation when it’s feasible, have a stock of compact fluorescent bulbs slowly replacing my old incandescents, and I recycle (I’ve actually done that last for around thirty years).

Acknowledging that carbon dioxide emissions are the greatest current environmental threat has had a bracing effect on the environmental debate. Objections to hydro, wind (I haven’t been a fan–no pun intended–because I’m a bird lover and only recently have those concerns been addressed), and even nuclear power have fallen aside due to their zero-emission of CO2.

In the face of this threat, it’s clearly time to reexamine our conventional thinking. Many libertarians–myself included–favor a carbon tax as the best, fastest way to move to a low-carbon lifestyle. Yep–we’re in it with Al Gore. But recently I’ve begun to think about recycling.

I’ve found numerous assertions on the web that recycling material emits less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. But I haven’t been able to find data that consumer recycling actually does that in total. To follow me, let’s look at what has to happen:

  1. A truck has to come and collect your waste. This is a separate truck collecting a lower volume of material per mile than your regular garbage truck.
  2. That truck has to go to a processing facility, which has motorized conveyor belts to separate and verify each type of recycling–paper, plastic, glass, metal, etc.
  3. Another set of trucks take the sorted material to a recycling plant.
  4. That recycling plant uses varying amounts of possibly dirty energy to clean, process, or even melt down the items back into raw material (or in rare cases simply cleans the material for reuse, as in the case of the old green Coke bottles).
  5. No recycling process to my knowledge is 100% efficient, so there’s some waste generated at this stage. After all, the wrappers on those cans and plastic bottles have to go somewhere, even if all the basic material were perfectly reused (which I’ll bet a lot of money it isn’t.
  6. That recycling process will probably require other inputs, which require more trucks and mining/harvesting equipment, plus its own processing.
  7. Once back into useable raw material, that material will have to go to another facility for re-manufacturing. Another truck run (unless it’s all together, but that seems unlikely to me).
  8. That re-manufacturing plant takes energy.
  9. That re-manufacturing plant requires still other raw materials, which require trucks and mining/harvesting equipment, plus its own processing.

In order for recycling to generate less carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gasses) than using virgin material, that whole process must produce lower emissions than mining, transporting, refining, transporting, and manufacturing the original product. It isn’t obvious to me that the whole process will always work more efficiently.

Then you have to consider both the origin and fate of virgin material. Paper, for example, largely comes from forests that are planted just for the production of paper. So there is generally not much loss of forest in producing paper. That paper, if not recycled, goes to a landfill, where it and its carbon are buried–not in the atmosphere. Oxygen is generally unavailable, so decomposition and the return of carbon to the atmosphere is slow. So at least some of that carbon is now taken from a carbon sink (a forest) and sequestered (buried). Some of it will resurface, but some landfills also reuse methane emissions for power generation. Meanwhile a new crop of paper trees are growing, and the sequestration continues. There are possibly aspects I’m not considering, but I think this is a reasonable statement of the process.

Metal recycling, on the other hand, may be a big win. The energy required to melt it down is likely less than the total used to go dig up ore, extract the metal, and melt the result down. But I don’t know that for sure.

Plastic is a question mark for me. It seems like it could go either way, depending on the relative energy of virgin manufacture versus recycling, and to what extent recycling will displace the virgin material.

The good news for someone concerned is that I can’t see how the first two Rs of the three Rs of environmentalism–Reduce, Reuse, (and Recycle)–could not be wins for reducing carbon emissions. Certainly the material you don’t use is a win. And if something’s been produced, like a plastic spoon, every time you reuse it you’re replacing a whole chain of events that result in a new one (plus the whole chain of waste disposal). Reducing and reusing seem to be economic and environmental no-brainers, and I plan to continue washing plastic spoons in good conscience (mindful of the energy used to heat water for washing and treat it after I get it soapy).

So which is it? Have you seen reliable studies (as opposed to government, corporate, or activist pamphleteering)? Has someone specifically done these calculations?

I’ll probably continue recycling in the meantime. It may be a myth, but my conservationist senses tell me it’s better to reuse what you have rather than go disturb more habitat to get new stuff. But I’ll be ready to reconsider if the numbers come out against it.

But I’ll be looking for ways–within reason–to reduce and reuse without worry…unless someone can demonstrate that’s a myth, of course…

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One Response to Does Global Warming Upend Environmental Thinking?

  1. Casey says:

    There is some evidence recycled materials use less energy during manufacturing (therefore have less emissions), despite higher emissions for transportation/collection. The studies have a lot of uncertainties around them (it depends on collection systems, what is being recycled, etc). Try this study – it is a literature review. Granted, the source is a bit biased, but Dension is generally well respected. I personally recycle because wasting the material seems ethically wrong to me, not because I’m reducing emissions (and here I am an IPCC author…)

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