Towards a Richer Environment

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“…the way we can best improve our environment is to make everyone rich enough to afford it (something that is already happening)…” – Will Franklin

In 1989, I watched, stunned, at James Burke’s PBS special “After the Warming”. That was my first exposure to environmentalist propaganda; oceans rising flooding Florida and Indonesia – hundreds of refugees into Australia, etc. Hell-in-a-hand cart stuff.

I haven’t seen Inconvenient Truth, simply because it everything I’ve heard about it makes it sound identical to that 20 year old PBS special. I am not in the mood to make the problem more overwhelming.

Walking past the TV the other day, I caught an Oprah guest was asking everyone to wash their garbage so it could be “recycled.” The straight face made me think she had forgotten about Georgia’s drought this past summer1. All because we each “produce” 4lbs of “garbage” daily.

Extending the minimize-your-impact-environmentalism argument (don’t breathe, fart, or eat) to its logial conclusion – people don’t exist on planet Earth. And if they do, they’re all dirt poor without any machines, computers, cows, or trade2.

Personally, I don’t want anyone to be poor and believe we should dismiss environmental policies and behaviors that encourage poverty.

I prefer Amory Lovins attitude:

“I don’t do problems, I do solutions.”

Two of my favorite points from Amory, both in his Winning the Oil Endgame.pdf:

  • Between 1977-85, America cut oil use by 17%, total oil imports by 50%, and Persian Gulf imports by 87%.
  • 87% of a cars fuel energy is spent in over coming inertia, 6% accelerates the car, <1% moves the driver.

1. Why is soapy water and the washing effort less of an issue than tossing in the ‘trash’. If this is the only way to make recycling cost-effective, we have a serious problem.
2. Without trade, what will people in Minnesota eat in the winter? Hot dish for 4 months? No. Period.

When Do We Throw It All Away?

First off, I’m all for minimizing landfills and maximixing the use of our resources. But, I’ve been thinking more and more about the economics of ‘recycling’ since listening to Mike Munger on EconTalk in July.

Right at the start of the podcast, Munger asks,

“I have something in my hand, I want you to guess, is it a resource or is it garbage?”

Surprising, it’s a pretty straight-forward answer,

“Would someone pay you for it or can you make something from it that’s higher value?”

Hmmmm.

Every month we pay someone to haul off our garbage in one truck and our ‘recycling’ in another. We’re not paid as the second truck drives by. Plus, the reason the items are on the curb to being with is that I’m done with them.

Earlier this autumn, when our kitchen was demo-ed, the contractor set a number of the old metal pieces aside the dumpster. After sitting there for a few days, a single beat-up pickup truck rolled by real slow, and a kid – no more than 14 – jumped out, quickly sorted throw the metal, threw a couple pieces in the truck and hopped back in.

If there was a market for ‘recycling’, I imagine we’d see lots of trucks competiting for whatever’s in my orange and green bin every other Tuesday.

Instead, metal, glass, plastic, and paper go into the same bucket (“single-sort”) and transported by one of only 3 vendors to an amazing $3 million machine sorting through everything. Salvaged materials transported to mills and ‘spoilage’ transported to incinerators 1.

I don’t know about the exact margins in all those transactions, but they feel pretty tight – especially considering all the transportation involved.

In addition, there doesn’t seem to be a strong push by my waste vendor or the city for making sure what goes in the single-sort bins are actually ‘recycleable’. No weekly report from the waste hauler on my compliance this month. Simply a few bullet-points encouraging me to rinse glass and cans out.

From this, I can only conclude that spending our time and clean water cleaning waste is the only way to make it valuable again. That doesn’t sound like a good deal holistically, especially with that multi-million dollar sorting robot downstream.

Makes me wonder when the costs of driving 2 trucks around will become too much and our waste haulers will take back one of their buckets leaving us to truly single-sort.

Elsewhere 13 Aug 2007

“However, there is one cost that no one acknowledges: the time spent preparing items for recycling. No one mentions it because it’s done by you, free, in your own home.” – Tim Worstall

1. Assumptions I made from the details in the meeting notes from Anoka City Council Oct 3, 2005 [pdf].

Computers and Cars – Both Need to Be More Efficient

Rex pointed me to the NYTimes article on Google’s energy efficiency proposals.

I’ve been reading so much Jonathan Schwartz (“Value of Being Green“)lately that I’m happy to see another big player talk about improving the energy efficiency of computers.

The energy efficiency issue made sense to me when explained it this way:

“But you know how your laptop warms your lap? Or your PC heats up your den? Multiply that a few thousand times over, and you have a problem faced by most datacenters – power draw and heat dissipation. Map that challenge to every business on earth, and you have a global power crisis as the network is built out.” – Jonathan Schwartz, CEO Sun Microsystems

Exchanging Petroleum’s Problems for Ethanol’s

I’m all for a regional-specific energy solution. Petroleum makes sense in places – like Texas – where petroleum exists. Less so in Nebraska where it’s easier to grow crops than dig for oil.

Despite being more renewable than petroleum, ethanol has it’s own problems. It’s a little cheaper per gallon than gasoline (bigger subsidies?), but mpg drops.. And now reports are coming out that ethanol factories are some of the biggest polluters in the midwest (Des Moines Register, Norwegianity).

Combine this with high fructose corn syrup making us fat and the corn lobby (yes, you ADM) has some serious questions to answer.