Episode 63

#63 - Recycling is the Dumps


February 14th, 2024

1 hr 6 mins 49 secs

Your Hosts

About this Episode

Close your eyes, and think of a bright and pristine, clean and immaculately run recycling center, green'r than a giant's thumb. Now think of a dirty, ugly, rotting landfill, stinking in the mid-day sun. Of these two scenarios, which, do you reckon, is worse for the environment?

In this episode, Ben and Vaden attempt to reduce and refute a few reused canards about recycling and refuse, by rereading Rob Wiblin's excellent piece which addresses the aformentioned question: What you think about landfill and recycling is probably totally wrong. Steel yourselves for this one folks, because you may need to paper over arguments with loved ones, trash old opinions, and shatter previous misconceptions.
Check out more of Rob's writing here.

We discuss

  • The origins of recycling and some of the earliest instances
  • Energy efficiency of recycling plastics, aluminium, paper, steel, and electronic waste (e-waste)
  • Why your peanut butter jars and plastic coffee cups are not recyclable
  • Modern landfills and why they're awesome
  • How landfills can be used to create energy
  • Building stuff on top of landfills
  • Why we're not even close to running out of space for landfills
  • Economic incentives for recycling vs top-down regulation
  • The modern recycling movement and its emergence in the 1990s > - Guiyu, China, where e-waste goes to die.
  • That a lot of your "recycling" ends up as garbage in the Philippines

Error Correction

  • Vaden misremembered what Smil wrote regarding four categories of recycling (Metals and Aluminum / Plastics / Paper / Electronic Waste ("e-waste")). He incorrectly quoted Smil as saying these four categories were exhaustive, and represented the four major categories recycling into which the majority of recycled material can be bucketed. This is incorrect- what Smil actually wrote was:

I will devote the rest of this section (and of this chapter) to brief appraisals of the recycling efforts for four materials — two key metals (steel and aluminum) and plastics and paper—and of electronic waste, a category of discarded material that would most benefit from much enhanced rates of recycling.
- Making the Modern World: Materials and De-materialization, Smill, p.179

A list of the top 9 recycled materials can be found here: https://www.rd.com/list/most-recyclable-materials/

Sources / Citations

  • Share of plastic waste that is recycled, landfilled, incinerated and mismanaged, 2019

  • Source for the claim that recycling glass is not energy efficient (and thus not necessarily better for the environment than landfilling):

    Glass bottles can be more pleasant to drink out of, but they also require more energy to manufacture and recycle. Glass bottles consume 170 to 250 percent more energy and emit 200 to 400 percent more carbon than plastic bottles, due mostly to the heat energy required in the manufacturing process. Of course, if the extra energy required by glass were produced from emissions-free sources, it wouldn’t necessarily matter that glass bottles required more energy to make and move. “If the energy is nuclear power or renewables there should be less of an environmental impact,” notes Figgener.
    - Apocalypse Never, Shellenburger, p.66

  • Cloth bags need to be reused 173 times to be more eco-friendly than a plastic bag:

  • Source for claim that majority of e-waste ends up in China:

    Puckett’s organization partnered with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to put 200 geolocating tracking devices inside old computers, TVs and printers. They dropped them off nationwide at donation centers, recyclers and electronic take-back programs — enterprises that advertise themselves as “green,” “sustainable,” “earth friendly” and “environmentally responsible.” ...
    About a third of the tracked electronics went overseas — some as far as 12,000 miles. That includes six of the 14 tracker-equipped electronics that Puckett’s group dropped off to be recycled in Washington and Oregon.

    The tracked electronics ended up in Mexico, Taiwan, China, Pakistan, Thailand, Dominican Republic, Canada and Kenya. Most often, they traveled across the Pacific to rural Hong Kong. (italics added.)

  • NPR interview on the fact that some manufacturers will put recycling logos on products that aren't recyclable.

  • Bloomberg investigative report on tracking plastic to a town in Poland that burns it for energy.

  • Video about the apex landfill

  • Guiyu, China. Wiki's description:

    Once a rice village, the pollution has made Guiyu unable to produce crops for food and the water of the river is undrinkable. Many of the primitive recycling operations in Guiyu are toxic and dangerous to workers' health with 80% of children suffering from lead poisoning. Above-average miscarriage rates are also reported in the region. Workers use their bare hands to crack open electronics to strip away any parts that can be reused—including chips and valuable metals, such as gold, silver, etc. Workers also "cook" circuit boards to remove chips and solders, burn wires and other plastics to liberate metals such as copper; use highly corrosive and dangerous acid baths along the riverbanks to extract gold from the microchips; and sweep printer toner out of cartridges. Children are exposed to the dioxin-laden ash as the smoke billows around Guiyu, finally settling on the area. The soil surrounding these factories has been saturated with lead, chromium, tin, and other heavy metals. Discarded electronics lie in pools of toxins that leach into the groundwater, making the water undrinkable to the extent that water must be trucked in from elsewhere. Lead levels in the river sediment are double European safety levels, according to the Basel Action Network. Lead in the blood of Guiyu's children is 54% higher on average than that of children in the nearby town of Chendian. Piles of ash and plastic waste sit on the ground beside rice paddies and dikes holding in the Lianjiang River.

Ben's back-of-the-napkin math

Consider the Apex landfill in Las Vegas. This handles trash for the whole city, which is ~700K people. The base of the landfill is currently 9km2 , but they've hinted at expanding it in the future. So let's assume they more than double it and put it at 20km2 . The estimates are that this landfill will handle trash for ~300 years "at current rates". I'm not sure if that includes population growth, so let's play it safe and assume not. So how much space does each person need landfill wise for the next 300 years? We have 20km2 / 700K people = 28.5 m2 per person for 300 years. For 400M people, that's roughly 12,000 km2. The US is roughly 10,000,000 km2. That's 0.012% of the US needed for landfills for the next 300 years. We definitely have the space.


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