Tuesday, 8 March 2011

The unintended consequences of recycling

The poor chaps at the BBC must have been so conflicted. In the end, though, excitement over a good health scare won out over eco-concern (it was only landfill issues, mind; they didn't have to question the God of Anthropogenic Global Warming).
Leading food manufacturers are changing their packaging because of health concerns about boxes made from recycled cardboard, the BBC has learned.

Researchers found toxic chemicals from recycled newspapers have contaminated food sold in many cardboard cartons.

The chemicals, known as mineral oils, come from printing inks.
Exposure to mineral oils has been linked to inflammation of internal organs and cancer.
Delicious irony. All of those hand-wringing Guardianistas who have assiduously and self-righteously sought out packaging made from "recycled material" have unwittingly been poisoning their Organic Soy Flakes.

Less funny is the thought that toxic packaging has been foisted on the rest of us. Wikipedia has a good section on government-mandated demand for recycled products:
Legislation has also been used to increase and maintain a demand for recycled materials. Four methods of such legislation exist: minimum recycled content mandates, utilization rates, procurement policies, recycled product labeling.

Both minimum recycled content mandates and utilization rates increase demand directly by forcing manufacturers to include recycling in their operations. Content mandates specify that a certain percentage of a new product must consist of recycled material. Utilization rates are a more flexible option: industries are permitted to meet the recycling targets at any point of their operation or even contract recycling out in exchange for tradeable credits. Opponents to both of these methods point to the large increase in reporting requirements they impose, and claim that they rob industry of necessary flexibility.

Governments have used their own purchasing power to increase recycling demand through what are called "procurement policies". These policies are either "set-asides", which earmark a certain amount of spending solely towards recycled products, or "price preference" programs which provide a larger budget when recycled items are purchased. Additional regulations can target specific cases: in the United States, for example, the Environmental Protection Agency mandates the purchase of oil, paper, tires and building insulation from recycled or re-refined sources whenever possible.

The final government regulation towards increased demand is recycled product labeling. When producers are required to label their packaging with amount of recycled material in the product (including the packaging), consumers are better able to make educated choices. Consumers with sufficient buying power can then choose more environmentally conscious options, prompt producers to increase the amount of recycled material in their products, and indirectly increase demand. Standardized recycling labeling can also have a positive effect on supply of recyclates if the labeling includes information on how and where the product can be recycled.
Wherever you find government intervention, you find unintended consequences. I'm reminded of a Register article I read back in January:
The engineers' report caused controversy on its launch day with the observation – rarely acknowledged by environmentalists – that the discovery of recycling by the Volvo-driving classes in recent years has actually er ... made recycling more costly and difficult. There were mature markets for recovering aluminium, paper and glass from waste long before eco-campaigners adopted it as a cause, and turned it into a moral issue (and personal obligation). To cut a long story short, since local councils' targets stress quantity over quality, very little recycled waste is worth very much, and some of it is dangerous. A paper recycling mill has had to stop taking British paper because it contains too many glass shards.

The story of how recycling mania was born 20 years ago is sweetly told in this landmark New York Times magazine feature from 1996, which describes how Americans erroneously came to believe the country had run out of landfill sites. As with many superstitions, it spread like a contagion through the college-educated middle classes.

Localism met gesture politics, and authorities rushed through mandatory recycling targets, even though these offered only "short-term benefits to a few groups – politicians, public relations consultants, environmental organisations, waste-handling corporations" and imposed a serious opportunity cost, "diverting money from genuine social and environmental problems". It was more important to be seen to be doing something.
The NYT article, Recycling is Garbage, is long but well worth reading.

Of particular note:
Dittersdorf's slide showing New Yorkers' annual garbage output -- 15 square blocks, 20 stories high -- looked frightening because the trash was sitting, uncompressed, in the middle of the city. But consider a different perspective -- a national, long-term perspective. A. Clark Wiseman, an economist at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., has calculated that if Americans keep generating garbage at current rates for 1,000 years, and if all their garbage is put in a landfill 100 yards deep, by the year 3000 this national garbage heap will fill a square piece of land 35 miles on each side.

This doesn't seem a huge imposition in a country the size of America. The garbage would occupy only 5 percent of the area needed for the national array of solar panels proposed by environmentalists. The millennial landfill would fit on one-tenth of 1 percent of the range land now available for grazing in the continental United States. And if it still pains you to think of depriving posterity of that 35-mile square, remember that the loss will be only temporary. Eventually, like previous landfills, the mounds of trash will be covered with grass and become a minuscule addition to the nation's 150,000 square miles of parkland.
The article continues:
It is better to recycle than to throw away. This is the most enduring myth, the one that remains popular even among those who don't believe in the garbage crisis anymore. By now, many experts and public officials acknowledge that America could simply bury its garbage, but they object to this option because it diverts trash from recycling programs. Recycling, which was originally justified as the only solution to a desperate national problem, has become a goal in itself -- a goal so important that we must preserve the original problem.
Why is it better to recycle? The usual justifications are that it saves money and protects the environment. These sound reasonable until you actually start handling garbage.
It turns out that New York city's recycling programme, in 1996, was costing "$50 million to $100 million annually" ...
... and that's just the money coming directly out of the municipal budget. There's also the labor involved: the garbage-sorting that millions of New Yorkers do at home every week. How much would the city have to spend if it couldn't rely on forced labor? True, some people would probably be glad to do the work for free because they regard garbage-sorting as a morally uplifting activity for the whole family. But many others have refused to follow the law. They seem to have a more traditional view of garbage-sorting: an activity done only for money, and then only by the most destitute members of society.
Returning to the specific type of recycling that kicked off this now-rambling blog post, the NYT article asks "Should you recycle today's newspaper?":
Saving a tree is a mixed blessing. When there's less demand for virgin wood pulp, timber companies are likely to sell some of their tree farms -- maybe to condominium developers. Less virgin pulp means less pollution at paper mills in timber country, but recycling operations create pollution in areas where more people are affected: fumes and noise from collection trucks, solid waste and sludge from the mills that remove ink and turn the paper into pulp. Recycling newsprint actually creates more water pollution than making new paper: for each ton of recycled newsprint that's produced, an extra 5,000 gallons of waste water are discharged.
To these unintended consequences, it seems we can now add a public health hazard.

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