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Thursday, August 09, 2007

Recycling revisited.

Obligatory disclaimer...
I didn't really think about it when I was growing up, but my family had always practiced the 3 R's - reduce, reuse, recycle. Being a mostly self-sufficient farm, we provided a great deal of our own needs. Since we also didn't have a whole lot of money, we didn't buy anything unless we really needed it (reduce). That also meant we did things like pass down clothing, and nothing got thrown out if there was any chance we could find a use for it (reuse). Finally, with older equipment that no longer had parts available, we often came up with amazingly creative ways to take old stuff and turn it into new stuff we needed. You'd be amazed what you can make with a welder and some scrap metal (recycle).

Being in the middle of no where, there was no such thing as garbage pick up. What we couldn't use again often went into the burn barrel. Then we went to the dump about once a month or so. Back then, there were no restrictions, and the garbage was burned. I remember my siblings and I crawling through the piles of stuff, in awe of all the "good" things people would throw away, often bringing things home. I remember my brother finding a perfectly good car radio once. The only problem with it was that it was next to a fire and the volume knob got melted, so it was really loud. He used that thing for years, since he could hear it over the power saws, etc.

So to me, the whole idea of reduce, reuse, recycling was just an extension of what I grew up doing. Things have changed a great deal over the years, though. Dumps are now called landfills. The pits are lined to keep the groundwater from being contaminated. They don't burn anymore, and there are recycling stations, too.

Recycling has changed a lot from what we did when I was a kid, too. Now, it's big business, as cities implement blue box programs and more people are willing to sort through their garbage for recyclables.

Unfortunately, modern recycling systems are not without their problems. I experience on of those problems on a daily basis. We're in a large apartment complex that has 2 recycling bins, the same size as the garbage bins, in our tower alone. There's even an extra room for tenants to put large items, like furniture, bbq's, tv's, and whatever else they need to get rid of. You can always tell when some one's moving out by how much is in there. A lot of it is really junk, but e very now and then, there's stuff that's perfectly fine, but the previous owners just don't need anymore, or can't take with them.

Unfortunately, we are above the driveway leading to the garbage room. In the morning, the first truck comes. With much banging and crashing, the 4 garbage bins are emptied. Then they take any of the big stuff people have left behind that hasn't been taken by other tenants. In the afternoon, the other truck comes. This time, for the 2 recycling bins. More banging and crashing. The thing that gets me is that there's a second fleet of trucks, just for the recycling. So right from the start, recycling programs double the vehicles, and their emissions, for any city that has them. I mean, garbage trucks aren't the most efficient vehicles out there, right?

I wouldn't mind that, if the recycled products actually made up for it, but they don't. I won't go into too much detail - there are plenty of sources out there that cover it in far more detail. I'm just going to write on three things - a success, a failure, and an in between.

First, there's the recycling success. Metals. Especially aluminum.

Metals take a great deal of energy to extract from the earth and convert to the items we use every day. This is one area where it's far more efficient to recycle metals - and why companies will actually pay people to return their aluminum cans and scrap metal. I have a brother who's in demolitions. When he bids on a job, he takes salvage into account. Copper is a big one. Stop and think for a moment. Many pipes and all the wiring servicing buildings are made of copper. He told me of an old hospital that was torn down. The company that did it got back about $10,000 just from salvaging the copper alone! Recycling metal is a win/win situation. The recyclers get paid to hand over the scrap metal, and the manufacturers save money by melting down the old metal instead of extracting new metals all the time.

The in between. Glass.

You'd think this would be a success story. Glass is the one item that is endlessly recyclable. Most items can only be recycled once, sometimes two or three times, before it degrades to the point that it cannot be recycled again. Then, it's just garbage. Unusable. Not so with glass. While things are added to glass for strength, colour, etc., in the end, it's just sand. There isn't much more energy needed to melt down glass to use it again than is used to make it in the first place. Where energy loss happens the most is before that - cleaning the glass enough to make it usable again.

In some areas, it's practical to recycle glass. This would usually be in urban areas, where access and facilities can meet more easily. In rural areas, the glass has to be shipped farther, and sometime, it just doesn't make sense to do so.

The first time I'd heard of problems with glass recycling, it was in reference to large piles of glass in Norther Ontario. Today, I read this post, with photo, about the same thing in Manitoba, at Dust My Broom.

The failure. Paper.

This probably comes as a surprise to most people. We've been taught for years that recycling paper saves trees, thereby protecting old growth or virgin forests. We're told that it does less damage to the environment to recycle paper, and that it's cheaper and more energy efficient.

Wrong, wrong wrong and wrong, it turns out.

Paper doesn't come from old growth trees (those tend to be used for things like housing and furniture). Almost all paper comes from tree farms. These are trees grown specifically for making paper. Which means that the paper industry *increases* forests - after all, it takes quite a few years to grow trees until they're big enough to use for paper. That's a LOT of trees at various stages of growth.

As for damage to the environment and being more energy efficient, that turns out to be completely off base. To recycle paper, a tremendous amount of energy is needed to clean the paper - leech out the inks and other additives, bleach it, then reduce it back to a usable pulp. The process leaves behind a toxic sludge that's far more dangerous than anything produced in manufacturing fresh paper.

But it's cheaper, right? Nope. The only reason manufacturers are willing to use (and afford) recycled paper at all is because it's subsidized by the government. Where it not for those subsidies, it would be more expensive than non-recycled paper.

Oh, and one last point. Quality. Like most recycled material, the quality of the substance goes down. Paper can only be recycled once, and even then the quality is so low that it's mixed with non-recycled paper to improve it.

So does this mean I'm not going to recycle anymore?

Nope. I still recycle diligently, though I'm not as fanatical about it as I used to be. Particularly when it comes to paper products. Mostly, though, I abhor waste (that was ingrained in me throughout my childhood). If there's any chance it'll be used rather than just dumped, I'll take it.

As for other myths surrounding recycling, you might want to check out Penn and Teller's show on recycling and the belief that we're running out of landfill space.

part one
part two
part three

Warning - there's an awful lot of swearing, and he's pretty rude, but I think that's the signature of the show (I've never seen it except on youtube, since we don't watch tv).

In the end, the only "good" thing they come up with about recycling is that it makes people feel good about themselves. As my husband and I talked about it after watching the show, he brought up another positive about recycling. It gets people into less wasteful habits, and increases their awareness that the things they do can have effects far beyond themselves.

Which means the people might be more likely to remember the first two R's - reduce and reuse - a lot more often.

I'll close this off now, to the crashing and engine rev-ing noises of the recycling truck outside my balcony.


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