Friday, May 31, 2019

recycling: not as "green" as you think

Millions of tons of plastic waste do not make it to recycling facilities. See here. An excerpt:

In 2015, the problem of marine litter climbed to the very top of the list of global environmental problems after a landmark study suggested that there are 100 million tonnes of plastic in the oceans. Regrettably, the study overlooked the share of the blame that can be put on the recycling industry, which has exported 106 million tonnes of plastic waste to China over the past 20 years or more. A significant proportion of this is thought to have ended up in the oceans.

Last June, I sounded the alarm about the impact of recycling on marine pollution and revealed how unscrupulous operators were making the situation worse. Soon afterward, the UK audit office came to similar conclusions and the media started to give the issue some attention.

There is now a global congestion in waste management systems, because China’s decided to close its doors to imported plastic waste. There has also been a rapid increase of piles of plastic scrap in rich countries, as recyclers have found it increasingly difficult to find anyone who will accept it in China’s place. Even poor countries have been starting to refuse to take it because, with their poor waste management system, they are unable to cope with what they have taken already, let alone the increased volumes that western exporters would like them to take. Much of this material is ending up in the oceans.

Earlier this month, however, an obscure United Nations conference surprised the world by agreeing a global deal to curb the dumping of dirty plastic waste, often camouflaged as ‘recycling’, from rich countries to the developing nations, such as Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam, who have become the chief importers of plastic waste now that China has closed its doors. The huge volumes of waste that have previously gone to Asia will now have to be dealt with at home, by a waste management industry that is already struggling to keep its head above the rising tide of rubbish.

Remarkably, there has been virtually no attention given to this important decision. Green NGOs and politicians are keeping quiet because they fear that their role promoting bad policies in the past will come under scrutiny. The media, however, which has parroted green dogma about recycling for years will struggle to avoid mentioning the problems that the industry is facing in the wake of this UN decision. The plastic situation is now deteriorating rapidly, especially in rich countries.

Read the rest. I don't consider myself particularly "green," but if environmentalism is predicated on the notion that it's better to live clean than to live dirty, then I'm all for that notion, and I'm happy to see what economically viable methods we can develop to live in a cleaner world. Far more than the vague concept of climate change, actual pollution output is a real and pressing concern to me, and the proof that there's a problem in that arena is incontrovertible. Also, like many Americans, when I can't sort and throw my trash into the proper recycling bins, I feel a pang of conscience—as I felt during my entire time living in Front Royal, Virginia, where there is no recycling service at all (all trash in our apartment complex went into the dumpsters that stood close to the buildings we lived in). I'm of the opinion that recycling is a very good idea—as long as the system works.

Seeing mountains of trash with foul streams of toxic goo running between them (and third-world children playing and scavenging in those streams) is profoundly disturbing. Seeing large Asian rivers positively clogged with millions of plastic containers is equally disturbing. And that's why reading the above article is so infuriating: even those of us who are actually trying to be of help, in our own small way, by recycling are being betrayed by the larger system.

Here's the puzzle: find a way to develop an energy-generation system, like the fictitious "Mr. Fusion" from Back to the Future, that can consume anything and everything, turning it into clean energy. Along the way, design the garbage-collection system in such a way as to incentivize the populace to actively collect garbage and receive some kind of reward for its efforts—money, tax credits, a grocery-store e-card with which you can shop by obtaining "garbage points" that act as cash when you're at the store.

I'll be told that the above system isn't economically viable because that's not how economics works. Fine, maybe that criticism is correct. But as I said, it's a puzzle, i.e., something to be solved. Surely we're clever enough to find a way to make the system work. Aren't we?

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