Not Saussure

September 4, 2006

A Missed Trick?

Filed under: environment, local democracy, Politics, recycling — notsaussure @ 10:36 am

Tim Worstall on a recycling scheme:

there’s something I find really rather odd in the tone of the discussion. That it is somehow immoral for someone to attempt to make money out of recycling. We faced this a few years ago, we were looking into computer recycling. If you can get hold of a mountain of the stuff it’s profitable to extract the metals (yes, even without sending it all to China).

So I spoke to a few local councils (who were, at the time, complaining about getting mountains of the stuff) and said, well, give it to us (it was, at the time, ultra vires for them to charge for it) and we’ll recycle it.

We met with blank refusals because we admitted that yes, we were hoping to turn a profit by doing so. Very weird to my thinking. No one was in fact reprocessing this scrap (only reasonably modern machines that still worked were desired by the charities) so what did it matter what was the motivation? Surely getting the recycling done is the important thing?

Apparently not. Motives must be pure or Gaia is not appeased I suppose.

Possibly had he approached the councils offering to remove and dispose of their old equipment (in an environmentally friendly manner, of course) for a moderate fee, the councils would have found his approach less surprising.

I suspect, though, that he’s right about people feeling uncomfortable with introducing the profit motive into recycling.

For one thing, it raises the uncomfortable question of whether some recycling is environmentally sound or not. I’m told by people who understand these things, for example, that recycling paper is frequently downright environmentally hostile, since the amount of energy you use collecting the stuff, taking it to a factory and then cleaning and reprocessing it into something is usually considerably greater than that of producing the stuff from scratch.

Worries about ‘saving the trees’ are, of course, a bit misguided; you don’t normally make paper and cardboard from tropical hardwoods or Brazilian rain forests, so worrying about conserving commercially farmed softwoods is a bit like not eating chips because you want to conserve potatoes.

Putting recycling on a commercial footing, so the actual energy costs are exposed, makes all this a lot clearer, which is why I suspect some people would rather not worry about it and prefer to feel virtuous about sorting and putting the stuff in recycling bins. It may, of course, turn out that recycling paper is still the least bad way of disposing of it, since turning it into landfill is expensive, but I’d be very to see a comparison of the energy costs plus greenhouse emissions, etc, of recycling paper vs just burning it.

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