“Stop Global Warming, Become a Pirate!”
The sky is falling! The sky is falling! These may not be the exact words of modern day environmentalists, but they are not far from the fear provoking admonitions we are coerced into believing. Industrialist societies across the world started jumping on the “green” bandwagon in the 1970’s and they’ve been sailing along through the smog infested haze ever since. There are few doubts of the impacts environmental research has had on technology and innovation over the past forty years, from alternative sources of energy and safer emissions, to smarter waste management and land conservation. For the most part, we average citizens except these alternatives as perfectly sound and logical solutions. Why shouldn’t we? There is no shortage of scientists, politicians, or journalists there to validate these substitutes. What we aren’t told however is that many of these alternatives are extremely expensive, lower our quality of life, require more resources, and often have a more detrimental impact on the environment than the detriment their replacing. It turns out that many of the promises made to us by those earth saving ideas may be merely misapprehensions.
One of the easiest and common ways for the average person to play their part in saving mother earth is to recycle. It’s something you can do at home. It doesn’t take much time our of your day; possibly one or two more bins to dispose of your waste in and just one more trip to the curb per week. Seems simple enough right? And even if it does take a little extra work, it’s worth it if it saves our precious planet and resources. Unfortunately, many of the “truths” we think we know about recycling may be myths. In all reality “recycling may be the most wasteful activity in modern America: A waste of time and money, a waste of human and natural resources” (Tierney, John).
So if recycling is so bad, why do people do it? Frankly, they enjoy it. As a result of countless advertisement and community wide programs since the late 1980’s encouraging citizens to play their part by recycling, people feel a sense of accomplishment and selflessness as they play their part. Recent psycho/sociologic studies show that people feel good when they recycle (Seldman, N). This has resulted in a multi billion dollar industry and 9,000 to 10,000 community recycling programs around the country (Wood, D). With all of this willingness to recycle, you may ask yourself why more people recycle than vote (Wood, D). What has been so convincing that no one questions it, they merely follow suit?
The first major recycling questions were raised by Americans in 1987 when a waste barge called Mobro 4000 carrying New York’s waste couldn’t find a place to dump after trolling up and down the coast for six weeks. Immediately after this the EPA published a controversial paper titled “The Solid Waste Dilemma: An Agenda for Action.” This paper declared that “recycling was absolutely vital.” Since the “Environmental Defense Fund, which had been trying (without much success) to sell household recycling to America”, and the “National Solid Waste Management Association trade group, who were anxious to line up customers for their expanding landfill capacity during the 1980s” had also been attempting to make waves towards recycling now had this apparent problem, made evident on the clear video footage shown on the news, something had to be done (Benjamin, D). John Ruston, an official with EDF, said “An advertising firm couldn’t have designed a better vehicle than a garbage barge” (Bailey 1995, A8). To solve this problem they set up national recycling guidelines and set a goal to have 25% of the nation’s trash recycled over the next few years. This paper also claimed that we were now running low on landfills and that we would be running out of places to dump our waste in the next few years. This publication sent the country into an uproar over these findings and this goal was easily met and is now closer to 30% (Porter, J).
As a result of this paper and new standards set by the EPA, the United States government began subsidizing for the expenses of recycling. Currently this costs the American people over $8 billion a year (Benjamin, D). The common first reaction to this cost is “why?” or “how is that possible”. If recycling allows items to be sold and reused, wouldn’t there be a profit made? The inconvenient truth of it is that recycling requires a whole different process than what your normal garbage has to go through. The average cost per ton for normal garbage pickup is around $50 per ton, but the average cost of recycling per ton is $150 (Benjamin, D). The whole idea of recycling is that there should be a net profit to the government, however for the past 15 years, NY has lost around $35 million (Loden, A).
There are several reasons for this loss, the biggest one however is that it is simply cheaper and the quality is higher if we just produce new product rather than readying the old to be made new again (Benjamin, D). PJ O'Rourke points out that when used items have real value - Ferraris for example - they don't need to be 'recycled,' they get sold. 'Recycled' is what happens to stuff with no value or with so little value only a government regulation can make enough people care.” Plastic, for example, isn’t something plastic producers would seek to reuse. There isn’t any money made in it and the end result tends to be less quality or as inexpensive if they’d just started from scratch (Benjamin, D). This principle is quite evident when you look at things people voluntarily collect and resale, like gold, silver, and aluminum cans. This is because there is a profit to be made. One gold band requires over 10,000 tons of ground to be removed to make it, which often means tearing out lands that support vegetation and animals (Hailes, J). As a result, no one impassively throws out a gold band. If they no longer wanted it, they would sell it. Ultimately, it is cheaper in most communities to dispose of all waste in landfills, versus sorting through 30% of it to be sold or practically given away as charity to manufacturers of these recyclables for a less quality product.
Another popular argument for recycling is that it is better for the environment. Unfortunately, this is most often not the case (Benjamin, D). Since recycling requires a whole separate line of trucks to pick up and sort recyclables while idling house to house (regardless if only two houses on the street contribute), this doubles the amount of emissions that would have been put into the atmosphere if only the garbage trucks had come through (Benjamin, D). After these trucks drop off their loads at the recycling centers, more polluting machines which require energy are used to sort the items and ready them for the factories that will prepare them to be reused for production. After the items are sorted they are loaded onto another truck and carried off to the manufacturing plant. In the case of paper for example, this is often somewhere near a forest in a paper mill which could be hundreds of miles away. Here it is deinked and bleached, which leaves behind a scummy chemical sludge. A National Wildlife Federation study shows that recycling 100 tons of newspaper produces 40 tons of toxic sludge. After this process is completed, then paper is turned back into pulp which puts more smoke into the air. So the only way to truly recycle the paper is to read the same newspaper over and over again (Penn, J).
An additional case in support of recycling is that saves trees. The simple truth is that there are three times more trees today then we had in 1920 because “87% of our paper stock comes from trees which are grown as a crop specifically for the purpose of paper production. Acting to 'conserve trees' through paper recycling is like acting to 'conserve corn' by cutting back on corn consumption” (Taylor, J). Trees are a renewable source and because paper production generally requires “virgin pulp”, much of the tree will be used in products that require wood so that no part of the tree is wasted and also, this means that more trees will be planted to replace the tree previously cut down (Benjamin, D). There is no difference between these tree farms that get planted and harvested for a product to be sold and farms that yield produce or tobacco.
As an act of good will towards the community, many feel that taking away recycling will remove the jobs currently available to run the process. These “make-work jobs” do pay more than many unskilled jobs, but they are dirty, strenuous and often very filthy (Benjamin, D). However, the biggest argument against these jobs is that they’re solely there to give them employees something to do. Since recycling is more expensive, worse on the environment and takes up more resources than simply dumping the trash in a landfill, then there is no purpose to spend subsidized government money to pay people to do something that doesn’t really accomplish anything. Daniel Benjamin, a professor of economics at Clemson University and a senior associate of PERC (the Center for Free Market Environmentalism) says “To argue that one of the benefits of recycling is that is puts people on what is fundamentally make-work jobs doesn’t make any more sense than to put these people to work trimming my yard with toenail clippers.”
One common misconception cycling through the minds of most Americans, due in part to the invalid accusations made by EPA’s J Winston Porter, is that we are running out of landfill space. This is simply not true. Actual landfill space is rising. There may be a small number of dumps, but there is tons of space left (Benjamin, D). When this controversial paper was written by Porter in 1987 he claimed that “1/3rd of the nation’s landfills will be full within the next few years” and “if we wait, the problem will get worse.” This is simply not true. “Trash is an interstate business, with 47 states exporting the stuff and 45 importing it. Indeed, the total land area needed to hold all of America’s garbage for the next century would be only about 10 miles square” (Benjamin, D). This is a completely realistic number and we have plenty of space to work with. If we threw out recycling today, we would save $800 trillion over the next 100 years. Some may bring up that 100 is really not that far away; so what then? A plot 35 miles cubed and 250 feet high would hold our trash for a millennium (Loden, A). It is quite possibly and likely that we will have a better solution for the disposal of our waste by then, but if not, 35 miles would not be much to sacrifice to save the $8 billion a year we’re currently spending on recycling.
A natural fear many have regarding landfills is their safety. Nevertheless, the EPA regulates very harsh limitations and expectations that these landfills have to adhere to. They state currently that risks to humans from landfills are about 1 in a billion, and even the risk to plants and animals is virtually nonexistent. “The agency has concluded that landfills constructed according to EPA regulations can be expected to cause 5.7 cancer-related deaths over the next 300 years—one every 50 years (EPA 1990,
1991; Goodstein 1995). To put this in perspective, cancer kills over 560,000 people every year in the United States, and celery, pears, and lettuce are all considerably more dangerous to humans than are modern landfills (Ames, Magaw, and Gold 1987; Gold, Ames, and Slone 2002).” There are several reasons for this.
Landfill owners have to take into account the proximity of the site to watersheds, fault lines and other possible issues. It is near impossible for fluids of any kind to leak into the ground or up into the dump. This is due to the several layers of protection between the garbage and the soil. First a hole is dug and then coated with about three feet dense clay that is then hot-sealed or a thick plastic liner. There ends up being about 7-8 feet of protection between the soil and the rubbish after gravel and sand is added. Once the waste is deposited on top of this barrier throughout the day, there will be several more layers of dirt or other immobile materials laid on top (Armstrong, Robinson, and Hoy 1976; Rathje and Murphy 1992, 87–88; Melosi 2000; EPA 1990, 1991). By the end of the day, the area looks like a well groomed construction site (Hallworth, J).
As this whole process is being done each day, obviously mounds of organic material are decomposing underneath the heat of the sun and soil. This released methane gas. This seems like a risk to many because it is extremely explosive (Woods, D). Fortunately, an extremely capable and resourceful method is used to vent off the methane gas from the air above the dump, it is then taken to an energy plant that will then provide power to 60,000 homes for 30 years with the gas (Benjamin, D). Eventually these dumps will be covered with grass and are sometimes turned into golf courses or parks (Hallworth, J).
As I’ve made quite evident above, mandated recycling currently being enforced and funded by the government and our taxes is unnecessary and even more harmful and costly than simply dumping the trash in landfills. There are several organizations that are attempting to make recycling a law like they’ve in Great Britain. Things have become so extreme over there with fort nightly pickups, recycling police, cameras, snitching neighbors, and even the beatings of 1 in 5 binman collecting the recyclables. There may come a point when resource limitations become a problem, but we’re not even close to that. More importantly, what is a resource depends on our ingenuity. Uranium was not a resource to Neanderthal man and neither was oil, aluminum or a load of other things; so in fact the key resource on the planet is human inventiveness. Recycling inevitably flushes all of this down the toilet because it makes the one resource that’s precious to all of us, our time, to be spent sorting out all the waste.
After all of this, if you still think recycling is worthwhile, made note that according to the New York department of sanitation, 40% of what you sort out at home for recycling ends up in the landfill anyway (Benjamin, D). Rather than dedicating your time to recycling plastic bottles and paper plates, try some other earth saving activities like taking shorter showers, walk or ride your bike instead of driving, don’t buy disposable utensils, take public transportation or purchase biodegradable products that will decompose quicker in the landfills.
There’s been a phrase floating around the media for the past ten years or so that seems very much alive in the hearts and minds of many Americans: Green Guilt. This is the idea that we must pay for all the damage we’ve cause the environment. With movies like the “Inconvenience Truth” by Al Gore and many others, it’s not hard to see why many feel the current state of the environment is their fault. This is only partly true however.
Only about 3% of carbons emissions around the world are caused by humans, the rest are caused naturally (Charles, J). Some of the main sources are decaying plants, volcanoes and forest fires (Charles, J). How much difference could we actually make in this reduction of carbon if we’re only working with about 3%? Also, many of our solutions to environmental distress, like recycling, prevention of intentional maintained forest fires to clear brush and preservation of mass amounts of vegetation bearing land only facilitate more carbon release (Charles, J).
Although the facts above remain, people are still feeling guilty for their SUV’s, large houses and careless trips in Jet planes across the world. Several companies advertise they have the solution for this. They help to sell the guilty consumer something called Carbon Credits. These can be used for anything they deem will help the environment, be it planting trees, donations to environmental organization, lobbyists, or national parks. One may wonder how many credits to buy to make up for the carbon footprint they’ve made. Well, look no further, most of these businesses have a calculator designed to help you figure this out. Unfortunately, many of these companies have no more knowledge about helping the environment than you do. They are merely using your guilt to fund whatever project their interested in, even if it’s their own bank account. There are companies out there that will use your donations to buy up carbon credits on the market from smaller companies looking to make a profit. This will keep larger companies from buying the credits for their use, which will in time require them to put funds into technological advancements in saving energy or preventing pollutants from seeping into the air. Keep this in mind if you do plan to give back financially to the environmental cause so that you’re money is spent where you want it.
A study done in 2007 by the Tennessee Center for Policy Research called “Al Gore’s Personal Energy Use is his own “Inconvenient Truth” sought to expose Al Gore’s own environmental woes. This is a perfect example of not knowing exactly where your money is going when you purchase Carbon Credits. Gore started a company in 2004 called Generation Investment Management that sells the credits, two years later it helped to fund his Global Warming research and movie. This was not something openly shared with his customers. Another goal funded by this venture has gone to lobbying to have new regulations and carbon taxes that will ultimately raise the price of oil. This academic article also pointed out that Mr. Gore himself actually uses 20 times more electricity than the average American to run his 20 room mansion (Johnson, D). The electricity he uses causes the release of 331,200 pounds per year of carbon dioxide. Driving 367,009 miles in an average car emits an equal amount. To offset the yearly emissions, it would require planting 828 trees a year (findsolar.com).
When confronted about his environmental woes, Mr. Gore stated he would like to eventually install solar panels and fluorescent light bulbs to save on the energy his house currently requires. “In total, Gore paid nearly $30,000 in combined electricity and natural gas bills for his Nashville estate in 2006” (Johnson, D). Solar paneling is currently just used for the replacement of electricity, which is about half of what gore uses to power his home (findsolar.com). For Gore to replace his electricity (average of 18,400 kWh/month) with solar panel energy, it would run him over $1.2 million dollars. This may not be very much money for Mr. Gore, especially if funded by the carbon credits purchased by his customers, but this would not be a very profitable or even affordable solution for the average American. A house valued at around $70k with an average electric bill of $100 would cost over $100,000 to convert to solar power energy, which means the owner wouldn’t break even for over 30 years (finesolar.com).
Regarding the fluorescent light bulbs Mr. Gore plans to install throughout his house run on average two to three times the prices of regular bulbs, but are said to last longer. These bulbs are currently being pushed by the EPA and several other big businesses that expect the green movement to keep on coming. “But the bulbs contain small amounts of mercury, a neurotoxin, which is especially toxic to children and fetuses, and the companies and federal government haven't come up with effective ways to get Americans to recycle them” (Shogren, E). The bulbs break very easily and are more likely than not to break in the trucks on the way to the recycling center or landfill, exposing the workers to the mercury and when they break near homes, they can contaminate the soil. There are hazardous waste recycling centers, but it is not a very convenient process for consumers.
There are several companies that are now producing fluorescent bulbs with less mercury. Although it can’t be cut out completely, it would help. If managed properly these bulbs could be the wave of the future for home illumination. “If every American home replaced just one light bulb with an Energy Star approved compact fluorescent bulb (CFL), the United States would save enough energy to light more than 2.5 million homes for a year and prevent greenhouse gases equivalent to the emissions of nearly 800,000 cars.” These bulbs use at least two-thirds less power than typical incandescent bulbs and last up to 10 times longer, have the potential to save $30 in energy costs per bulb, and produce 70% less heat which mean their safer with older wiring (Shogren, E).
The important thing not to lose sight of in all of these earth saving technologies is our quality of life. We may be willing to sacrifice some of that for our children and their children, but to needlessly prolong the inevitable, slowing down the process of the depletion until our current source of energy is used, will only act as a band aid. There must be a replacement. The distraction and cost of time, energy, man power and resources put into the study of global warming and recycling is merely a temporary solution for the waste currently deposited from our current energy source. If all of these resources were instead focused on coming up with alternate resources, we wouldn’t have to worry about the waste now. I urge you to be aware that not all “solutions” are better than the problem they were intended to correct. Just because the decrease in pirates correlates with the increase in global warming, does not mean if you become a pirate, the environment will benefit.