It's Wish-Cycling, Not Recycling

In local municipalities, townships, counties, and districts nationwide, a quiet yet insidious movement is underway to force the idiocy of zero-waste on citizens (and not just in California). Zero-waste is the misconception that everything (and I mean everything) that you would put in your trash should actually be put into one of several recycling receptacles for ultimate reuse. And, of course, you will have to pay for the privilege at a much higher cost than for typical trash service.

The concept of zero-waste is cast as something that all sane, decent people should support. A wonderful new world awaits, where there is no trash, no landfill, no pollution, and with all of our waste going to produce goods. Who can oppose this? That would be like opposing puppies, or no more cancer, or no inflation, or no crime. I could go on, but you get the idea.

I think we can agree that recycling is good, which is why humans have done it for 2000 years, long before activists, city councils, and political parties got involved. Haute couture (that’s what snobs call the garment industry) is colloquially called the rag trade. Know why? Because until the early 1900s, old clothing sent to dumps was “recycled” by rag pickers who sold the cleaned fabric to manufacturers. (As a kid, my mom used to say I looked like a rag picker; a story for another time.)

It is important to understand what recycling is and what it isn’t. Despite the left’s propaganda, the concept goes far beyond simply sorting all your garbage into categories. Recycling occurs when something that you no longer want is transformed into something that you or someone else does want, as shown by a willingness to buy and use it.

That transformation doesn’t involve magic or supernatural intervention; it involves processing. The processing may be facile or difficult, inexpensive or costly, but it will always involve the use of energy. The processing costs (which include energy, capital equipment, chemicals, labor, etc.) will greatly influence the cost of recycled goods. Cutting corners will result in recycled goods that are of low quality and have shorter useful lifetimes than virgin goods.

Image: Recycling bins (cropped) by University of Scranton Weinberg Memorial Library. CC BY 2.0.

To be successful in the long term, recycling must (1) stem from market demand for the final product, (2) be based on sound engineering, and (3) not require any subsidy unless the product is deemed strategic to security. If any of these criteria are missing, recycling efforts will not simply fail, but they will result in an overall decline in quality of life.

This is worth repeating: without market demand, sound engineering, and autonomous economic viability, any recycling effort will result in some combination of greater energy usage, lower productivity, a lower standard of living, and more pollution! If a market demand exists for a recycled product, the demand for the raw materials used in its manufacture is assured without government interference.

U.S. paper recycling was 68 % in 2021 and growing; this is market driven and requires no meddling. If the government mandated a 100 % rate today, paper recycling would collapse tomorrow because of a lack of equipment and chemicals, especially sufficient water. And, while advocates insist that paper can be recycled up to 7 times, insiders know the number is closer to between 1 and 3 times due to fiber degradation.

Steel is highly recycled already, with structural steel being 93 % recycled. Currently, 97 % of discarded automotive steel is used in new cars and other products. The market position for aluminum is also good; 75% of all aluminum ever produced is still in use today. No need for government interference; this has happened because of the marketplace.

Plastics recycling took a hit in 2019 when China stopped accepting “recyclables,” and it has yet to recover because of technical reasons that transcend politics and the “visionaries” in local government. Mechanical recycling involves grinding and remelting the plastic into a stream suitable for molding, but only a few types (out of thousands) of plastics can be so reprocessed. My son-in-law, for example, tried to “recycle” plastic beverage bottles for use in his 3-D printer, with only spotty results.

Chemical plastic recycling appeared on the scene about 15-20 years ago. The idea was to chemically process any plastic into a liquid fuel or feed resin. However, the processes that were touted all used very high-temperature and pressure batch reactors, the worst combination in chemical engineering. Now, this is something I understand firsthand, having invented a fluid measurement metrology in 2006 that has been used on nearly all liquid fuels and reclaimed products. (I can provide many peer-reviewed articles in the scientific literature on this topic.)

Chemically recycling waste plastics has been an unmitigated disaster, resulting in product streams with far worse properties than virgin feedstocks. Conclusion: we are nowhere near being able to handle a zero-waste approach to plastics, and no amount of wish-cycling disinformation from the left will not change that. Indeed, most plastics that folks put in their recycle bins are routed to landfill.

And let’s not forget the latest harebrained idea: mandatory composting. Yes, there are more than a few towns that will insist residents gather their veggie scraps, coffee grounds, and pan scrapings in a separate bin to be picked up by yet another truck. This stuff will then be put into the yuck pile to make fertilizer in a year or so (for use by the municipality). Mandatory composting carries with it a new set of fees that are anything but cheap, forcing people to finance another leftist fantasy.

This is not to say that voluntary composting can’t be a good thing; lots of folks in suburban areas do that now without big brother. In fact, some universities have “pig bins” in the dining halls. Students voluntarily put their scraps in the barrel, and a local farmer comes by to collect them to feed the stuff to the pigs.  All this without government interference.

It should be clear that recycling should not be viewed as a lifestyle, an ideology, or a pseudo-religion. Yet so many of our left-leaning local advocates do just that. They have a deep emotional investment in recycling that borders on religious zeal. For many of them, recycling is an endorphin-producing activity that, simply stated, makes them feel good.

Unfortunately, this view obscures the essential ingredients discussed above—namely, market demand, engineering, and autonomous economics—and these aspects must be blind to emotion. If recycling is to cost the consumer anything, then the market demand is missing, the entire process is flawed, and it must be avoided for the overall good of society. If recycling is to be mandatory, the process is likewise flawed because the “invisible hand” of the marketplace is missing. Absent these factors, all the advocates are really doing is sorting their garbage. The recycling part never really occurs.

Dr. Bruno, a scientist retired after more than 40 years in research, amuses himself writing books and editing scientific journals, along with wood and metal working.

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