Praying to the the trees

‘Environmentalism’ is a social phenomenon in a category of its own. Consider what happened to me today. My friend’s college makes social service mandatory for students– this implies devoting forty hours of her time in a term to some predefined, accepted and ratified ’cause’ as it were.I am one of those who feels little social obligations and hence I found the whole provision absurd. The friend in question requested me come along with her to help her through the remaining six hours left. So I did. She and I went to to volunteer time at a play school.

The little kids were celebrating ‘Earth Day’. Cute. Despicable. They went about with black plastic garbage bags, the ugly one’s that infest the Delhi middle class households including mine, collecting litter. Of course they had to be hygienic so they were wearing the McDonald’s style plastic gloves as well. They were chanting the environmental song.

I watched and helped them. I was then invited to be a part of the ‘esteemed panel’ that discussed the need to recycle. Speakers droned on and on about saving the environment and such– but what amused me was the ratio of the littler collected to the litter created by the whole ‘save the Earth’ exercise. There was more plastic, several more cartons, more paper and many more chocolate wrappers flying around than before. This is the tragedy of recycling. One of the many of ‘environmentalism’. The litter created is always in excess, the costs are always more and somehow people refuse to see it.

Recycling does sometimes makes sense-for some materials in some places at some times. But the simplest and cheapest option is usually to bury garbage in an environmentally safe landfill. The politics of the Basel convention and indigenous waste managements set-ups in nations prove sufficiently that recycling offers short-term benefits to a few groups with vested interests. Take Germany for example, recycling has been a consistent lobbying issue for politicians, public relations consultants, environmental organizations and waste-handling corporations.

What happens in the process? Diversion of funds from genuine social and environmental problems. Yet, ‘recycling’ remains one of the favourite words of the environmental religion as it were. In our schools and universities we have embraced recycling as though it is the ultimate transcendental experience, an act of moral redemption. We’re not just reusing our garbage we’re begging for forgiveness and atoning for our sins of excess!

But there is a deeper reason for my horror. It is this: There’s no reason to make recycling a moral imperative. Mandatory recycling is bad for posterity. Read Steven E Landsburg’s article on the ‘religion of environmentalism’. While I am an environmentalist in some sense, it is not my religion. I am intersted in environmental problems, more interested in environmental solutions and least interested in indoctrination.

I have definitive reasons like several non-environmentalists to distrust the notion of ‘recycling’. First up is the fact that pure, clean and complete recycling is impossible. Recycling is a difficult, expensive and a hazardous practice. Take recycling plastics for instance– the process of recycling plastics releases toxic dioxin gases in huge quantities. Perur, a district of Chennai is choking under dioxins– incidentally it has three plastic recycle plants.

There is one thing I need to state before I begin to justify what I have just written. The idea of recycling is in fact great. If we could actually transform waste into products that are useful that is. The trouble is that the idea of recycling like many others is woefully subject to the law of unintended consequences. ” The Law of Unintended Consequences holds that almost all human actions have at least one unintended consequence. In other words, each cause has more than one effect including unforeseen effects.”

The process by which materials are collected and used as “raw” materials for new products. There are three distinct steps in recycling: 1. Materials are source-separated and collected. 2. Materials are processed and manufactured into new products. 3. Consumers purchase the goods made with reprocessed materials. On first sight this seems like a remarkably easy and good idea to follow and implement. A little green bin on your chip packet, chapters on recycling in your text books and the local garbage guy agreeing to segregate trash- great right?

Maybe not. The question is do the benefits of recycling outweigh the ease of disposing of waste materials in landfills? Selam, a small district in Tamil Nadu has implemented garbage segregation and trash recycling vigorously for the last decade.

The do-gooder in this case was an organisation named EXNORA. The EXNORA bunch at that point was a collection of local students who took up environmentalism when it was a fad. Today, after a decade of recycling Selam has contracted garbage disposal to a Swedish company much to the joy and relief of the localites. Why?

Weren’t their roads cleaner, the air less polluted and hadn’t they gained ecologically? Not quite.
Collection costs have make recycling a bad bargain for many localities because the costs often exceed the prices that the recyclables bring on the open market. Operating additional trucks to pick up segregated recyclables has caused EXNORA operations to increasingly go unfunded. What’s worse is that these trucks (and the in-depth localised reach of the recycle programme) has increased toxic diesel emissions, killing any environmental gains.

Of course economics are not the only consideration. Let’s look at paper. We want to save the trees right? We don’t want oaks, redwoods or the sal and the sandalwood disappearing right? Sure. But is recycling helping you do that? No. Most paper, doesn’t come from from the sal or the oak. As a matter of fact paper comes from what we call pulpwood. No actual timber is used to make paper.

Pulpwood comes from easily grown and cultivated forests of pine, shea and eucalyptus. These are not endangered. On the contrary, they are too many. They are ‘weeds’ in the natural forest and steal resources from unspoiled forests by competing ferociously for soil, sunlight, water, and minerals. So when we use them or cultivate them in separate enclosures, we protect them and other trees. These trees are fundamentally a renewable resource.

Is recycling paper more economical? No. Manufacturing paper from trees is a relatively straightforward process. You get pulpwood, use some chemicals and process it into paper. What about recycled paper? To recycle used paper as the definition from wikepedia says- there are several steps involved. “Paper must be collected, cleaned, shredded and treated chemically before it can then be turned into a paper that is generally of lesser quality than the original whence it came.”

Now here is what we never learnt in school about recycling. The treatment of paper to be turned into more paper actually used four times as much chemical than making new paper. Now because it has more steps and more chemicals – manufacturing paper is far far more expensive than making new paper.

You can contradict me on that point. Most people find recycled paper much cheaper than new paper. However there is a reason. The reason is a distortion in price, the cost is lower to the consumer because the government subsidizes its production. The unpaid additional costs are passed on to the taxpayer who happens to be you.

What about the ‘green house effect’? Unfortunately here too high school education fails us. Had we studied botany a tad more,we would know that trees don’t actually mitigate the green house effect. Like all other living creatures trees have a life span and an old-age. A young tree that’s growing does a beautiful job of turning carbon dioxide into oxygen.

 However you will notice that after the tree gets older it reached a stage of balance, they decay (leaves start falling) and when they decay they produce CO2. In effect what happens is that the amount of CO2 consumed by the tree equals the amount of CO being released by the decaying portion of it. Yet, we insist on keeping old trees!

I’m not saying that we should deforest. Merely that the solution to excess paper manufacture is not recycling but is e-offices. Most people would say that landfills are still terrible because they don’t for example allow the bio-matter in them to break down and decay.

But dumping chemically manufactured paper doesn’t decay any faster than plastic anyway in a landfill!

Bottomline: recycled paper costs more to produce, causes higher tax rates, increases chemical pollution, doesn’t save forests and has no effect on the green house phenomenon.

Informal recycling has existed in India for years and most of that is perfectly fine. Why? Because it keeps the scale in check. Recycling is not meant to be a mass phenomenon. Let’s look at India’s landfills. Landfill prices have decreased over the past several years, the reason is obvious.

As the environmental movement grows so does the demand for landfills, there is more demand and greater supply (more companies operating), so we now have more landfills but the law of diminishing returns tells us that just because there are more landfills it doesn’t mean there is more to waste or that consumption goes up. That amounts to less trash and more landfills–prices go down.

The cheaper the landfill, the harder it is to make a profit with recycling, this is a problem. Why? Because it means less incentives for environmental sustainability, since recycling is touted as a ‘environmental practice’. Perhaps we need better prices for recycled goods.

The economic issues surrounding recycling are at least quantifiable. The health and environmental benefits of recycling, including energy conservation, toxic emissions reductions, and preservation of resources are at best ambiguous. Advocates of recycling argue that the intangible benefits offer the most compelling case for recycling, I beg to differ.

Ultimately, over regulation and giving into a ‘popular’ policy, causes greater environmental costs than anything else.

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