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Alex Steffen, 10 Mar 04

So, got the following this morning:


"a factory prodces 100 bottles a year and of that 50 % are recycled. How many years does it take before the first 100 are all in landfill???

"Answer 8.. yes just eight more years thats how long you extend your landfill capacity when you re-cycle 50% of you rubbish. Bare in mind the the Germans are the best recyclers in Europe and they manage 30%. Even if you manage to re-cycle 80% you still only get an extra 20 years.... rock on a sustainable future!!!!!

"here is how it works... at year 1 the factory re-uses 50 bottles, 25 are returned at yr 2, 13 at year 3, 6 at year 4.... until the last one joins the rest at year 8.."

Whattya think? Is this guy right? If not, why not? If so, what are the implications?

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Partially right. Besides bad spelling, he neglects to mention that without recycling, there is a full 100 bottles a year going into the landfill each year.

So with recycling, after the eight years, the
landfill contains (8 * 50) + (7 * 25) + (6 * 13)...
I forget the name of the sequence. It comes out to about 700 bottles in the landfill. As opposed to the 800 that would be there without recycling.

Of course, eventually all of them will make it there, but the idea of ongoing sustainability is to mitigate such effects on an ongoing basis. Recycling gives you a time buffer that reduces the ongoing effect of trash.

Posted by: Howard on 10 Mar 04

The guy is fact-picking sorehead.

Besides the landfill win, there's an energy usage win* and a raw material extraction cost win.**

Recycling an aluminum can not only means a less-full landfill (and a less cluttered roadside), but the next can will require less energy to make, and there might be less of a need to scrape raw bauxite out of the ground and transport it to a smelter.

* Not all materials, though; bottles aren't especially energy efficient to recycle, for example. Most bottles aren't reused (refilled); they're turned back into raw glass.

** Again, not universally applicable.

Posted by: Stefan Jones on 10 Mar 04

The question as stated doesn't make a whole lot of sense anyway. If you started with 1000 bottles you get 10 years, 10000000 bottles you get 20 years - but none of those lengths of time are really meaningful.

What is meaningful is the 50% number. Instead of 100 bottles/year going to landfill, it's 50 bottles/year. You've cut your ongoing waste disposal needs in half, and doubled the time till the landfill is full. Does it solve the whole problem? Obviously not - we'll always need continuing outside inputs of energy and materials to have a substantive economy of any sort.

Jeremy Rifkin wrote a really stupid book along these lines by the name "Entropy", preaching doom and gloom because everything is getting more and more disordered and there's no hope. Well, there is hope - this planet is not a closed system: we receive far more energy than we need from the Sun, more than enough to reverse all the gloomy Rifkinisms. Life itself is a wonderful counterexample to the doom meme.

The real question is, where should our efforts best be spent to ensure "sustainability" and leaving our planet better than we found it. The economic marketplace provides one imperfect measure of how best to spend the resources we have - but many environmental externalities are not well measured in traditional marketplaces.

I believe what we really need is a focus on specific goals - Kyoto was an attempt at one for CO2, and we already have real existing goals for other pollutants (Montreal protocol for CFC's, various pesticide limitations, cap and trade for sulfates, etc.) Nationally set goals with a commitment to realistic levels of spending to try to meet them should work.

Unfortunately our society has become too failure-averse and too goal-averse in recent years. Yes setting a goal entails risk of possible failure - but not setting it almost ensures failure, and that's worse.

Posted by: Arthur Smith on 10 Mar 04

By the way, that was a good part of my Rifkin rant - I've got an Amory Lovins rant you'll want to hear some time too :-)

Posted by: Arthur Smith on 10 Mar 04

Here is Brighton, UK, I'm reliably informed that brown glass (and possibly green too) put into recycling isn't recycled into more glass product, but is instead ground up and used as hardcore for road laying (ie as a substrate for pavement, if that doesn't translate across the Atlantic). Something to do with the economics of recycling glass to glass, which makes little sense to me, but that's what i'm told.

Anyway the point is that that's a bunch of glass that isn't recycled, but *doesn't* end up in the landfill either.

Posted by: Dave Ph on 10 Mar 04

Once upon a time, soda companies would pay you to return the bottles. They would wash and re-use them. They knew the value of the bottles.

I'd re-use a soda bottle into infinity if I could find a soda machine that would just squirt the beverage into it. Mmm. Soda.

Posted by: Paul Mitchum on 10 Mar 04

Recycling is bunkum except possibly for aluminium.

Posted by: Vinay on 11 Mar 04

Recycling aluminum is clearly beneficial. So is recycling steel - see

" the [steel] industry's overall recycling rate is nearly 68%."

More interesting info on metals recycling here:

(note that gold and other precious metals are also continually recycled, but we don't think about them much either).

Paper, plastics, glass recycling may be a little more dubious. I've never looked at the energy/cost benefit issues. But reducing landfill use can certainly be a win for a community, even if it ends up costing slightly more energy...

Posted by: Arthur Smith on 11 Mar 04

On a similar note, I once read the claim that the energy used/pollution generated by shipping waste to recycling plants and operating the recycling process outweighs the ecological benefits gained, and that the most sustainable thing to do with waste would be to incinerate it.

Posted by: acb on 11 Mar 04

I think people have made most of the big points, but I have a few little things to point out:

1: Incineration really is the way to go for plastic and newsprint.
Don't think of it as burning trash, think of it as a oil/biofuel-powered energy plant, except you get one more use out of the material. Remember, reduce, reuse, *then* recycle.

2: Bottle collection deposits in big cities actually serve additional useful purposes, beyond reducing landfill space.
Anyone who's seen homeless people digging through trash and dragging a bag full of cans to the grocery store has seen it. Not only do bottle deposits reduce landfill use, they provide welfare to the poorest people, and fund ad-hoc trash collection.

3: Many people like to spout off that it's cheaper to throw things away and make new ones than to recycle them.
Sometimes this is true, but mostly this ignores disposal costs. Landfill costs are huge - construction companies pay people to neatly stack their garbage in the dump truck, so as to minimize dumping fees. From the perspective of an individual company, it may maximize profit to not enable recycling of their products. However, they're just pushing additional hidden costs onto their customers. From the POV of a society/government, it absolutely makes sense to mandate/incentivise recycling on marginally recyclable products (e.g. office paper, cardboard).

Posted by: Jeremiah Blatz on 11 Mar 04

The problem is that people feel **GOOD** about recycling, think they're being green - it salves their consciences without providing much tangible benefit, metals (I stand informed!) excepted.

Because of ill-informed and somewhat doctrinate early efforts, a lot of will which could have been turned towards fuel efficiency is going into sorting garbage.

Posted by: Vinay on 11 Mar 04

It takes almost no effort to sort garbage, though.

I DO refuse to feel guilty if I don't recycle something, of course, but for the most part most places make it pretty easy here in California.

Posted by: Howard on 11 Mar 04

Glass bottles are leaving the market and being replaced by plastic except for those uses where light must be intercepted and oxygen transfer prevented to preserve flavor and color of contents. Glass bottles weigh more and have to be more carefully packed to prevent breakage, which wastes energy and materials when it happens. Plastic bottles also easier to make in brand specific shapes and sizes. Expect glass to fade slowly from the market. Hence we should focus on plastic bottles to be relevant.

Second point. Conceptually there are two forms of recycle: open and closed loop. Refilling the brown bottle with same brand of beer is the ultimate closed loop, and the smaller the loop the more energy efficient the transportation input is. The 19th Century tradition of a brewery in every town was perfectly efficient with closed small loops of recycling. Due to corporate consolidation and mass marketing, it is fantasy to expect a return to small town breweries and soda bottlers until transportation costs become so high as to offer incentives for a restructuring of the market. Plastic bottles are regionally and nationally distributed, being shipped hither and yon: loops are open and very big. Collection and return loops are inherently inefficient no matter how well the actual reclamation technology works. When large investments have been made in the US to reclaim plastic bottles and put the polymer back into similar use, it was somewhat economic as long the plastic bottles were a free resource. Such operations were typically underwritten in part by plastic makers to demonstrate that their product, plastic for bottles, was "recyclable". The other free support comes from government sponsored or mandated curbside collection. Once recycling processing investors realized that the cheap plastic from recycle plants was dragging down the price that could be commanded by virgin polymer, that they had inadvertently created competition for the original product, support was pulled and the plants shuttered. Government support remains, but there is not where to go but to landfill. What will change all this is transportation and manufacturing economics, driven by price of oil. The day will soon come when plastic bottles are simply too valuble to throw away.

Posted by: John Laumer on 12 Mar 04

A few answers and additions here, I hope:

Glass is basically sand that's been heated to high temps in a furnace and shaped into a bottle, window pane, or something else. It takes a lot of energy to melt recycled glass to reform it into new bottles. Sand is pretty easy to find though, so using old bottles or new sand is not hugely different either energy or cost wise. *Re-using* the same bottle on the other hand requires some energy for a steam treatment and transport, and some culling and replacement as they age and get scratched beyond what consumer aesthetic will accept, but by far is the winner. THere was a company with a booth at the SF Garden Show, who is taking glass bottles, breaking them, and tumbling the pieces for 24 hours. It looked like beach glass, but in quantities large enough to use as a xeriscape mulch or other things. Blue, brown, green, clear, quite pretty.

I'd be rather dubious about incinerating plastics, they have a large collection of "adulterants" - additives, which might produce some rather interesting compounds once it's combusted. And PVC produces a lot of hydrochloric acid when it's burned, which has been a problem for incinerators.


Posted by: BK on 27 Mar 04



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