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A Man Who Has Nothing In Particular To Recommend Him Discusses All Sorts of Subjects at Random as Though He Knew Everything

Sippican The Rag Man

An older post of mine, Building A House With Found Materials, is still getting some attention. Commenter Amy Alkon asked the question:

Very interesting post. I was wondering, though, about the shocking remark about all trash, recycle-binned or not, going into the same landfill. I’m not informed about this — just Googled it, and came up with some sites saying that is a myth; this one, for example: RecycleRaccoon. I’d just like to know the truth. Maybe it’s true in some places, not in others?

Amy’s name sounded familiar, but I could not place it. If you click on her name, she has quite a little opinion empire going that does not appear to have suffered any from my unfamiliarity with it. Amy is pleasant and her question merits an answer. (Walter Olson of Overlawyered has also linked to it today.)

Here’s what I said:

I’ve done more recycling than forty-five Ed Begleys, so I’ll clue you in on a little secret: after you sort through your trash like a raccoon and put it on the curb to try to resurrect Bambi’s mom through clean living, it all gets thrown in a landfill when you’re not looking. It’s a kabuki theater, not a real process.

I see now that I was very inexact in that sentence. “All” recycled stuff is not landfilled, but an enormous portion of it is, and it is “all” thrown in together after they make you sort it out. And of course, it might get incinerated instead of buried, but the point stands. According to the video I’ll post at the end of today’s drivel, the New York Department of Sanitation says 40 percent of what you sort for recycling ends up all dumped together in the landfill. I suspect it’s way more than that now, because in the current economic climate coupled with high gas prices, the price of collecting and hauling all that trash around has skyrocketed, and the price for the raw materials they would yield has plummeted. As I said, metal and a few other things are worth recycling. The rest is nonsense, and not just unproductive, but counterproductive.

It was amusing that Amy’s link identifies themself as Recycle Raccoon, making my comment about picking through your trash like a raccoon all that much more trenchant, if I do say so myself. And then they go right along and re-describe the Kabuki theater of recycling I’d described, and blithely says that since the man in the trash clowncar picking up his recycling doesn’t mix it all together right there on the curb, and doesn’t put it in a big truck marked: Bound For A Big Hole In A Pristine Piping Plover Sanctuary, it must be taken somewhere and turned into something useful, thus saving all sorts of money and harp seals and so forth. Mr. or Ms. Raccoon seemed decidedly disinterested in what happens after their trash gets to the recycling center. Out of sight, and out of your mind.

Once the little trucks are full, they meet in a central location and sort the materials into the larger ‘mother trucks’. One big truck is filled with ONLY garbage and goes to the landfill. The other truck is filled with ONLY recyclables and comes to the MRF (Materials Recycling Facility). This large truck is divided down the middle: one side is filled with paper and the other side is filled with commingled recyclables (plastic #1 & plastic #2 bottles and jugs, aluminum cans, glass jars, and steel or tin cans).

Well, only is written ONLY, so I guess that settles it. What you’re going to get from the recycling cult is right there in the first sentence:

Recycling makes sense both economically and environmentally.

Back when college graduates could still operate an apostrophe, that sentence would have been obvious to anyone as petitio principii : begging the question. That which is to be proved is explicitly assumed to be true already. Little elves don’t come to the MRF at night and knit all that stuff into a daisy chain for Gaia after you leave. It has to go somewhere. And more often than not, unless you pay an enormous premium with your tax dollars for someone to take it off your hands, it will eventually be thrown all in together in a hole in the ground. Either that or the MRF, or any of the other giddy acronyms these facilities are prone to, will be abandoned as uneconomic and will become Superfund cleanup sites. Sorry if telling you that bums you out, but don’t kill me, I’m just the piano player.

You see, when I said I’d recycled more than all those Ed Begleys, I meant it. I do not mean it as an appeal to superior credentials, but I’ve been a Division Manager for a large Environmental and Construction company before. We built landfills occasionally, so I knew for a fact that the recycling maven in the upcoming video was full of unrecycled merde when he says a landfill is just a hole in the ground with a 1/16″ diaper in the bottom, well before Penn and Teller visited one and disproved it. And me and all the dozens of employees that worked for me, including a few environmental scientists, had all sorts of training and the resultant credentials to handle all sorts of waste. I’ve had hardcore RCRA training. I doubt anyone else I’ve mentioned has. And I’ve had profit and loss responsibility for the safe disposal of beaucoup tonnage of wood, glass, metals, plastics, paper, cardboard, soil, contaminated soil, concrete, bituminous concrete, tile, asbestos, lead, waste oil…

I’m sorry, the Internet is going to run out of pixels if I keep up like this. As I said:

Lots of stuff is worth recycling. It’s very simple: if someone will pay you to take it, or at the very least defray the cost of disposal with the value of the material, it’s worth recycling. Almost all metals fall into this category, for instance. No fair cheating with government funds.

I’ll give you an experiment you can try at home, whether you’re a raccoon or not. Strip the aluminum siding off your house, or the copper wiring, or steal a few manhole covers, or rip out all your copper plumbing, or cut all the steel fenders off your Prius. Go to the Yellow Pages and find a scrapyard and go there. They will weigh those items on a big scale for you. You don’t even have to get out of your now fenderless vehicle. They’ll weigh your vehicle coming in and out and calculate the difference. They will count money in your hand, because that stuff is worth money.

Now bundle up your newspapers from the last thirty years, or all your milk jugs, or all your coffee grinds, or whatever floats your boat. Now I want you to start driving from recycling center to recycling center, paper mill to paper mill — all those places you currently imagine are just dying to get your assorted sorted stuff — and try to find someone that won’t charge you to accept it.

No matter how many years it takes, call me from whatever landfill you’re at when you finally give up and pay to dump it. And then take my advice and simply stop wasting stuff, including time and money — especially other people’s time and money.

Anyway, Penn and Teller actually have a much more amusing (if more strident than I like) take on the question. They’re prone to some salty language, so be warned:

[Ragman Update here]

26 Responses

  1. Well, I simply must pipe up to state that it is free to take "recyclables" to the city dump that I use. Up until recently, it was just an unattended parking lot with different bins for the different materials. They've moved it inside now, but it's still free. I wonder how long before they charge?

    So, now that I've demolished that little part (and apostrophized wonderfully WITHOUT a college education), I certainly hope you will be alright. I, for one, need to get back to digging that hole in the corner of the yard where the used motor oil goes.

  2. And oh by the way, I also vilified that original post by linking to it back when it first went up.

  3. Never recycled. Don't litter – and I don't recycle. I could see it for what it was from the start…bs.

    Hmm. Feels a little warm around here. Globally warm. Moooo-wah ha ha ha!!!!

  4. Andy,

    Clearly it is not free to take your recyclables to the city dump. That facility is supported by tax dollars / water bills / sewage and waste fees. In my locale, the dump is "free" as long as you have a current water bill and a driver's license with a matching address.

  5. Free as in not being charged at the gate, anon.

    But then again, I've never had my water or sewage bills, or my driver's license, checked when I've gone to the dump. I could be from an off-the-grid hippy commune in Poughkeepsie, NY, rolling up in a stolen El Camino, and they would just say "recyclables? pull up to B9 and leave 'em there."

    Surely, taxes are paying for that dump, but you don't need to be paying them to use it. In that regard, it is free. Unless it's actual trash, then it's 20 bucks a load. I try to throw in a couple of dead bodies to make sure I'm getting my money's worth.

  6. Andy, that word "free" does not mean what I think you think it means.

    If tax dollars pay for its operation. Those tax dollars are extracted from citizens under threat of imprisonment if they decline to pay them. Therefore, it is NOT free.

    Then again, facts and logic do not matter to liberals. What matters is the moral preening.


  7. Butch,
    I know what "free" means, and I do completely understand your point. I suppose that in that sense, just about the only thing "free" out there is starving to death and being eaten to nothing by fish at the bottom of the ocean. Unless one of the fish gets caught, and then sold to someone, and then there's another utopia destroyed.

    I am a bit of a sucker for the manipulations of The Man, though, so I find it nice that when I have so much "recyclable" stuff to get rid of that they will charge me extra to leave it curbside, they do give me the option of carting it to the dump and leaving it there for no extra charge instead. I know, I'm a pushover.

    Instead of "free," I'll say "don't cost EXTRA."

  8. America currently thrives on the philosophy, "If we can, we will." vs "just because we can, doesn't mean we should." America also lives with two creeds, "Image over subtance" and "Profit over people." The question is why does America put up with creating so much garbage? Because we are image obsessed and profit driven.
    There are two industries who perpetuate our garbage. The Packaging and Advertising industries have inflicted a fear based competition within food and product industries to compete by standing out through packaging and advertising in order to grab the infantile attention of Americans! This creates a wholly unnecessary and ungodly amount of varied packaging that is simply thrown away by the poundage creating our landfills today. – I offer a solution to the problem: Simplify. Don't wrap my prunes individually. I don't need self-indulgent bells and whistles packaging or advertising. I reel from the bells and whistles. Give me a line of products, food and everything else – that are SIMPLY PACKAGED, and in BULK, and in simple CLEAR PLASTIC BAGS so I can SEE what it is, with a simple white label with black print stating appropriate label information. Package EVERYTHING this way. I, you, or anyone does not need more than this. ~ This would cut production costs, cut product price, and, packaging in bulk cuts the amount of garbage generated.
    The best example of blatant waste I've seen was at a state park general store. Within the icecream cooler was a Dove icecream bar not only individually wrapped in foil but contained within its very own BOX. Each bar had a BOX! It takes two minutes to eat one and a life time for all those boxes to breakdown in the landfill. Do we really need to lose trees to BOX single icecream bars?!
    Lastly, with the continued improvement of internet search engines there's been an explosion of interest in and appreciation for design in the last 5 years. It gives a false sense of importance to designers who aren't applying design to purpose. I'm overwhelmed and fed up with the self indulgent, bombastic packaging and advertising industries. Life isn't about them, its about all of us. Time for a reality check. Less packaging, less garbage. Bombastic: emphasising style at the expense of thought. Betty

  9. It really depends on where you are and what commodities prices are like at a given moment in time, and if your operation is efficient. An uncle of mine was a town supervisor for many years. In the late 90's, he decided to open a landfill in a sort of wasteland area in the town, with the goal of generating money then eventually turning it into a park, like Norfolk's Mt. Trashmore. He determined they could accept waste from two nearby cities, and there were some ways to get rid of some of it. An aluminum plant nearby was happy to have waste cans and such, and would pay for them because initial aluminum manufacture is pricey. The remnants of what used to be a major steel mill were still in rump operations, and could easily take that off his hands. He had the good fortune of being close to the Canadian border, and there was a company not far across the border that could take tires, and the full range of plastics, many of which aren't very economical to recycle. An insulation plant specializing in cellulose – ground up paper treated with boric acid – was happy to pay a bit to take recycled paper products off his hands. That left him with a lot of trash still, but not all that much. The pit was designed to be layered and to harvest methane, which was converted into fuel to power the municipal buildings, a feasible operation for a small town once a few layers of trash & the bacteria that eat it had been built up. The bottom of the pit was sealed to prevent contamination of the water table, and there was a drainage system set up to collect toxic runoff, which was shipped off to a specialized waste disposal facility elsewhere. The landfill turned into a big revenue generator for the township, and in 15 years or so, the town will have a hilly community park on the site.

    Now, before you think I've slammed the Kool Aid, let me point out two things. First, what made this work was the fortuitous location of the township. If there weren't three unusual sorts of industrial facilities nearby, the recycling of metals and plastics would not have made much sense. Second, the recycling efforts worked because it made economic sense. The biggest plague – plastics and petroleum by-products – is hard to dispose of, and my uncle got lucky finding a Canadian plant that wanted things like old tires, plastic bags, and low density plastics too. A lot of municipalities will not have such a fortunate location, and the shipping costs to a facility that uses these materials will make cost of recycling prohibitive.

    So it was a wonderful success for my uncle's town but your mileage may vary.

  10. For any (including Ms. Alcon) wishing to learn more on the subject, I suggest picking up a copy of Rubbish!: The Archaeology of Garbage.

  11. We moved to our little unincorporated area in 2005. The trash hauler came out to see me personally when I called him to set up service. We sat on my porch rockers and had a pleasant conversation about many topics.

    Finally I asked him if he also picked up recycling. He said he could pick it up weekly for an extra fee. But, he added, nobody will buy any of it from him these days so it all just goes to the same place as the other trash. I said, so you offer the service… why? He said that he found that a lot of people moving in from up north paid for it even though he told them what he told me. Said they do it to feel good about themselves or sumpthin'.

    I elected not to go through the dance. Recycling never made me feel better about myself anyway.

  12. Thank you so much for such a comprehensive answer to my question. Fascinating. Going to link to you on my blog — just gotten a little overwhelmed these past few days!

  13. Let's have some real fun and tell them about all the carbon they're dumping into the atmosphere, hauling what is essentially trash around.

  14. What makes sense to me is to recycle myself.
    1. Compost! Don't throw coffee grounds (and filters), kitchen scraps and shredded paper into the garbage. Start a compost pile for your garden or landscaping use.
    2. Try to reuse instead of recycle. For example, we use clean plastic bottles to freeze water for our cooler in summer and to fill with drinks made at home in pitchers.
    3. Yes, I bring my own bags to the grocery store and try to purchase items with minimal packaging.

    There are other things you can do that you KNOW are economically and environmentally friendly.

  15. @Betty Package EVERYTHING this way.


    Now what?

    @Betty I, you, or anyone does not need more than this.

    Only I get to decide what I need, thank you very much. And, that goes for anyone else who hasn't asked you to run their lives for them.

  16. My local dump-it-off recycling center says that the newspapers are used to support public area maintenance. It leads me to imagine that they're getting at least something for them.

    But perhaps they get pennies on the hundredweight and the aggregative effect makes it economic. (shrugs)

  17. You spend all that time making fun of recyclers, like you're about to show they're buffoons. Then you spend all that time building yourself up as a trained waste handler and landfill builder, like you have a unique and authoritative perspective on it. And then you piss it all away: your argument is "recycling is not worth it because no one will pay you personally for your recycled stuff." It doesn't take a landfill authority to make that argument. You might as well have just linked to the Penn and Teller video and saved your breath.

  18. For the very best discussion of what's in landfills, read William Rathje and Cullen Murphy's "Rubbish: The Archaeology of Garbage."

    Rathje is an archaeologist who digs in landfills. Murphy is a professional writer. While Rathje does not discuss what happens to recycled items, he has a very detailed discussion of the woes and foibles of recycling.

    The prices fetched by recycled items vary wildly, and are often negative for extended times. That's when they go to the landfill.

    In general, only steel and aluminum have stable, profitable markets. All other recycled items require subsidies.

    As to location, the rural county in which I live is about to lose its recycling center because the operator is losing money.

    I taught environmental engineering and science for 37 years. The governing rule is that total cost is the best indicator of total environmental impact. If recycling is more expensive than landfill/incineration (the usual case), then it has a bigger, negative environmental impact.

  19. What I can't figure out is why our city's trash company was so eager to start the recycling program. How did they pay for all the new bins and the new trucks? Government grant? Did they lay off their laborers? Don't get it.

  20. a state park general store. Within the icecream cooler was a Dove icecream bar not only individually wrapped in foil but contained within its very own BOX. Each bar had a BOX! It takes two minutes to eat one and a life time for all those boxes to breakdown in the landfill. Do we really need to lose trees to BOX single icecream bars?!"

    Actually, yes. The reason that food requires a lot of packaging is to keep it from spoiling. "Rubbisb," by William Rathje (mentioned above) points out that Mexicans in Mexico throw out much less packaging, but a lot more spoiled food; when they move to the US, they become like the rest of us big fat Americans.

    Your Dove bar was probably made hundreds of miles away and was shipped. Without the boxes, half your Dove bars would be crushed and made stinky with bits of melted chocolate and ice cream, and would cost double. Plus the box was made of farmed trees, made specifically for paper and useless for anything else – it's not like the Dove Corporation cut down a magnificent stand of redwoods. Recycling paper products like Dove boxes to protect trees is like recycling the corn you eat: dirty, expensive, and not worth the fuss.

    Basically, as per PJ O'Rourke: old stuff that has value, like a Ferrari, doesn't get recycled. People buy it.

  21. Used motor oil is an excellent accelerant for bonfires. I use it all the time when I burn yard waste and stuff that won't fit in the trash bin, like Christmas wrap or appliance boxes. I recently started collecting aluminum cans for recycling (because they will pay you for it), but I never understood why anyone would want to recycle paper.

  22. Earth Girl, neither I, nor nobody with any sense, would have any objection to what you suggest. The problem is that governments, large and small, take this idea and say to themselves "Wow! What a great idea! Let's FORCE people to do it!" and proceed to mandate it, with accompanying fines and other punishments for non-compliance, whether it makes any economic sense or not.

    I hate the idea of tossing out raw materials myself. Please, keep doing it and feel free to convince others to do so. But to make it mandatory and coercive, as governments do, is a phenomenally bad idea.

  23. As was stated above, all you need to know about recycling is what someone will pay for your garbage. Many communities have a monthly collection day for household items like chemicals, old paint cans, electronics, batteries, etc. Just go and see the vendors who are taking the old electronics, because they are worth real money, and see what is being put into the big barrels for later incineration or burial. I've occasionally seen a recycling oil vendor, but the electronics recycling guys are the only ones who will consistently show up every time.

  24. Well, I can't picture anyone paying for my used motor oil. But recycling it is pretty much a no-brainer for any garage. I can't speak for every mechanic, but the one local to me uses all of that waste oil to run a heater in their garage in the cold months. No one person goes through motor oil to heat their home year round. But enough of us combined to a heck of a job of heating his place of employment for free.

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