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Thursday, January 25th, 2007
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What's Going On? Questioning Paper Recycling

Introduction: What follows is an essay I wrote over a month ago, but which I've been sitting on, since I'm so reluctant to embrace the unthinkable thoughts it contains. But I've been letting people read it, including our EcoGuru Luisa (who'd also felt challenged by the video I watched, which first got me thinking about this), and she said of this essay, "I think this is a really good starting point for discussions." So I decided to go ahead and post it.

Meanwhile, speaking of starting discussions, starting this week, Luisa is writing a monthly column on Sustainable Living and other eco-issues, and she has more to say herself on this topic right now. Be sure you go read it!

So anyway, lately I've been having a crisis of faith about recycling, particularly of paper. I recently watched the Penn & Teller "Bullshit!" show about recycling, in which they assert that most such efforts are little more than a waste of time, and I gotta say, I found it very compelling.

Obviously, there are exceptions (specifically aluminum cans, but also the small amounts of gold that can be salvaged by grinding up old computer & electronic circuit boards, a topic P&T didn't mention). But the thing that's freaking me out is paper recycling. When you really think about it, does it really make sense? Trees are a renewable resource, and paper companies have been planting new trees to provide new stock for decades. There is no tree shortage. Trees aren't being hunted to extinction like whales, but instead are being farm-raised, like potatoes. And unlike plastic bottles, paper is biodegradable!

Recycling paper to "save trees" is like getting an artificial Xmas tree for the same reason, but actually, buying a fake Xmas tree just puts an Xmas tree farmer out of work, whereas buying a real tree every year supports an industry of forest-planters. (And then there's the industrial hemp for paper argument, but that's another subject.)

So is a vibrant paper-recycling industry really better for the environment than a perpetual need to keep large areas of land wooded, so as to have enough stock to make more paper? Which is better: more forests waiting to be turned into paperstock, or more factories being built for the purpose of making old paper into new paper, with all the additional energy consumption and toxic waste (bleach etc) which that implies? Is it really that much worse to just dump the paper in a landfill? There's no shortage of landfill space, they're quite safe, and here's another amazing thing I learned from the P&T show -- landfills actually create power! The methane gas which is generated by rotting stuff is extracted from within the landfill and used to make electricity! Wow!

I have to wonder about other forms of recycling, too. It seems to me that the biggest environmental threat isn't the filling up of landfills, it's those greenhouse gases created by our rampant energy consumption. Therefore, if it uses more energy to wash out, save, process, and reuse a glass jar than it does to make a new one, well, wouldn't we be better off just trashing that glass jar?

There's no question about recycling cans... I know those are valuable enough to be worth collecting, since homeless people steal them from my curbside bins. And I'm still worried about plastic, since it doesn't decompose, so I'm still in favor of keeping as many plastic bottles out of the landfills as possible, by reducing, reusing, and yes, even recycling them.

But I'm ready to give up on paper recycling. I just don't believe in it anymore. I'm thinking we help trees more in the long run by discarding paper than by recycling it, and I think we help the planet more by needing more forests than by needing more recycling machinery. The laws of supply and demand indicate that we will keep planting more trees (or hemp plants!) as needed in order to meet our appetite for paper, and since trees clean the air, needing more of them seems like a better strategy, to me at least, than does getting better at saving and recycling old paper stock.

My ears are open and if someone can convince me that this logic is flawed, I'm ready to listen. But I've lost faith in "saving trees" by salvaging paper, and I'm on the brink of purging the various paper collection bins I have scattered around the house, and telling everyone to just put their unwanted paper into the trash.

AndyFutureThanks for reading, and Have a Great Week!

(Note from the Future: Don't miss the follow-up to this article.)

PS: My first question to anyone who wishes to debate me on this subject will be "Did you watch the Penn & Teller show?" so please, if you're about to send me email telling me how wrong I am, please go watch the video first. But then, by all means, let's hear more facts! I'll be listening in on discussions with Luisa on the new Eco mailing list. I look forward to a lively debate!

PPS: As long as I'm pointing to Penn & Teller's shows, don't miss their episode about the War on Drugs!

"My family was introduced to Fluxx several years ago by another family at my church. Over the years we've bought maybe a dozen copies of Fluxx (we keep wearing them out or giving them away), and now I am buying some of your other games as college supplies since my family insisted on keeping their copies of them at home." -- Comments with an order from Alan J, currently of the University of Maryland in College Park

Thought Residue
I'm helping revise our business plan, and for inspiration I'm reading the samples at Bplans.com, including one for a place called Sagebrush Sam's. It's fun reading about how great this new steakhouse is theoretically going to be. Here's my favorite part : "Our surroundings will be more entertaining than our competitors'." It's just a bullet point on a list, so I wondered how they would back up this claim, especially since, elsewhere in the document, we find this description: "Each location will feature authentic western antiques such as Native American blankets, cowboy gear, and horse tack. We will equip the restaurant with a state-of-the-art sound system connected to an old-time juke box where our customers will be able to select their favorite country and western songs for free." There's nothing amazing about nostalgic junk on the walls, so I guess the superiority of their surroundings was to hinge upon their Great Stereo -- and the fact that it costs extra to play the old-time jukebox at their competitors'. However, the document dates back to 2002, so I decided to use Google to find out if anything had come of these plans... and if there's any connection between this and the Sagebrush Sam's of Butte, Montana, the "surroundings that will be more entertaining" seem to have become Exotic Dancing and Casino Gambling.

Are there any other flavors of Hawaiian Punch? The can says it's "Fruit Juicy Red" along the top and on the dude's surfboard, where it could instead say something like "Lemon Lime Green" or "Very Berry Blue." But I've never seen any other forms of Hawaiian Punch. Am I simply too far from Hawaii to get the other flavors? And if so, what are they? Of course, Wikipedia has the answer: apparently there are (or have been) 7 other flavors: Green Berry Rush, Mazin' Melon Mix, Bodacious Berry, Tropical Vibe, Wild Purple Smash, Island Citrus Guava, and Mango Passionfruit Squeeze. (Oh, and the dude's name is Punchy. Remember when the TV ads had him punching out tourists?)
"Proponents of drug prohibition tend to dismiss reform groups like NORML or the Drug Policy Alliance as fringe ideologues (politicians seem fond of dismissing the latter group for no other reason than that it gets its funding from George Soros). But when decorated police officers, former police chiefs, and ex-judges and prosecutors speak up, audiences can't help but take notice. These aren't stoners. They're former public servants, and many risked their lives for a cause they now say is mistaken. That's powerful stuff. When a guy tells you he regrets what he's done for most of his career -- and what he could well have died for -- his words take on a unique credibility and urgency. One common characteristic you'll find in many members of LEAP is guilt. Most of these former officers lug around a weighty burden. Many concede they realized early in their careers that the drug war was a failure, and would always be a failure. They regret now that they didn't speak up sooner." -- Radley Balko, "Former Narcs Say Drug War is Futile"

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