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[GreenYes] Re: Dubner's interview on Good Morning America

This waves the red flag in front of Muller.

(1)     I have found Jeff's work to be consistently objective, non-ideological, and convincing.

(2)     Cited below is something including as authors Barlaz and Vasuki.  These are two notorious incinerator promoters/recycling opponents (and in the case of Vasuki, a promoter of uncontrolled landfilling).  This is like citing Hitler as an authority on population control. 

(3)     "Diversion" (from landfill) is NOT the name of the game.  Diversion can easily be to something even less desirable.

(4)     Life cycle analysis, as usually performed, is a snapshot in time, and like "risk assessment," easily manipulated.

(5)     Comparing, say, the cost-effectiveness of saving gasoline with recycling PET would be more useful IF one, in the real world, was treated as an alternative to the other.


At 10:03 AM 7/21/2007 -0500, Stephan Pollard wrote:

I presume we're talking about he U.S. 

Are you suggesting that no matter where you go (in the U.S.), no matter the time, no matter the mix of the plethora of factors/variables including the attributes of the recycling collection program or the differences of the recyclable content from waste stream to waste stream or simply what it takes to recycle or compost, for each commodity collected for recycling and composting, that the benefits outweigh the costs?

To repeat parts of a post made to this group on 9/26/06 RE: Informed Solid Waste Management...LCA is an analytical tool that examines the often complex environmental impact of a product, process, or service.  Information returned from LCAs can be used as an important input to informed solid waste decision-making...decision-making that should incorporate periodic reassessment.  Such reassessment includes, for example, measurement of the efficacy of diversion programs at the material/commodity level.  Depending on ever-changing circumstances, halting the diversion of glass bottles and jars in favor of spending the saved money on programs targeting the diversion or perhaps elimination of high-risk products might be an indicated course of action.  Given the more than appreciable expense of curbside collection of recyclables, a dollar spent on the collection of glass, paper, or PET might be better spent elsewhere, perhaps on drop-off or deposit programs or take-back schemes as has been suggested (Lave et al., 1999; Barlaz et al., 2003).  As Barlaz et al. (2003) point out, saving gasoline has a lot more potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions than does PET recycling.

It is important to note that failure to consider that the rarely-static mix of circumstances/management techniques/parameters/inputs differ between locations could result in suboptimal or worse-than-before solutions when applying LCA results in a cookie-cutter fashion.  Additionally, not all LCAs are created equal.  Some are more accurate and(or) thorough in their consideration of input parameters and externalities than others.  Quantifying tangible and intangible social benefits and costs can be very difficult.  Concerning the input data and the quality of the LCA, the old adage (and pardon the pun) "Garbage In Garbage Out" certainly applies.

Lave, L.B., Hendrickson, C.T., Conway-Schempf, N.M., McMichael, F.C., 1999. Municipal solid waste recycling issues. Journal of Environmental Engineering 125(10): 944-949.
Municipal solid waste (MSW) recycling targets have been set nationally and in many states. Unfortunately, the definitions of recycling, rates of recycling, and the appropriate components of MSW vary.  MSW recycling has been found to be costly for most municipalities compared to landfill disposal. MSW recycling policy should be determined by the cost to the community and to society more generally.  In particular, recycling is a good policy only if environmental impacts and the resources used to collect, sort, and recycle a material are less than the environmental impacts and resources needed to provide equivalent virgin material plus the resources needed to dispose of the postconsumer material safely.  From a review of the existing economic experience with recycling and an analysis of the environmental benefits (including estimation of external social costs), we find that, for most communities, curbside recycling is only justifiable for some postconsumer waste, such as aluminum and other metals. We argue that alternatives to curbside recycling collection should be explored, including product takeback for products with a toxic content (such as batteries) or product redesign to permit more effective product remanufacture.

Barlaz, M.A, Cekander, G.C., Vasuki, N.C., 2003. Integrated solid waste management in the United States. Journal of Environmental Engineering 129(7): 583-584.


Stephan Pollard

Jeffrey Morris wrote:
Hi Folks,
Re: Stephan Dubner's interview on Good Morning America, we (Scott Matthews of Carnegie Mellon and the Carnegie Mellon Economic Input Output-Life Cycle Assessment model online at, Frank Ackerman of Tufts and author of Why do We Recycle and co-author of Priceless: On Knowing the Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing, and myself) have developed the Consumer Environmental Index (CEI) that measures and tracks the climate change, human toxics and ecosystem toxics impacts of consumer expenditures each year - from resource extraction to production to retail sale and consumer use and through to end-of-life management of discards. The short answer to Stephan Dubner - recycling and composting a household's discards (paper, glass/metal/plastic containers, yard debris and food scraps) is equivalent to reducing consumption of vehicle fuels, motor oils and repairs by 25% through using mass transit to commute to work frequently enough to attain that 25% reduction. 
So the environmental benefit of recycling and composting is enormous, even though we sometimes have to pay more to recycle than we do to throw discards in the garbage.  The reason that economics and environment are often at odds - emissions to air, water and land of pollutants is typically free, i.e, free disposal of these toxic and climate changing wastes, so the profit or cost/benefit bottom line driven household or business or governmental or non-profit agency saves dollars by throwing things away.  The fact that polluting and wasting is mostly free is at the heart of why we have such a difficult time finding ways to make recycling compete economically with wasting.
You can see a quick description of the CEI at our website and download the presentation slides that Scott and I used when we unveiled the CEI for Washington State at the Washington State Department of Ecology on July 9.  There's also a report that you can download if you want more details.
The Economist on June 7th ran an article in their print edition on recycling -- The Truth About Recycling -- that came to the opposite conclusion from Dubner.  The Economist is not known for being a liberal rag so that's another good source to point to for the opposite conclusion.
Jeffrey Morris, Ph.D.-Economics
Sound Resource Management
2217 60th Lane NW
Olympia, WA 98502-0903
360-319-2391 mobile

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