Kinkajou : I’m a big fan of recycling. With the population of this planet at 7 billion and counting, recycling makes so much sense in terms of the ability to provide resources to the burgeoning human population.
We can’t keep on going the way we are going; just digging it up, using it then dumping it. It makes so much sense to reuse it, not just to dump it in landfill .With 7 billion of us. (And with unemployment in every country, it’s not as if we are short of people to do the work.)
Goo : And Dr Xxxxx has suggested the population of the planet could hit 70 Billion. While the new biotech could still feed these numbers sustainably and with potentially a reduced footprint on the planet than now, these people will still need resources. Recycling could well be the only way to deliver this quantity of resources.
Kinkajou : And if humanity is ever to conquer space, “perfect” recycling will be the path we must take. However I think we have a long way to go yet to maximise the efficiencies of recycling.
Erasmus : I couldn’t’ agree more. I don’t think that we recycle very well. I think we need to do a lot more to recycle and to make it easier for people to recycle. Processing costs and resources (people, money/wages/supplies, space and equipment), are simple problems that just need some social engineering solutions. You can see the pent up need for recycling when you see how much “rubbish” is left at “poor bins”.
These are collection bins run by charities to reuse items like clothes. These organisations then sell these for money and use the money to be donated to unfortunate /disadvantaged people. Yes old clothes are left. But so are essentially quite reasonable furniture and other goods (e.g. DVDs).
The community has difficulty getting rid of big rubbish items that don’t fit into current rubbish bins. Some councils hold collections, but again that social engineering aspect is ignored.
Kinkajou : What exactly are you suggesting?
Erasmus : Whenever our council has a "large bits" collection day, lots of things disappear as soon as they hit the footpath. An obvious social engineering solution is to have a “sky burial” day. Stuff that is rubbish in the eyes of the holder, but not “worthwhile” dumping can be put on the footpath for accumulation by local scavengers, or even perhaps neighbours.
Some people can be allowed to make a business of recycling: Metal for example, but they need to have access to a steady supply of raw materials. For example, some people focus on old broken down fridges that can be broken down into items of scrap or parts and sold as a personal business sideline.
However, to make this possible there needs to be a cycle of sky burial days throughout a city and a generally available schedule to encourage this to happen. This sort of a change would cost the council little and result in a lot more “recycling”.
Recycling Bins Brisbane
Kinkajou : True, I feel there should be more generally available recycling facilities for batteries and car oil and grease. Car oil and grease can even be used as a source of biofuel.
The other suggestion is that perhaps more green waste could be dried and burnt as fuel and used to generate power in specific situations. I think there are a lot of possibilities if we set our mind to it. It is just that the infrastructure and planning does not exist.
Erasmus : Recycling is defined as a process of extracting and reusing abandoned materials or substances found in waste, for the purpose of creating new products. Generally, the materials that are defined as recyclable have different properties to those defined as refuse/rubbish.
If someone will pay you for the item, it's a resource.... But if you have to pay someone to take the item away, then the item is garbage/rubbish.
Kinkajou : You mean one man’s rubbish is another man’s treasure (or recyclable).
Erasmus: The judgement of what is rubbish and what is recyclable, of course depends upon the technologies that can be applied.
Erasmus: The basic creed of environmentally friendly consumer behaviour is the R3 concept. This stands for (rethink), reduce, reuse, and recover. This is also sometimes called the waste hierarchy or the recycling hierarchy.
Kinkajou : R3? Why not R4?
Erasmus : What is, is. Let’s keep going.
Rethink: This implies that we should first think about items we may use and their impact on the environment before purchasing or obtaining them. If we are going into space this means that equipment must be designed to have a long effective life, to be able to be corrosion resistant and to be able to be repaired. Oxygen is a terribly reactive molecule. Equipment needs to be protected from Oxygen if it is going to last in a spaceship.
Reduce: Implies that you need to undertake strategies that limit the production of rubbish or refuse.
Reuse: Implies that materials should be used for the entirety of their useful life, before they are replaced. Alternatively components can be reused.
Recover: Implies that substances or materials should be applied to some new purpose and use.
In the final stage of the recycling process (Recover) materials must be collected, sorted and reprocessed. A number of processes have been utilised in the recovery or recycling stage but these are dependent upon the nature of the recyclables collected.
Kinkajou : Some of these R3 steps sound sensible, but often they are not. For example, the city council replaces light bulbs in street lamps when statistically the risk of failure reaches 0.5%. (Not when they have reached their end of useful life or burnt out).
This means that many of the light bulbs could have quite a bit of life left in them. The problem is that the risk of failures is starting to approach an exponential curve. At home, where the cost of replacement is largely just your own time, that’s ok.
But for a city, it is effectively cheaper for one person to replace bulbs just before the failure rate starts to rise exponentially. Labour costs exceed light bulb costs, so labour costs take priority in planning end of life for fitted light bulbs.
Erasmus : I see. Criteria for “end of life” change depending on circumstances of use. Not always a single or simple answer.
Brisbane Rubbish Truck
A recycling truck collecting the contents of a recycling bin in Brisbane, Australia.
Erasmus : General materials which can be recycled include:
- metals e.g. iron, nickel
- rare metals e.g. gold or platinum or silver
- building materials or building waste
- toxic wastes e.g. CCA e.g. Mercury e.g. lead from car batteries
- food or biological wastes
- hydrocarbons or oils
- strangely enough even air pollutants can be” recycled”.
Air pollutant particulates or gases can be recovered before they are dumped into the atmosphere. A good example is the use of scrubbers at the final stage of coal burning power plants to remove ash particulates from exhausts. A similar example is the use of scrubbers in cement production plants to reduce cement particulates being exhausted across the regional landscape.
I have a friend who was raised in suburb with a cement factory. All houses on the north of the suburb were perpetually covered in cement dust. No one cared many years ago. But the situation would be anathema to the citizens of today.
Recycling is important because it reduces waste materials, reduces pollution of land and water (e.g. landfills), reduces greenhouse gas production (compared to do Novo production of new materials), and reduces the demand and usage of fresh resources.
Recycling materials as a process can often be more energy efficient than mining virgin ore or manufacturing and processing fresh virgin materials. We have limited resources on a highly populated planet.
It makes sense to reuse the resources we have and to conserve virgin resources for other uses. Typically speaking, recycling should turn a material back into a fresh supply of same material. (Ideal). However, this is generally uneconomic.
So materials that are usually recycled may be better described as being “salvaged” for other uses. Recycling converts much waste back into resources, capable of being used by humans.
Goo : I think this is where current practice diverges from what would occur on a spaceship. On this planet, we recycle through the biosphere of the planet.
On a spaceship, the biosphere is so limited and fragile that much more recycling needs to be biosphere independent. There are no landfills on a spaceship. Organic material cannot be allowed to decay naturally.
Erasmus : Creating landfill to dispose of wastes also pollutes and limits the use of valuable soil and land. It makes sense to reduce or limit the use of landfills for waste disposal. People have recycled resources throughout history.
Often times building materials such as stone would be gathered from abandoned buildings and used to create new ones.
Erasmus : There are many international standards for recycling practices and for limiting the impact of wastes on the environment. However in the real world, recycling by itself is unlikely to be sufficient to prevent the depletion of non-renewable raw materials necessary for human industry and sustainable green development.
Kinkajou : Recycling is a growth industry on the human race’s path to sustainability in an economy based on renewable resources. A spaceship will one day be the ultimate test of our ability to recycle.
To travel for many years through space demands maintenance of equipment, replacement of worn out parts and sustainable “complete” recycling of organic materials.
The 3 chasing arrows of the international recycling logo
Kinkajou : Keep Going. Next talk is the History of Recycling
Erasmus : We have been recycling for thousands of years in war and in peace. In wartime (WW2), it was an important practice to recycle metals (iron) for use as war materials for weapons industries.
In preindustrial times, metal (bronze) was melted down and reused again as an alternative to mining more ore. Recycled metal was cheaper and easier to use than virgin ores.
Other metals have also been reused. Aluminium cans have traditionally been recycled as processing existing aluminium is far cheaper than creating new aluminium metal from alumina powder feedstock. Recycling aluminium typically uses only about 5% of the energy required to create new aluminium metal.
Many materials have been recycled over the centuries. In industrial era cities, ash and coal waste have been used as landfill or as a base for brickmaking. Also rags have been used as a basis for papermaking.
Glass bottles have been extensively recycled in the modern era. Often a bounty, typically say five cents, was offered to people as an incentive for recycling. Glass bottles would often be reused 10-20 times before needing to be reprocessed from glass waste. Reusing and reprocessing glass is substantially cheaper than creating new glass.
Energy Savings vs.
Reduction in air pollution
10% to 30%
Aluminum is obviously the most recyclable material in this list. It takes far less energy and produces far less waste to produce a unit of aluminium from recycled materials than it does to produce the same unit of aluminium from virgin materials.
Kinkajou : With many materials the savings in energy and the reduction in air pollution are dependent on the exact recycling process used, as well as the method of accounting used.
I think the concept of "accounting methods" is actually the most critical aspect of recycling. Different accounting methods give completely different answers as to utility of recycling. What is worthwhile doing under one method of accounting, may be non-viable or undesirable under other methods.
Due to the importance of legislation and rules for recycling, a society can substantially influence and even change the desirability and viability of a number of recycling methods.
Erasmus : Accounting methods include:
- Fiscal accounting
- Economic Analysis
- Life-cycle Analysis
- Exergy Analyses
- Emergy Analyses
- Cost of Resources analysis
- Environmental Impact analysis
Fiscal methods simply summarize the costs of performing economic activity under normal business practices versus using recycling practices. Commonly, most businesses extract these figures from their balance sheets and profit and loss statements.
Economic analyses are different. They would count energy recovery from waste, employment and jobs created in recycling, landfill costs, incineration costs, disposal of hazardous waste costs, collection costs and transportation costs for recyclables and costs of government incentives and legislation.
Economic analysis can be very complex. Such an analysis usually looks at direct and obvious economic inputs and outputs associated with normal business practices versus using recycling practices.
Such a cost analysis can change significantly with changes of the political administration in office making legislation. Legislation may define processes for recycling and can define and promote community involvement in the process.
The life-cycle analysis includes an economic analysis as well as focusing on other external parameters. These may include the costs to the community of pollution, the effects of greenhouse gases , the long-term costs of economic activity to the global community, costs such as collection costs and transport costs can be considerable and difficult to quantify, depending on the number of people and their role in the recycling chain.
This type of analysis looks at issues that can be long-term or remote to the situation at hand. For example, it has been stated that world reserves of phosphorus will be exhausted within 100 years at our existing rates of usage.
Phosphorus and nitrogen fertilizers in water run-off are important factor in the degradation of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Obviously preventing phosphorus and nitrogen pollution of water courses is a critical factor in protecting Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
It suggests that strategies to recycle nutrients by altering farm practices are very important to the environment.
A life-cycle analysis generally attempts to determine the financial and other costs of external factors involved in the recycling process. This may mean that un-economic activities (such as some recycling processes), may become desirable to the human community.
Calculating whether recycling is economically efficient depends on how far you track the wastes and how far back you track the source materials. Government subsidies and incentives can become an important factor in making recycling a viable economic activity.
Recycling of course occurs more efficiently in densely populated areas such as cities due to the presence of economies of scale. Throughout history recycling has been done as an economic activity by the entrepreneurial poor.
In Third World countries, many poor people make a living trawling through garbage dumps to find material that can be sold. Traditional or historical roles in Western communities include “garbage dump scavengers”, the” rag and bone” man and the” junk” man.
In cities, curbside recycling programs are frequently plagued by suburban scavengers effectively recycling dumped materials. Often one man’s garbage is another man’s treasure.
Commonly, 40%-80% of refused dumped on the footpath is taken away by scavengers.
Kinkajou : Yet still they recycle.
Erasmus :Exergy analyses and Emergy analyses attempt to measure the amount of energy that is required to transform a material or substance into a useful item. Exergy analyses looks predominantly at energy measures at a chemical or physics level.
The industrial process used to recycle a substance material would of course significantly affect this type of analysis. Emergy analyses and calculations take into account the energy cost of economic activities in addition to the simple chemical and physical measurements of energy.
Kinkajou : Are price signals useful?
Erasmus : The prices paid for scrap materials in a market economy may well be a measure of their environmental value as recyclables. Scrap aluminium commands a high price, because the energy cost of recycling it is so much less than the energy cost of mining and manufacturing new aluminium from ore.
As is usual, external incentives such as carbon taxes can alter price signals of recyclable products to the market.
Kinkajou : In the case of aluminium, these external incentives usually take the form of cost subsidies for electricity supplied to industrial plants converting alumina into aluminium metal. In short, incentivizing the production of new metal rather than the recycling of old metal.
Erasmus : Another way of looking at this issue is to look at a cost of resources analysis. If it costs an amount, say 10 X, to provide newly manufactured aluminium to the market, but it costs a 10th as much (i.e. X) to deliver recycled aluminium to the market, you can conclude that the resources required to make aluminium from ore from scratch are 10 * as scarce as the resources required recycle aluminium.
(Electricity usage is the big factor in aluminium production.) Mandating recycling under the circumstances makes perfect sense for aluminium. (The obverse corollary of course suggests that mandated recycling may cause more harm than good, in utilizing more resources than would be used in “virgin” input manufacturing).
Kinkajou : Complex and Deep! We move on.
Recycling and Energy
Kinkajou : Social and legal issues are major factors in recycling in the real world.
Generally materials with high refining costs have the greatest potential for high recycling benefits. Materials that can be fully recycled back to the original use tend to show the greatest recycling benefits. (The recycling of aluminium and glass are probably our best examples).
Most of our systems are geared for adaptive recycling whereby original materials are recycled into different products or byproducts of original materials are used for different purpose. (Such as the burning of waste organics as fuel to generate energy). This is because many materials are unsuitable for recycling back to the original uses.
Erasmus : The Assessment of environmental impact is another method of assessing the desirability of recycling. In the western world most people worry about deforestation arising from the growth of forests for paper pop production.
However the overwhelming cause of deforestation (50%) in the world today is subsistence farming, whereby groundcover is burnt as a prelude to farming.
The next most significant cause of deforestation (30%) is commercial agriculture. This relates to food production, not paper production. Most societies have standard rules in play to limit the growth of cities over the landscape and to limit the impact of cities on the availability of farmland.
Greenhouse gas production, lack thereof or avoidance thereof is a significant assessable target of recycling strategies. Some consideration is given to the nature of greenhouse gases as well as to simple quantity of carbon dioxide generated. For example methane is a more important greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
Methane arises from by degradation of cellulose material in low oxygen environments such as within landfill. Other very significant sources of methane are ruminant animals such as cattle. The anaerobic digestion of cellulose generates significant quantities of methane within the intestines of these animals.
Kinkajou : Should we give our cows probiotics?
Erasmus : May be good for humanity, but don't forget the cows.
There is a social impact aspect of recycling practices as well. Work conditions in many recycling operations and pay conditions can be poor. The presence of biological contamination and hazardous materials (heavy metals, PCBs = poly chlorinated biphenyls, other complex organics and exposure to particulate aerosols) can create significant hazards to the health of many workers.
While recycling is a socially, culturally and economically desirable activity; care must be taken that these achievements are not at the expense of the health of individuals.
People in many countries earn their living by collecting and sorting garbage and selling recovered materials for recycling.
Staff Sorting Rubbish
Erasmus: In the era of landfill sites in Brisbane Australia, many of the entrepreneurial poor worked in landfill garbage dumps scavenging material alongside council employees, responsible for maintaining the operation of the landfill site. In this bygone, era the city council rarely undertook recycling activities, which were generally left to on-site scavengers
Currently in Brisbane much of the recycling activity is processed by the Council’s recycling centres. Machinery attempts to sort the recyclates into waste streams for specific reprocessing appropriate to the type of waste. Environmental concerns have made the population aware of the benefits of using recycled materials, and created a market for the use of recycled goods.
Improvements in collection and recycling may result in recyclables being collected in excess of market requirements. These materials may then need to be processed as refuse or rubbish, or on sold to other recyclers.
If on sold to other countries especially in the developing world, the ultimate environmental fate of rejected recyclables may well be unknown.
Alternatively, recyclables such as computer goods may be dismantled and processed solely for financial gain, without consideration of potential damage to the environment or to workers health.
Kinkajou : so knowing what happens to your recycled products in the end game, is very important. If you start recycling, you must also be sure that you will achieve some measure of the gain that you have sought in undertaking recycling.
Compressed Scrap Iron
Bales of crushed steel ready for transport to the smelter.
Erasmus : There are a number of basic methods whereby a society can mandate recycling activities.
- commanding (e.g. punitive legislation or fines)
- providing incentives via taxes and subsidies or refundable deposits or fees
- Leaving these issues to the discretion of the individual and the market. (Often the manufacturer).
There are some benefits in not mandating that all recycling program should be privately operated. Recycling if only occurring in the private market, would only occur if the direct financial benefit saved by recycling exceeded its costs.
As we’ve seen to date there are many extraneous factors which need to be taken into account when determining what is profitable for the individual and what is beneficial to the society in general.
Kinkajou : Successful recycling programs require a large stable supply of recyclable materials to operate.
Erasmus :Typical methods of legislating to achieve this include:
- Container deposit regulations (A deposit is paid to the collector of a recyclable upon delivery to a recycling centre. This deposit is paid by the original purchaser.
- Mandatory recycling rules: typically federal legislation demands the certain percentage material must be removed from the city’s waste stream by target date. Alternatively manufacturers bear responsibility for recycling of goods such as consumer electronic goods.
- Refuse bans: specific materials such as waste oil, old batteries or tires are banned from recycling. However, unless adequate access to recycling services for such specific products exist, this type of rule simply leads to increased illegal dumping.
Kinkajou : A number of methods have been used to promote public recycling programs. These include advertising, signage on waste bins, using neighbours to persuade the neighbours to recycle, and school education.
Erasmus : A market needs to be created for recycled goods. Common legislative solutions include
- minimal recycled content laws,
- usage rates legislation,
- purchasing policies,
- recycled product labeling
Erasmus : Laws may aim to require manufacturers to use recycled materials in their operations. This changes the economics of recycling within the system.
The laws can apply equally to the government itself, forcing government agencies to use at least some of their own purchasing power to purchase recycled goods.
Corporations and governments have a greater capacity to invest in machinery, equipment, space and staff required to set up more complex recycling systems, capable of dealing with higher volumes of recyclates efficiently and economically and sustainably.
Kinkajou : Collection. Tell us about the collection process.
Erasmus :The three main options for collection are
- "drop-off centers,"
- "buy-back centers" and
- "curbside collection
Drop-off centres require the involvement of the third-party to be available to collect recyclables and then to be part of the transportation chain of the recyclables to a processing station. Generally they are easy to establish, but suffer from low and unpredictable public usage.
Buyback centres provide an incentive to members of the public to bring in clean recyclates in an uncontaminated form. They also aim to produce a stable supply of material, consistent with maintaining industrial recycling processes.
The deposit refund systems used to incentivize the return of glass bottles or aluminium cans, increases the payment to recyclers, effectively changing the economics of the recycling process. It targets the most expensive step in recycling, namely collection and transport.
Erasmus : Curbside collection is the final collection activity type. Familiar forms include:
- mixed waste collection
- commingled recyclables collection
- Periodical curbside dumping of large waste items, often scavenged by members of the public for their own use.
- Source separation of recycling streams: such as separate pickups for glass or newspapers/cardboard or metals.
Generally specially designed vehicles are used for waste collection.