shortcomings of recycling

Greta Anderson squirrel at inav.net
Thu Feb 19 23:20:58 EST 1998


I thought this was an interesting piece to forward to you guys.
(Can anybody answer my questions about the domestic paper
industry?)
--Greta Anderson


The Shortcomings of Recycling

by Greg Breining

 

I work part-time as the managing editor of a magazine published by
the
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Recently, in trying to
staunch the flow of money from our operating budget, we
re-examined our
paper costs: $270,000 a year for a high-quality coated web stock.
The
amount wasn't surprising; nor was the fact that it is our single
greatest expense. The same is true for most high-circulation
periodicals. What did surprise me is that we spend an extra
$22,000 a
year because we used recycled paper.

State bureaucracy being what it is, I asked someone at our
Department of
Administration if we could switch to a "virgin" paper of
comparable
weight, quality and whiteness. Absolutely not, he said. It's
against the
law. Minnesota requires state agencies to use paper with 10
percent
post-consumer waste, whenever practical. And practicality has
nothing to
do with cost.

Furthermore, he said, is the Department of Natural Resources, the
state's major environmental agency, ready to announce that its
magazine,
which "advocates conservation and wise use of the state's natural
resources," no longer uses recycled paper? He didn't think so.

Still, $22,000 is a lot of money. State law notwithstanding, it
seemed
irresponsible not to ask: How much environmental good are we
buying for
$22,000 a year. How many trees do we save by using recycled paper?


As I soon discovered, not very much, and not very many.

I first called our printer, who explained it isn't feasible for us
to
use paper made of 100 percent recycled fiber. High-circulation
magazines
are printed on "web" stock. (Imagine a huge spinning roll of
toilet
paper.) Recycling leaves fibers so short and weak that the paper
would
continually break in a high-speed press. To maintain strength, our

so-called recycled paper consists of only 10 percent recycled
fiber.

If the recycled content is so little, I asked the supervisor at
the
company that makes our paper, why does it cost so much? The
reason, he
said is the high cost of sorting recycled paper, and de-inking and

bleaching the recycled pulp. (Ink sludge and other waste wind up
in a
landfill.)

So, how many trees do we save by using recycled? I asked. Here are
the
numbers:

Our yearly paper use, about 120 tons, consisted of about 40 tons
of
coating and 80 tons of total fiber, he said. That amount of fiber
would
require about 160 cords of wood, mostly young aspen with some
maple,
beech, ash and other hardwoods. Our 10 percent post-consumer waste

content replaced or "saved" about 16 cords of pulpwood.

Sixteen cords. In other words, 16 stacks measuring 4 feet by 4
feet by 8
feet. That, according to a DNR forester, can be clear-cut from a
single
acre of aspen forest in central or northern Minnesota. A DNR
economist
told me that the average price paid for aspen pulpwood stumpage
sold in
competitive bids by public land agencies in Minnesota in 1996 was
$16 a
cord. Other hardwoods were less. Our 16 cords "saved" would cost
about
$250 if purchased as standing trees.

In other words, spending $22,000 saved $250 worth of wood, cut
from land
worth about $400 an acre. What's wrong with this picture?

I posed these numbers to several colleagues who report on
environmental
issues. Some objected strenuously that the market value of land
and
timber do not account for the full range of environmental values.
Forest
land performs unaccounted-for "services," such as controlling
erosion,
slowing and filtering runoff, and providing wildlife habitat.

Okay, let's try to pin a value to some of these benefits and add
them to
the total value of the standing trees.

Through recycling, we avoid land-filling or incinerating about
eight
tons of fiber (though we still dispose of a large amount of
coating and
ink). How much is this worth? My trash hauler tells me it can
dispose of
organic yet largely unrecyclable garbage for $38 a ton. Our
avoided
costs in this case total a whopping $300.

Some "benefits" to keeping a crop of aspen on the land are
downright
ambiguous. By clear-cutting aspen, we may reduce the land's value
as
habitat for some wildlife species; for others, such as deer,
moose,
ruffed grouse, and even gray wolves, logging may be an
improvement. What
about other ecological services? In some areas, runoff will
increase
significantly; in others, especially in pancake-flat northern
Minnesota,
it will not.

Other benefits are clear but slight. By harvesting trees and
ultimately
incinerating paper we release sequestered carbon, which may
contribute
to global warming. By logging, we remove some nutrients from the
site.
We also lose aesthetic value; indeed, in tourism-dependent
northern
Minnesota, that may be the greatest loss of all. All of these
things
account for something, but their value is not infinite. We are,
after
all, talking about a single acre. I doubt that by any accounting
the
value of these benefits totals anything near $22,000.

Let's look at this another way. Our decision to spend the extra
money on
recycled paper is a decision to allocate resources that otherwise
could
be used to:
*	Buy 55 acres of aspen forest EVERY YEAR and protect it forever.
Or, if
you prefer, buy 100 acres of wetland, 20 acres of high-quality
farm
land, or several acres of old-growth white pines to add to a park,

wildlife management area or Nature Conservancy preserve -- every
year.
*	Hire a biologist half-time to work on a nongame program.
*	Buy a new pickup truck or other equipment for a worthy research
or
management project.


Any number of ways you might spend $22,000 could benefit the
environment
far more than buying recycled magazine paper. In fact, it is hard
to
imagine spending money any more foolishly. Who would spend $22,000
of
his own money to protect $400 worth of land, save $300 in
trash-hauling
costs, and produce some rather had-to-define environmental
benefits? No
one would. Yet that is exactly what our public Buy Recycled laws
force
us to do.

There is a simple and appealing symmetry in insisting that paper
be
recycled to paper. But in many cases we are simply working long
and hard
to make a silk purse of a sow's ear. Economics would suggest that
some
papers (such as high-quality white paper for books and magazines)
might
be better made of virgin materials, and that recycled fiber is
more
efficiently used in paper towels and newsprint. And why insist
that
paper beget paper? Maybe we're better off using fiber in kitty
litter,
fertilizer and Beanie Baby stuffing.

I still sort bottles from cans and drag my used office trash and
newspapers to the curb every other Thursday. But I can't support
recycling for recycling's sake. By adopting the mantra that all
recycling is good for the earth and then ignoring its cost,
society
misallocates time, money and effort. The public and the
environment both
would gain if government would take the money now spent on the
futile
alchemy of turning trash into high-quality paper and invest it
instead
in parks, forests and other wild lands managed for the public
good.

 

Greg Breining is a free-lance writer who lives in St. Paul. His
opinions
are NOT those of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

This essay published by "www.libertytree.org"



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