One of the curious things about global warming alarmism is that so many
of the other features of traditional environmentalism are actually at
odds with it. Nuclear power is perhaps the best source of low carbon
electricity. Genetically modified organisms can dramatically lower the
energy needed to grow crops. And in fact, striking at the base of
institutionalized environmentalism, it appears recycling can produce
more carbon than new manufacture.
Let’s face it, there is probably no more widespread example of what
some people have termed "everyday environmentalism" than recycling.
Many of us do it as a matter of course because the recycling company
comes round at the same time as the garbage truck. Or we have "green"
receptacles in our offices for the paper that seems to abound in our
"paperless" offices. It is also pushed as a solution for global
For instance, one environmental organization’s Web site lists four
steps to lowering one’s carbon emissions (note: descriptions are
shortened slightly from full Web site text):
(1) Reduce every form of energy use that derives ultimately from fossil fuel.
(2) Reuse as much of every product as possible.
(3) Recycle all paper, cardboard and wood products.
(4) Purchase personal carbon offsets.
If only it was that simple.
What this group, Al Gore and many other environmentalists may not
appreciate is that recycling paper is actually a carbon positive
process. Fossil fuels are required to de-ink recovered paper and
sanitize paper headed for close consumer use. Compare this to virgin
trees – which produce no net carbon provided a new tree is planted to
replace each one that is harvested, as is generally the case.
Contrary to received wisdom, paper is one of the least recyclable
materials in circulation. Each time paper is recycled, it loses part of
its physical construction. Structure is crucial to paper’s performance
– lose it, and performance plummets.
Paper is often recycled far more than once. According to a study for
the Corporate Forum on Paper and the Environment, the first time paper
is recycled, it retains about 85 percent of its strength. By the time
it is recycled the sixth time, that drops to 38 percent. Yet each time,
it is using the same energy and emitting more and more carbon for the
value you get from it.
This makes very little sense from an environmental point of view. In
fact, recycling of the type that is so common – the curbside pick-up,
the "green bins" – can be counterproductive.
As my colleague Angela Logomasini wrote in the Wall Street Journal
on March 18, 2002: "Isn’t recycling supposed to save money and
resources? Some recycling does – when driven by market forces. Private
parties don’t voluntarily recycle unless they know it will save money,
and, hence, resources. But forced recycling can be a waste of both
because recycling itself entails using energy, water and labor to
collect, sort, clean and process the materials. There are also air
emissions, traffic and wear on streets from the second set of trucks
prowling for recyclables. The bottom line is that most mandated
recycling hurts, not helps, the environment."
At this point someone will probably accuse me of being against all
recycling and compare me – unfavorably – to Lord Voldemort. As it
happens, I’m not against recycling, just against recycling that doesn’t
make sense. It should even be possible to achieve an economically
sensible form of carbon "Zendom" by eliminating the most intensive
processes. Recovered paper actually makes sense for things like
packaging (i.e., corrugated cardboard in shipping boxes), but not so
much in expensive consumer products like seventh-generation bath
This is unlikely to be attractive to environmentalists, for whom recycling is a sacred cow, despite the evidence.
There is another option, of course, and it lies in the fourth
recommendation repeated above. Perhaps the recycling companies could
sell carbon offsets with their inefficient, energy-intensive, expensive
products. When the gas-guzzling recycling trucks come round in the
morning, we could buy an offset each time for that. And every time we
drop an unread memo in the recycling box at work, we could have our
wages garnished by the Environmental Protection Agency. I would prefer
to just buy the economically efficient, low-cost paper. But, trust me,
someone will think this is a good idea.