Monday, June 16, 2008

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 warming.

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 tissue.

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.

Iain Murray is senior fellow in energy, science and technology at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and author of “The Really Inconvenient Truths,” new from Regnery.

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