Here’s what John Tierney left out of his anti-recycling screed.

Over the weekend the New York Times’ John Tierney published “The Reign of Recycling,” his attempt to show that recycling is more sentiment than it is good environmental stewardship, much less, good business. I’ll have much more to say about the meat of his work soon, but for now I’d like to make one small point about context, and how Tierney twists it.

Early in his essay, Tierney offers up this:

“Here’s some perspective: To offset the greenhouse impact of one passenger’s round-trip flight between New York and London, you’d have to recycle roughly 40,000 plastic bottles, assuming you fly coach. If you sit in business- or first-class, where each passenger takes up more space, it could be more like 100,000.”

Now here’s the additional perspective that Tierney left out: in 2010, Americans consumed 42.6 billion plastic water bottles, alone, according to the Container Recycling Institute. That’s enough plastic water bottle waste to offset the greenhouse gases for 1,065,000 round-trips between London and New York in coach every year. If business or first class is desired, and you use Tierney’s methods, the numbers drop to 426,000 offsets.

And it just gets better. Bottled water sales grew 7.4% in the U.S. last year. Not only that, Americans use many, many other types of recyclable plastic bottles – including detergent bottles, by the millions (or billions?). In other words – many more hundreds of thousands of greenhouse gas offsets between London and New York!

Of course, not all of those bottles are actually collected for recycling. In the U.S., the rate is around 30%, annually (but growing). So we’re probably talking around 340,000 offsets for round-trip flights between New York and London. Which, to put it differently:

Americans recycle enough plastic water bottles every year to offset the carbon emissions generated by the entire population of Anaheim, California flying round-trip between New York and London, annually.

If we collect and recycle more bottles, that’s even more offsets (get to 400,000, and we’ve offset my hometown of Minneapolis). What could be better?

Now, I have no idea why Tierney left out this key context from his piece. Maybe he didn’t think to look it up. Or maybe, as I suspect, he realized it undermined his argument. Whatever the case, I find it representative of “The Reign of Recycling” – sloppy, deceptive, and lacking any kind of context for a reader not familiar with the recycling industry. I’ll have more to say soon.

[Thanks to Patty Moore of Moore Associates for the conversation that inspired this post.]

More iPhone, More Carbon.

Earlier this week, when Apple announced that it was building a solar-powered data center in Mesa, Arizona, I immediately thought of their phones. To be sure, there’s much to admire in Apple’s commitment to reducing its internal carbon footprint. But that admiration needs to be tempered by an equally relevant set of facts: the carbon emissions associated with each generation of the iPhone are actually growing.

More carbon with every bite.

More carbon with every bite.

The trend was brought to my attention in a blog post by the Restart Project, a London-based collective that promotes repair and maintenance of old products. As they point out, Apple laudably discloses carbon emissions for each of its products via publicly available environmental reports. And according to those reports, the carbon emissions associated with an iPhone have been growing with each new model, from 70kg for the 4s, to 75kg for 5s, to 95kg for the iPhone 6 (Apple doesn’t break out respective carbon emission rates for the 6 and the 6 Plus) that was selling –  according to Apple – 34,000 units per hour during its last reported quarter. That’s a whopping 35% increase in per iPhone carbon emissions over three phone generations.

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What Does San Diego Have Against Recycling, Free Enterprise, and the American Way?

For more than a decade, Gary Ries of Mission Hills, California, has spent his spare time earning money by picking recyclable cans and bottles from trash cans owned by the city of San Diego. Under most definitions, this is laudable entrepreneurship and everyone wins: Ries makes a few extra bucks, San Diego trucks a few less pounds of trash to the landfill, and, well, recycling!


However, according to a report by ABC 10 in San Diego, the city of San Diego doesn’t quite see it that way: “The city of San Diego says that once an item enters a trash can on city property, it becomes property of the city.”

So, rather than laud Ries – or, better yet, just leave him the @#$% alone – the city of San Diego has decided to make him miserable. Last weekend, they twice issued $150 citations against him. And if he doesn’t stop recycling the city’s landfill-bound cans and bottles? The police officer who harassed him the first time around will “arrest him, take him to jail and have his bail set at $5,000.”


But it gets worse. San Diego isn’t merely concerned that Ries is stealing their garbage. They’re worried about liability if “someone gets hurt digging through the trash,” as well as identity theft (ie, the city is protecting people who might leave bank statements in San Diego’s beach-side garbage cans). Or, in the words of Jose Ysea, spokesman for the city of San Diego Environmental Services Department: “it’s more to protect the residents and the community at large.” Continue reading

Scenes from a Junkyard Planet: What Ultimately Happens to that New Car Smell.

During the run-up to the November 12 release of my first book, Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade, every weekday I’m posting a new photo taken during my decade of reporting on the global waste, recycling, refurbishment, and repair trade. Today’s scene was photographed at an Indiana scrap yard in 2011 by my wife (we were dating then, and that was my idea of a fun date). Click to enlarge:


These cars are a small percentage of the roughly 11 million cars that Americans decided they didn’t want, anymore, in 2011. And that was a down year, in terms of unloading old cars, mostly due to the recession (when people are more likely to repair than buy new). In a strong economy, when Americans are more likely to buy cars, they’ll get rid of as many as 14 million old sets of wheels per year. Yet, despite this unbelievable volume, most Americans – and most reporters – don’t give more than a second thought to what happens to all that metal, plastic, oil, rubber and other materials when it all hits the junkyard. But here’s the thing: by weight, all of those American automobiles are the most recycled products in the United States today. How? The answer solved one of the most intractable environmental problems facing twentieth-century North America (and, later, the world), and this week’s scenes will provide some insights into the process.

Scenes from a Junkyard Planet: Viva American Scrap

During the run-up to the November 12 release of my first book, Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade, every weekday I’m posting a new photo taken during my decade of reporting on the global waste, recycling, refurbishment, and repair trade. Today’s image is the classic American scrap yard, from above. Click to enlarge:


A 2011 image taken atop a metal shredder in Fort Wayne, Indiana, looking out at a small percentage of the 74 million metric tons of scrap iron and steel that Americans handed off to recyclers that year. These piles include everything from swing sets to car bodies to the steel siding peeled off the shed in somebody’s backyard. Sixty percent of the steel manufactured in the United States comes from recycled resources, and almost all of those recycled resources come from places like this. Your home recycling bin provides less than 1 percent. This is not the sort of place that most environmentalists would describe as the vanguard of sustainability, but without it – and places like it – the world be a dirtier, and far less interesting place.

Previous ‘Scenes from a Junkyard Planet’ can be found here.

Don’t Trust the UN with Your Recycling (rates).

Every week I receive at least one query asking me for pointers on finding statistics regarding how much China recycles on an annual basis. And, for the most part, my answer is the same: check Google, or check the trade publications. For example, a simple google search will reveal that China generated and recycled around 90 million metric tons of iron and steel scrap in 2010a volume greater than the steel produced in all but two countries (China and Japan). And if you’re lucky enough to have a subscription to Scrap Magazine, or Recycling International, you would’ve learned, in the Jan/Feb issues of both magazines, respectively, that China generated and recycled 2.32 million metric tons of its own – not imported! – aluminum in 2009 – a volume greater than the total steel manufactured in all but two countries (China and Russia). Below, an image taken at a large-scale, highly efficient aluminum scrap processing operation in South China (by me).

So one would reason, I think, that if an organization – say, the United Nations Environmental Programme – were interested in conducting a study to determine the worldwide recycling rates of all of the metals on the periodic table, that organization would want to get some Chinese experts – industry, government, trade associations – in on the preparation. And that’s precisely what the United Nations Environment Programme claimed to do when, two weeks ago, it released a study claiming to show global rates of recycling for metals. The report is downloadable, and it includes this very simple explanation of its methodology: Continue reading

Recycle Rare Earths at Home, with a Screwdriver.

Let’s call this a lesson in avoiding absolutes.

Below, two versions of a component in every hard disk drive. The circled components – the valuable, important components – are magnets of the (capital R, capital E) Rare Earth variety. That is to say, they are magnets manufactured, in part, by adding a dash of the mysterious elements that my colleagues in the media have rendered quasi-mystical, and the Chinese have rendered more valuable via (reportedly, export bans). I show them, in part, to clear up the mystery. So here, dear readers, circled in red, are examples of the rare earth actuator magnets present in pretty much every hard drive on the planet (stay in your seats, please).

I bring them up, also, because, based upon some of the things that have been written about rare earths over the last few months, one might have the impression that the recycling and recovery of rare earths – in part to deal with Chinese export restrictions – is something that requires high-tech. But, of course, based upon the above photo, you can pretty much judge for yourself: the only technology necessary to recover the rare earth magnets in a hard drive (how many hundreds of millions?) is a screw-driver. And that’s precisely how it’s done in one part of Malaysia, where this photo was taken: workers disassemble hard drives, pull out the magnets, and return them to the manufacturers. And the workers do this for roughly US$300/month – a more than sufficient living wage in that region (but not, I’ll admit, for someone who eats organic in San Francisco). Continue reading