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August 08, 2007

Recycling Again

You do meet some interesting people out there on them thar blogs.

If you wanted, just as an almost random example, to discuss emissions from landfill sites, then one person you might be interested in talking to about such figures might be the person who had, until recently, been running the UK company that installs much of the equipment to capture those emissions. Seems sensible, no? Would have facts and figures at his fingertips, yes?

You can do exactly that just here.

Amazingly, the figures used to justify recycling, rather than landfill, bear no relationship whatsoever to the actual figures.

Even more questionably, from p. 13:

For each average tonne of waste which is disposed of to landfill in the UK, 81% by volume of the gaseous emissions are released to the atmosphere, 13% are flared, and 6% are used in landfill gas generating schemes (Williams, 1994 and Bellingham et al, 1994). This paper uses this average data when calculating the amount of electricity recovered. The electricity generated will displace emissions from old coal-fired power stations, and this study gives credit for these.

This probably wasn't even true in 1993 (the most recent year for which the Williams and Bellingham papers are likely to have had data). As I have mentioned before, I ran (until recently) the company that sold many of the flarestacks used on British landfills, so I know that a lot more flares went into landfills before 1993 than is usually assumed in government studies aiming to maximize the claimed reductions in landfill-gas emissions since then (which undermines the Government's claims that we are on target to meet our Kyoto obligations, but that is another story).

Whatever the case in 1993, nowadays this is absurd. The usual figure quoted for the capture-rate of methane from landfills over the lifetime of a modern, engineered landfill is about 85%. This is the figure used as standard in the government-approved model (GasSim) for estimating emissions from landfills. During the period when the gas is contained (i.e. after the phase has been "capped") and being converted (i.e. until the gas quality falls so low that it can no longer be flared), the capture rate is probably close to 100% in modern, engineered landfills. The 85% represents an allowance for emissions from the uncapped phase being tipped at any one time (the usual source of any odour), and slow seepage of the tail-end gas once it is no longer possible to flare it, by which time you are talking low volumes and low percentages of methane. Given sensible incentives, it would be possible to further reduce these emissions so that the overall capture-rate was over 90%, but let's take 85% as a reasonable average. Of that, provided that sensible incentives are maintained for its utilisation, the vast majority will be converted to electricity.

So the numbers used to justify recycling are that 81% of that methane (as we know, 23 times as powerful a climate change gas as CO2) are allowed into the atmosphere: the reality is that 85% are captured and used to generate electricity. (In fact, under the 2004 Landfill Regulations, this is now a legal requirement for all landfills.)

So, err, where does that leave the argument in favour of recycling then? Pretty much buggered I'd say.

Another delight from the report:

Landfilling of aluminium is assumed on the same page to produce 206.5 kilogrammes of methane per tonne of aluminium. Biodegradeable aluminium joins biodegradeable plastics in these academics' parallel universe. And thanks to what I can only assume is a labelling error, it is magnified by a factor of one thousand - not 206.5 g/t, but 206.5 kg/t in their scheme, or four times as much methane as is released from landfilling paper.

Now as we know, landfilling aluminium is a pretty silly thing to do as it is valuable. However, if you do end up sticking it in a hole in the ground the one thing that doesn't happen is its rotting, producing methane. It might oxidize (very slowly) but it ain't gonna produce CH4 as there is no C nor H from which to do so.

Please, somebody tell me that the whole issue is based on better science than this? Pretty please?

August 8, 2007 in Climate Change | Permalink


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Any analysis of the environmental benefits associated with recycling needs to include the full life cycle emissions of virgin resource extraction + use; not just disposal in isolation.

I haven't read the report referenced in the article, but WRAP, the government quango which looks at the benefits of recycling is of course fully aware of GasSim (although I thought that the government's assumption of current gas capture rates was 75% rather than the 85% stated above). WRAP is also aware that it is the biodegradable fraction of waste which is the methane source, and not e.g. aluminium.

Tim adds: One thing which we need to be very careful about with WRAP. The numbers used currently (x million tonnes CO2 saved) are what WRAP has founf "already extant" recycling saves. However, they're used to justify further recycling. Which isn't quite right of course: that recycling steel and aluminium saves emissions doesn't mean that recycling paper, or plastics, or food waste, do.

Posted by: JH | Aug 8, 2007 2:01:15 PM

I think you ought to admit that the government has proved pretty adept at recycling viruses, though.

Posted by: dearieme | Aug 8, 2007 5:55:46 PM

Hi Jacob,

You should read the report. It does claim to have taken resource costs of production from virgin materials into account. It provides insufficient detail to be able to check, but as the objective appears to have been to justify recycling, it is unlikely that they underestimated or forgot some of the costs of landfilling + new production.

The point of my analysis of that paper is not to argue the opposite - that landfilling is better than recycling. It is to argue that generalizations in this field are wildly inaccurate, misleading, and usually self-fulfilling. Sometimes recycling will be appropriate, sometimes composting will be appropriate, sometimes thermal treatment will be appropriate, sometimes anaerobic digestion will be appropriate, and sometimes landfilling will be appropriate. Circumstances are so variable and the information necessary for thorough LCAs in each circumstance so complex, that the really crass error is to generalize that "it's much better to recycle", or to assume that the preference should be to "reduce, reuse, recycle" and only once those options are exhausted to recover energy or dispose, rather than to simply choose the appropriate solution for the circumstance.

It is incredible that anyone with a half-critical mind could think there was any merit in transposing the specific of this report (or any other) to the general. Read the report, and see how specific these circumstances are. It's a particular mix of waste from a particular town (Milton Keynes), collected in a particular manner, handled in a particular manner, and shipped by particular means of transport (with particular assumptions of utilities), particular distances to particular destinations for particular uses. And yet despite this specificity, it's wildly inaccurate with large uncertainties and margins of error even once the most egregious mistakes have been corrected. How is one supposed to read anything into (for instance) the appropriate options for disposal of glass in Liverpool from this failed analysis of a couple of waste-disposal options for Milton Keynes? Even if it were done as accurately as possible, would it be possible to generalize from it? I think not.

We can argue about whether it should be 75% or 85% capture (and I'd agree that the truth is that no one really knows, although I think landfill operators could make a pretty good case for almost 100% capture for capped phases under extraction), but that difference is small compared to the difference between either of them and an assumption of 19% capture and 6% utilization. Can you justify anything close to those assumptions?

WRAP may be aware of all sorts of things contradictory to this report (though why, if better information is available, did Dr Dicks quote this report and not one that held more water?) but they still exist to make invalid generalizations. We have two options to overcome those false generalizations: either (a) carry out complex LCAs for every decision in every district about how to manage waste, or (b) internalize the cost of carbon through a couple of simple mechanisms (one for fossil-fuel combustion, one for other emissions of greenhouse gases like methane) and use the market to determine which is the most efficient solution in the circumstances. The market is your friend where there are many independent actors, information is diffuse, and conditions may vary. As the efficiency or otherwise of various waste solutions depends not just on the circumstances of each locality but on the behaviour of individual householders and constantly varying external factors (such as the supply/cost of energy and carbon, and the demand for and price of the various potential recyclates), I'd say there is no practical option but to forget the generalizing, whether on national or local scales, scrap WRAP and most of the Government's dirigiste waste strategy, and go with option (b).

Posted by: bgp | Aug 8, 2007 7:56:23 PM


Absolutely excellent. The only thing I'd emphasize is that, since the conditions you mention (independent actors, diffuse information, varying conditions) are nearly universally present, the market is always "your friend."

The market is more than a friend. It is, via the price structure, the principal and unerring connection of every civilized man with the mind and plans of fellow men. It's nearly impossible for coercive interference with this system to produce anything other than general waste and impoverishment. The chiefest (but not at all humorous) irony is that those who most suffer resultant deprivation are neither the regulators nor immediate targets of their interference but rather invisible, barely-surviving populations in certain places "at the margin."

I was recently reminded of the utter and iredeemable stupidity of both the legislative and bureaucratic mind-set in quite another context.

On Sunday evening, busy with weekend returnees, it took 3 hours and 10 minutes to make 16 miles on a 6 (and sometimes 8)-lane road, blocked by toll booths for a $2 fare. I rarely make that trip but it's regular for tens of thousands. An average vehicle carries three + persons and one or two with average wage in excess of $15/hr. (Who, presumably, value leisure even more than working hours.) Not to mention fuel wasted in 3 hours idling. A triumph of sorts was institution of special lanes for subscription "passholders" to speed traffic throught the gauntlet; instead, the mass of traffic merely insures that a goodly portion of the confusion is due simply to the passholders' need to get into lanes set aside for them, begging (and cursing) their crawl against and through the rest of the lines.

There is absolutely nothing that government cannot mess up beyond belief.

And, by the way, for those who've made it thus far: my guess is that the figures for paper recycling are used to make "the numbers" for recycling look artificially favorable. That is to say, better than 75% of all paper (and cardboard) was being recycled long before the recycling crowd was born--it formed the basis of a regular business, sans regulation (or subsidy). The costs of the modern version of recycling (including but not limited to the sorting-time of trash-service users) is not offset by the proceeds from that entirety of paper recovery--but just the amount by which the newer version exceeds the former.

Posted by: gene berman | Aug 8, 2007 10:04:39 PM

Thanks Gene. Of course you're right - there is no need for the conditional ("where...") with regard to the joy of markets, other than in a few exceptional circumstances. That will be my British subconscious trying to interpose itself in my train of thought for a second - incomprehension or suspicion of markets being a characteristic feature of the British mindset nowadays.

Or, thinking about it, perhaps it needed a different conditional, rather than no conditional. It should have been "where the framework of the market provides rational signals, based on property rights, and unskewed by government attempts to incentivize 'social' objectives (other than for the purposes of internalizing a limited number of externalities)". We suffer in Britain at the moment from a rash of so-called "market mechanisms", where the Government tries to deliver its objectives through incentives rather than coercion. This sounds fine, but these "market mechanisms" usually incorporate rules that are so complex and irrational that they incentivize irrational choices by those who are subject to them. There is a tendency amongst our centrist politicians of all hues, who profess to believe in markets because they think it helps them get elected but who don't really understand or like markets, to think that any market is a valid market, and that you can give a mechanism a veil of economic legitimacy simply by incorporating incentives. Whereas the reality is that a bad market is worse than no market at all.

My sympathy on your travel woes. We are certainly not immune from transport-pricing madness in the UK. But then again, you have Michael Moore (who I believe is currently arguing the exact opposite of your claim that "there is absolutely nothing that government cannot mess up beyond belief"), so I guess we all have our crosses to bear.

Posted by: bgp | Aug 9, 2007 1:15:30 AM