Saturday, December 06, 2008

take out those papers and the trash

The Coasters had a kitschy hit in 1958 and if you grew up watching television in the late 80's, the heyday of Time-Life Music collections, then chances are that you heard the chorus of this song at least once. "Yakety yak! Don't talk back."

The whole basis of Yakety Yak is to list the chores for a particularly sassy teenager along with the consequences for not doing them. An excerpt lyric:
If you don't sweep that kitchen floor
You ain't gonna rock 'n' roll no more
The song also includes a fun saxophone track played by King Curtis. The chorus line is probably the most well known part of the song with the group singing the teenager's response to the list, "Yakety Yak!" followed by a bass singing "Don't talk back." And if you click that Yakety Yak link above, you can actually listen to the song (followed by some weird electronica stuff) and read the lyrics.

To apparently completely switch gears on you here, I'd like to talk about recycling. Recycling is something that I do with fervor. Our recycling bin fills up about every two weeks and is put out for pick up. It fills with bottles and cans, catalogs, food and shipping boxes, pretty much anything on their pick-up list. The best item that the Cobb County attached to their bid list for private waste companies was the requirement that they offer recycling pick-up. And the bonus for me is that the company doesn't require that I separate into different bins. Everything in one bin, it gets sorted at a facility. It's common for me to carry around an empty bottle after I'm done with it to put in the recycle bin at home rather than letting it end up in a landfill. Just last week, I grabbed my empty bottle that the flight attendant attempted to pick up from my tray table. I thought at the time that I might be a little over-zealous with my efforts.

I know what you're thinking. "So this is all about you? Well why don't we just give you an environmentalist of the year award?" No, I was just offering my personal experience as an example of people voluntarily recycling.

I think that a big part of the reason that I recycle has to do with my chemistry background and the fact that I like cheaper goods. Not cheap to the point where I shop exclusively at Wal-Mart or anything, but cheaper across the board. And with respect to the chemical aspect, it has something to do with understanding where the materials came from in the first place.

Paper is easy. The Chinese figured out how to take plant fibers, create a pulp from them, lay them down and dry the pulp sometime around the 2nd century AD. Papyrus existed before that, but manufacture was so difficult that it was not a practical endeavor. To oversimplify, grind up a tree, mix it up with a lot of water, lay the fibers down, and then dry the hell out of it. As my college professor stated, "Papermaking is a whole hell of a lot of water in, a whole hell of a lot of water out."

Recycling paper is a little different. They grind up wet paper product with a few extra steps to clean and remove dyes, but the problem is that it is difficult to get pristine white pulp ever again. There are methods to compensate for this color quality, but the actual physical quality of the fibers is even compromised in most recycling processes which is why a lot of products are blends of recycled and new fiber pulp. That's what "contains 30% recycled material" means when you read similar statements. But the point is, do I really need really attractive fibers for cereal boxes or corrugated cardboard, or even napkins at Wendy's? Probably not, and you may now understand why a lot of fast-food restaurants have brown napkins. They're cheaper to produce than white from raw pulp even, but chances are a good portion of them is low-modification recycled pulp. Heck, even Starbucks uses a small percentage of recycled paper (10% last I heard) for their cups. This was a big deal because it is a food service container and it was considered a big no-no to put food products in recycled containers.

Recycling paper does not mean that fewer trees are being cut down, necessarily. It does help to keep the price of some paper products down which fuels demand. The demand for lumber still exists. But it does help to keep the rate at which we cut down trees for paper purposes fairly static or lower than they otherwise would be. Not that I think cutting down trees is bad because most logging companies replant areas so they can come back in a handful of years to harvest again.

Metal cans are another easy product to recycle. This one is even easier. Melt the crap out of it, use separation process to divide dissimilar metals or to remove impurities and send it off to be made into other metal products. Sorry, but you're not going to degrade an atom in the process and the melting temperature of metals should be more than sufficient for sanitization. That's one less can we'll need to dig up from ore but more importantly it comes down to thermodynamics. Take aluminum as an example. You won't go out and find chunks of aluminum in rocks waiting to be mined and turned into cans. Instead, aluminum requires a significant input of electrical and chemical energy to be converted from aluminum compounds in ores to the simpler aluminum metal. And that's only after the ore is made soluble by other less than desirable processes. You can read more about this here, but there is a reason that aluminum was once more valuable than gold and silver.

So with metal it comes down to energy. Anyone who understands the principles of the Law of Conservation of Energy would probably agree that melting and recasting is significantly more efficient than just the extraction from ore process before it goes to be casted.

And then there's plastic. I don't think that most people understand that plastics are largely derived from petroleum products. After oil is refined, you have a lot of smaller molecules that can be thought of as individual chain links. Take those links through a few processes and you can make them link together to make a chain. That's a simplified overview of plastics, or polymers. Some plastics are not really capable of being recycled. It has to do somewhat with how the chain-links connect, like whether they make a chain-mail or whether they make spaghetti noodles, but that too is oversimplifying the process. But spaghetti noodles stand a better chance of being recyclable.

The process for recycling of plastics is similar to that of metals, but in this case, the plastics are generally presorted. Ever notice the little recycle triangle with a number in the middle, printed on pretty much every plastic product? They look like this. Those are resin codes and they tell you primarily about what type of molecular chain-links your plastic is made from. This makes it easier to keep similar plastics with one another which makes the recycling process that much easier. I've seen examples of clear plastic drink bottles made from new and recycled plastic side-by-side and was unable to discern a difference. But, it's again easier to make colored plastic from recycled materials for much the same reasons as paper. Take a bland recycled color, add a few pigments and binders, and you have a fancy colored plastic container, like this one. And once again, there are significant energy conservation benefits from recycling plastic.

This really wasn't supposed to be a treatise on why you should recycle. But you should recycle, if you aren't already. And that still isn't the point of me starting this article.

It seems that the citizens of Gwinnett County, here in metropolitan Atlanta, can now look forward to $500 fines for failure to recycle. You can read more details about that from the local paper. "Take out those papers and the trash, or you don't get no spending cash!"

I don't have a problem with asking people to recycle. I have a problem with forcing people to recycle. Especially when that force is complete with unreasonable fines and relies on the threat of government's ability to reduce personal liberty for enforcement.

So how do we go about convincing people to recycle?

Do we tax the bejeezus out of recyclable materials? I don't think that anyone could successfully argue for more taxes, especially in current economic times and when many goods suppliers rely on one or more of these materials to deliver consumer goods. And taxes are just a horrible way to modify behavior.

Do we require deposits on recyclable goods? Well, that seems more reasonable than taxes. But resources already exist for recycling in bulk and we shouldn't go about reinventing the wheel. And let's not mention the difficulty in automating the refund process when all containers are not identical. And with the lack of automation options, you have to pay someone to do the job. And where does that money come from? I think that path leads back to taxes. Again, not an option.

Do we offer education? I think this is the more viable option. I'd rather spend tax dollars making brochures, TV ads, billboards, etc. than paying some code enforcement officer to write citations all day long. And seriously, how do you inspect garbage for about 1 million citizens? It doesn't even seem realistic or plausible. And we're missing a huge opportunity to make chemistry education in our public schools relevant to everyday life. And this is also the reason for the long diatribe above. By spreading a little info, perhaps at least one person will be motivated to start recycling. And I'm not sorry if it bored the rest of you.

But perhaps, more than anything else, I don't like being forced to do something. As a matter of fact, in a lot of cases I'm defiant to the core and will try to figure out a way to not do something that has been mandated. Just look at all of the people in the business of helping people reduce their taxes. And that's certainly not the attitude that we want people to have with regards to the simple task of recycling.


Kim said...

I to it too, but you're lucky that it's picked up free of charge. My ONLY option right now is to bag it up, find a place to hold it till the bag fills up, then lug it to the recycling place. It's a pain in the butt, but I still do it.
If a pickup service were offered free of charge, I'm sure more people WOULD do it.

chris said...

It ain't free. I pay for garbage and recycling pick-up. It's just required by the county to be included with garbage service. I doubt they let us get away with not paying for it.

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