Environmentalist "command and control" - Sorcerers Apprentice?

These four slides show four markets which environmentalists might wade into with accidental confidence if they distrust the free market, or fail to finish their math.

First, an actual example I was involved in during the 1990s. We wanted to increase recycling of office paper by increasing the price offered for the scrap paper. The idea was for the US government (GSA) to increase the post-consumer recycled content of printing and writing paper in order to create demand for office paper. That required de-inking investments from paper mill engineering companies, such as Beloit, as the tolerance for a dark spot on printing and writing paper was very low. Previously, the growth in the market for "Sorted White Ledger" (SWL) had been the toilet paper industry, which had very high tolerances for relatively shorter fibers and some of the dark spots from deinking. The demand by the GSA had the effect of increasing the percentage of toilet paper made from trees.

In the second slide, plastic supply-demand is considered. First, the post-consumer plastic recycling infrastructure was way behind the market for paper, glass, and metals, and plastic seemed really "high tech" to those of us old enough to have seen "The Graduate" in movie theaters. What I later learned was that plastic recycling was hampered in large part because, unlike metals or fiber, the polymers are a biproduct of fuel (gasoline) refining. When you make gasoline from raw petroleum, you get this stuff that makes good plastic. If you are making diesel, you are probably creating a different byproduct for a different plastic. If you cut demand for plastic, they keep making it, like curds keep coming out so long as we are buying whey. That is just one reason that the plastic recycling market lagged behind a bit. More important for these slides is what created postconsumer plastic recycling. It was not created by demand for the material, it was created at the back end AFTER collection - of bottle bill material. The bottle bills helped hasten the transition from glass to plastic (since stores and distributors now had to handle it twice, it doubled the handling issues associated with glass). Once the plastic PETE bottles started accumulating in bales, someone was able to experiment on them as a feedstock which was scaleable - much easier to finance than "if you build it (demand) they will come". Waste bans and collections at MRFs created the same supply-availability investments for HDPE, and film (LDPE) began to follow the same chains. However, those pesky styrene yoghurt containers were still in the waste stream. So some governments heard a pitch that you could make them into lumber. The problem with that? Not enough 4-7 plastic to make enough lumber to capitalize the investment. They had to try to chase back PETE and HDPE - where the resins were out-paid for because they had the higher added value of polymerization. The mixed lumber largely failed for the same reason that waste-to-energy and re-conversion to petroleum engineering fails... it is backwards yardage to take #1 and #2 and #3 plastics - which account for over 90% of the postconsumer recycling stream - and de-polymerize them.

Third example, AAARRRRGGH. ROHS or lead free solder. The free market had gotten very efficient with lead, capturing 85% of it, and most lead made is made from recycled sources like auto batteries. But lead is toxic. So to protect the pristine landfills in the rich countries, the rich nations of the EU dictated that the tiny amount of lead used in solder should be replaced by something non-toxic... which turns out to be silver and tin. Whenever silver is recovered, it goes into jewelry, so there's no way the added demand doesn't increase mining. Tin mining happens in places like Malaysia and Borneo, where it destroys things like rain forests and coral reefs. So, reducing the toxicity of the solder is improving the landfill at the expense of the coral reef. And the mining of tin produces more lead as a biproduct and effluent (also mercury) than was in the solder to begin with. A total failure.

Fourth example, a "modest proposal" following the same logic. How about a 100% organic, 100% reuseable, 100% non-toxic packaging material? Baby seal pelts. Or baby polar bear pelts. We could substitute it for practically any packaging, no one would throw them away afterwards.

Walt Kelley of Pogo had the best line, spoken by an environmmentalist swamp critter.

"We have met the enemy, and he is us!"

No comments: