Save the Earth: Don't Recycle?

On his FAQ page, Trevor Blackwell suggests that you can partially offset your personal carbon footprint by landfilling any paper you happen to use, as well as yard waste, kitchen scraps, and the like. Ideologically I'm on the fence on this one. I'm something of a treehugger, but I also get annoyed by the sort of feel-good do-nothing environmentalism that pervaded the popular consciousness in the early 90's. I'm skeptical, so I thought I'd take a look at the numbers.

In 2003, global carbon emissions amounted to 6.8 billion tons. Global paper production amounted to 255 million tons. Even if treated as a pure "carbon equivalent", sequestering all paper produced that year could offset only about 3.7% of global carbon emissions. The carbon content is probably similar to that of cellulose, in other words about half by weight. Still, a percent or three is nothing to sneeze at.

As an aside, I think it's pretty clear that reducing paper use reduces the amount of carbon pumped into in the atmosphere. Paper-grade wood probably costs about $0.10/pound in smallish quantities (i.e. by the cord for firewood), whereas paper costs about ten times that (or so says Froogle), and probably most of that cost is either directly or indirectly related to energy consumption (and hence carbon emissions). So making extra paper to bury is probably a losing strategy when it comes to sequestering carbon.

Therefore Blackwell's argument hinges on two premises: that recycling paper doesn't consume significantly less energy than producing "virgin" paper, and that paper buried in a landfill releases it's carbon significantly more slowly than the forest from whence it came.

The first premise is somewhat shaky. The production process itself uses 60% less energy from scrap paper than from virgin fiber (I can't confirm this statistic on the web from it's supposed source). Curbside collection uses additional fuel, since you have twice as many trucks driving the same distance, albeit less heavily loaded and/or less frequently. But trucking trees from a forest to a pulp mill doesn't happen for free either. I'm going to call the transport energy roughly a wash, and hence the overall energy balance is clearly in favor of recycling.

The second premise is a bit more solid, given that newspapers buried in landfills are typically still legible after half a century. However the time scales for carbon sequestration to be considered successful are somewhat longer (converting the paper to charcoal might be an answer, but that still involves separating it from the MSW).

Trevor's scheme is basically a way to use trees as CO2 collectors while making themselves temporarily useful as TPS reports. I wholeheartedly agree with this general principle, but I'm not convinced the sequestered carbon from a sheet of paper "pays" for the extra energy required to pulp the trees versus shredding, de-inking, and the other steps needed to prepare recycled paper for use in paper production.

Recycling economics are such that for anything (found in MSW) other than Aluminum cans, recycling neither saves much money nor costs much extra. Factoring atmospheric carbon into the question, in my mind, doesn't change the answer much either. Given that recycling can be kind of a pain in the ass, I guess I can get behind people like Trevor not bothering to do it.

For me personally however, I pay for garbage disposal, but not for disposal of recyclables. I loosely fill two or three kitchen bags a month at home, with the majority of my household waste (at least by weight) going into two or three recycling bins. So I'm not about to cough up extra dough (for more frequent garbage pickups) just so that I can sequester at best a small fraction of a fairly trivial amount of carbon.


At 3:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What is paper recycling good for anyways? paper is a completely renewable material. Burn it up -> co_2 -> new forests

start recycling the oil instead

At 10:56 AM, Blogger Scottish Trust Deeds said...

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At 10:42 AM, Anonymous Tobi said...

If your newspaper in the landfill happens to be trapped somewhere where there is moisture but not enough oxygen, it produces methane (CH4), a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. Methane emissions from landfills are a serious issue. One more point in favour of recycling.


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