Ethanol, Recycling, Climate Change and Other Expensive Illusions

Bags of recycling are piled on a Manhattan street on April 22, 2015 in New York City. Approximately 19,000 tons of metal, glass and plastic are collected monthly by the Department of Sanitation in New York City. In an Earth Day announcement, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio said …
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The Left is always trying to claim the mantle of unimpeachable scientific authority for its causes, especially those with an academic veneer, such as environmentalism.

It should matter a great deal if their preferred policies are effective, and while we argue about the possibilities of a subject such as climate change, the effectiveness of programs which have been in place for many years should be analyzed dispassionately.

Instead, demonstrably ineffective, inefficient, and even counter-productive policies, such as biofuels and recycling, persist because they “seem right” or “feel good.” The growing movement to ban plastic bags and replace them with reusable grocery bags operates under the same nonsensical rules of engagement.

John Tierney recently wrote a lengthy analysis of recycling for the New York Timesas a follow-up to a 20-year old piece in which he first presented evidence that “recycling was costly and ineffectual.” The modern recycling regime was still fairly new in 1996, so Tierney gamely waited twenty years before assembling a larger stack of results and passing judgment on the process. He found nothing to change his conclusions:

Despite decades of exhortations and mandates, it’s still typically more expensive for municipalities to recycle household waste than to send it to a landfill. Prices for recyclable materials have plummeted because of lower oil prices and reduced demand for them overseas. The slump has forced some recycling companies to shut plants and cancel plans for new technologies. The mood is so gloomy that one industry veteran tried to cheer up her colleagues this summer with an article in a trade journal titled, “Recycling Is Not Dead!”

While politicians set higher and higher goals, the national rate of recycling has stagnated in recent years. Yes, it’s popular in affluent neighborhoods like Park Slope in Brooklyn and in cities like San Francisco, but residents of the Bronx and Houston don’t have the same fervor for sorting garbage in their spare time.

The future for recycling looks even worse. As cities move beyond recycling paper and metals, and into glass, food scraps and assorted plastics, the costs rise sharply while the environmental benefits decline and sometimes vanish. “If you believe recycling is good for the planet and that we need to do more of it, then there’s a crisis to confront,” says David P. Steiner, the chief executive officer of Waste Management, the largest recycler of household trash in the United States. “Trying to turn garbage into gold costs a lot more than expected. We need to ask ourselves: What is the goal here?”

When the CEO of the largest recycling company openly speculates that his expensive service isn’t actually delivering the sought-after environmental value, it seems like rather big news. We are always told to distrust arguments from interest – in other words, we’re supposed to instinctively distrust anything positive an oil company says about oil consumption, no matter how much rock-solid data the company can muster. Isn’t it noteworthy that a company would advance such a profound argument against interest?

As Tierney goes on to demonstrate, the environmental benefit from most recycling is absurdly small, providing the example of an air passenger who would have to recycle 40,000 plastic bottles in order to offset the carbon emissions from a single round-trip flight from New York to London.  (There must be over a thousand people a day flying that particular route, which adds up to a lot of plastic bottles.)

Also, the very act of preparing and recycling trash has a significant environmental impact, which is simply ignored by environmental evangelists, the same way they completely ignore the carbon emissions necessary to charge electric cars. Clearly, this curious religion believes that energy and emissions are sanctified based on the intentions, and inherent nobility, of the consumer.

Conversely, the evils that recycling is supposed to prevent are largely imaginary, conjurations of emotion and perception rather than cold reason. Tierney zeroes in on the alleged menace of landfills, which in reality consume very little acreage, and have minimal environmental impact with modern technology… but they look, and more importantly sound, icky. An incredible amount of wealth and productivity in America is lost on madcap efforts to avoid things that sound icky.

Biofuel, on the other hand, is a classic example of argument from corporate interest, pushed by the sort of well-connected special interests that politicians constantly rail against… but they are never portrayed that way in politicized media. Biofuels are incredibly expensive, inefficient, and sometimes downright harmful, and virtually no one would be interested in them, if the government did not force a “market” into existence with regulations.

The perennial example is ethanol, which Erik Telford inveighs against at The Federalist this week. No national politician, of either party, wants to incur the wrath of Iowa by speaking out against ethanol. It will be interesting to see if this is the one political sacred cow that even Donald Trump refuses to tip.

Of course, ethanol subsidies are welcomed by those who receive them, but Telford argues that 2016 presidential candidates “should not focus solely on the benefits this corporate welfare program has had on Iowa farmers, because it has had devastating effects for many outside of the state”:

The “corn boom” RFS created has impacted over 5 million acres of land once set aside for conservation. Landowners have filled in wetlands and have sprayed billions of pounds of fertilizer to facilitate the demand for corn to fulfill gas ethanol requirements. As a result, rivers have been contaminated and the habitat of waterfowl and other wildlife has been damaged.

Perhaps more importantly, RFS has not reduced carbon emissions—one of the primary objectives of the policy. Scientists at the University of Wisconsin found that the corn boom has released as much carbon dioxide as 34 coal power plants in one year. It turns out ethanol is not carbon-neutral, as promised, and it actually worsens gas mileage, making cars less fuel-efficient and worse for the environment.

He goes on to discuss how ethanol is a less efficient fuel than gasoline, so it hurts consumers at the pump with higher prices and increased fuel consumption, tends to damage internal-combustion engines, and raises the cost of food by consuming so much corn.

“While the RFS may be a boon to Iowa corn farmers, it’s essentially a tax on the poor, who are suffering from higher prices because of it. Plus, it’s a net negative for the environment,” Telford concludes.

But ethanol is immortal, not just because of Iowa presidential politics, but because the idea of using “renewable” biological fuels – that is, fuels that aren’t based on the biology of organisms that died millions of years ago – sounds right and feels good. As with recycling, the demonstrable effects are almost irrelevant next to the emotional fulfillment and political correctness of these expensive illusions.

So it’s been going with plastic-bag bans, which are motivated entirely by special-interest politics and junk-science boogeyman warnings about the eco-menace of plastic… which pale to insignificance compared to the very real health risks, cost, and inconvenience of reusable cloth bags.

The most recent development on this front came on Wednesday, when a plastic-bag ban was defeated in the city of Oceanside, California. As the San Diego Union-Tribune reports, a statewide ban is currently on hold pending the outcome of a November 2016 ballot referendum.

One of the residents who spoke up against the plastic bag ban noted that forcing families to employ reusable bags makes life difficult on “moms who would have to remember to bring their own bags,” pleading “give these mothers a break.”

But what does the cost, inconvenience, and illness from bags that aren’t washed thoroughly enough matter, compared to the supreme self-righteousness of the radical environmentalist? As with the carbon footprint of recycling and electric cars, or the negative environmental effects of ethanol, such considerations are simply waved aside. Cost/benefit analysis is so much easier, if you simply ignore the costs!

That’s the dirty little secret (pardon the pun) of many expensive illusions the American people are compelled to finance. It’s all about hiding the cost and stressing the benefits. That is arguably the core principle of all socialist politics, as vividly illustrated by our 2016 Democrat presidential candidates promising to conjure $20 trillion in benefits out of thin air at their debate. Many seeming reasonable, or at least tolerable, initiatives become absurd when the cost is considered, as with environmental regulations that seek impractical levels of purity at dramatically escalating cost.

Hiding the true cost of any service from consumers is fraud, which is a form of compulsion. Giving them realistic cost information and allowing them to make reasoned choices is the essence of freedom. In his recycling article, Tierney mentions a proposal to levy a modest tax of $15 per ton on landfill trash, just enough to offset environmental costs, and allowing communities to make their own decisions about recycling.

The advocates of this idea suspect there would be much less recycling, if people were given realistic cost/benefit information and free choice. That’s why it will probably never happen, especially if the public can be convinced to set an intangible “warm glow” moral value that transcends practical value. And yet, our ruling class insists they are masters of Science, and all who oppose them are unreasonable.


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