Is recycling worth it?
November 29, 2004 8:51 AM   Subscribe

Is this claim made over in the blue actually accurate? ("When you recycle, you're working for Tony Soprano.") To what extent is the whole recycling process just makework?
posted by luser to Society & Culture (14 answers total)
b1trot: "I don't think anyone actively mines iron ore anymore." Oh yes they do: 1, 2.
posted by mcwetboy at 9:09 AM on November 29, 2004

There was a time when the Gambino and Genovese families had ties to labor organizations and sanitation companies, but efforts by state and federal authorities have helped in weakening the outfits. Rudy Giuliani helped enforce some of the crackdowns, back when he served as the Attourney General for New York's southern district.

You can find more information at the following links:

Google cache of Geocities site on NY crime families
bio of Giuliani
Consumers Union archive page on waste management and carting
posted by Smart Dalek at 9:12 AM on November 29, 2004

Another good question is "are garbage collection businesses still criminal enterprises?"
A question that's been asked before.
posted by Acetylene at 9:12 AM on November 29, 2004

Cecil Adams addresses this question here. At least part of it: is recycling "makework"? He doesn't specifically address the influence of organized crime.

The article contains three links. I haven't reviewed them yet, but it seems like they should be just what you're looking for. One is a 1996 NYT article, which according to Adams was the impetus for much of the recent criticism of recycling. He also includes links to responses from the Environmental Defense Fund and the National Resource Defense Council.

You'll probably need to read the three references as Adams' article is brief and incomplete, in my opinion.
posted by stuart_s at 9:16 AM on November 29, 2004

on the digression regarding the mining of iron ore - I've taken the tour of LKAB Kiruna Mine and it is truly awe inspiring. The tour is great as well, if you ever find yourself in the area. It's not far from the original Icehotel either, if you need a place to stay.

I read in their literature (sorry, can't find the reference) that the company as a whole uses a non-trivial percent of Sweden's total power output - something like 2%.
posted by true at 9:54 AM on November 29, 2004

I was once out on my apartment balcony at three in the morning having a smoke when a garbage truck pulled up to the curb. The garbage man (or, if you prefer, 'Sanitation Engineer') tossed the regular garbage into the back of the truck and then proceeded to chuck the recycling in with the regular garbage, too.

Ever since then I've felt that curbside recycling is a bit of a scam.
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 10:04 AM on November 29, 2004

Some recycling is make work is an attempt to get pass the chicken/egg problem. Waste Oil is a classic example. At one time we were getting paid more to take waste oil away than the oil originally cost. Now people pay for waste oil. PET is another. Lots of stuff is now made from post consumer waste but twenty years ago there was no market because suppliers couldn't guarentee an adequate supply.

Virgin iron commands a premium as there are some things (roll cages, tools steels for example) you don't want contaminated with adulterants which can appear in large quantites in recycled iron. For example I've heard of iron with so much copper(source: wiring in car bodies) that the copper formed a big ball of molten copper in the crucible when melting. Copper isn't really soluble in iron the way say nickel or moly is.
posted by Mitheral at 10:16 AM on November 29, 2004

Many arguments that recycling is unnecessary makework are based on incomplete analysis of the full lifecycle of the recycled materials.

Take, for example, the aluminum soda can. One sometimes hears the argument that sending a truck around to pick up the can is a wasteful use of fuel. But the can has to be transported somewhere: even if we were just throwing it out, we'd still need to send a truck around to pick it up.

That makes the biggest relevant consideration the amount of energy required. It turns out that turning ore into aluminum requires a truly astonishing amount of energy -- so much so that recycling soda cans pays for itself on the saved energy costs.
posted by grimmelm at 10:36 AM on November 29, 2004

Fuzzy Monster: There are two possibilities to that story other than "it's a scam." One, it could be a split truck that has two loaders. Two, they could separate it out at the sanitation facility. I've lived in places where both happened. Or it could be a scam.
posted by dame at 11:05 AM on November 29, 2004

That's specifically addressed in the FAQ for Toronto's recylcing programs, in fact. They apparently received a lot of complaints when they started using split trucks, from people who were watching from their windows and could only see that both went in the back of the truck, not where they went.
posted by jacquilynne at 1:05 PM on November 29, 2004

I've lived in several places that have garbage service that sort recyclables from the main trash stream as a public service and/or additional revenue.

Though, where I'm living in LA now very, very few recyclable items with deposits on them ever make it to the facility, as there are roving armies of folks that make their meager living picking them out and turning them in for the deposit. I try to make it a habit to put my recyclables aside in a seperate bag to make it easier for said folks to collect them. A big bag of plastic or aluminum can be worth a half a bug to a couple of bucks, and they're relatively happy to find something presorted for them they don't have to dig through stinky muck to get at. I don't generate a whole lot of recyclables, though.
posted by loquacious at 1:07 PM on November 29, 2004

dame, jacquilynne: my faith in curbside recycling has been restored. Thank You!
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 1:16 PM on November 29, 2004

On the aluminium can issue - production of aluminium from bauxite uses up to 10% of the total electricity generated in Australia (in Victoria in particular). Melting down the cans and making new ones uses a hell of a lot less.

Also, since plenty of products made from recycled materials (paper etc.) are in everyday use, one would assume they're sourcing the materials from somewhere, so the paper you recycle clearly isn't all ending up in landfill.
posted by Jimbob at 3:12 PM on November 29, 2004

Apropos recycling iron:

I once worked for a Swedish/UK company that recycled scrap stainless steel.

They had a pit, larger than an olympic swimming pool, into which scrap metal was dumped. Then they passed current through this big pile of metal until it glowed red, and melted.

It was like watching the world's largest fuse blow. Very cool.

I mention it to give some sense of the kind of energy used in these processes - recycling metal isn't cheap, but I'd bet it's better than refining ore.
posted by Leon at 8:00 AM on November 30, 2004

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