Recycling: Are Penn & Teller right?

You are correct, there is no shortage of trees. The problem is the supply of economically accessible trees. The forests close to civilization have already been heavily logged. Sure there are lots of trees left, but if they are hundreds of miles from the nearest road, there is no money to be made in logging them.

Sound forest management practices are a relatively recent thing. For many years companies did just cut without a thought to the future. Things have changed for the better, but from planting to harvesting takes decades, so it will be a long time until we begin to reap the benefits of more sensible logging practices. Plant potatoes today, and how long before you can harvest and sell them? We’re talking vastly different time frames here.

There’s also the fact that reforested areas are generally monocultures (all one type of tree) and thus more susceptible to large impacts from disease, less able to provide diverse habitat etc. Loss of biodiversity is an issue.

Continuing with the loss of biodiversity theme, a forest plantation can also have problems with soil nutrients, which can make it more expensive to the farmer. Plots that are continued logged over and over can also greatly affect watershed areas and cause problems with erosion/drainage; they also might inadvertently devastate local organism populations.

I had the opportunity to tour my local recycling plant about two months ago. They recycle newspaper/ cardboard, a couple types of plastic, and a couple different kinds of glass.

As a poster mentioned earlier, many of the plastics are used in fabrics and furniture that is great for parks, decks, etc (no need to paint, holds up to the elements well, no rotting, etc). There has been a lot of advancement in making cheaper and more aesthetically pleasing furniture. They are alsocreating plastic “beams” for lessening the need for wood in buildings, but I believe it is not yet allowed to be used as main beams because of support difficulties.

Crushed plastic can also be mixed with leftover materials and pave/layer roads and sites at landfills. They said most of the paper went to make paperboard like cereal boxes and toilet paper.

Our plant also said they had to meet a certain quota every month or pay something like a base $2000 plus $200 per ton to the local government (Don’t hold me to that number, I can’t remember exactly). So far they have yet to experience a deficit…

I’m not sure what the original/ongoing cost is to the tax payer. I guess it’s all one’s perspective, but I think it’s worth it.

To build on what Lionel Hutz said:

Paper is made of cellulose. Trees are an excellent source of cellulose. Used paper is also a source of cellulose. That’s what recycling is. There are a variety of plants that are regularly used in other parts of the world to get cellulose for paper, including grasses and hemp.

The advantages of using plants other than trees may include:

–Faster time from planting to harvest. Instead of waiting decades to harvest the cellulose from the tree, you can harvest in a matter of months.
–More cellulose per acre. A tree contains a lot of cellulose, but over the decades that it would have taken the tree to grow to maturity, the land may well yield far more than one tree’s worth.
–Less fuel to turn the plant into paper. To harvest a tree and get it to the mill requires a lot of heavy equipment and fuel. Other plants can be easier to harvest and transport. Other plants can be much easier to turn into pulp than wood is.
–More local production. The tree farms owned by the big paper mills are in remote locations. Other cellulose plants can be produced on smaller farms in more locations. So, not only can transportation costs be reduced, but the cellulose can reasonably be produced on smaller parcels of land. This means reduced costs for the paper mills and/or potentially profitable crops for local farmers.
–Producing cellulose on smaller parcels interspersed with land being used for other things avoids the monoculture problems mentioned by above posters.

So why aren’t we doing this? Inertia, for one thing. The paper industry, in its current form, is extremely profitable. Now that appropriate forest management measures are being taken, green thinkers such as myself are relatively satisfied. Also, the mills are set up to handle wood. Starting to use another input would require a lot of engineering and re-tooling costs.

But really, the logging industry is dangerous, expensive, and while it has improved its environmental record, it’s not good either. Lots of people have found a way to make money on paper made without cutting down another tree–using old paper to make new products. We might have plenty of trees, but tree-free paper might well be cheaper and better for the environment in the long run.

To sum up–the problem is not in using trees to make paper. The problem is using only trees to make paper.

The point that Penn and Teller made was that the trees used to make paper are from tree farms, not from virgin forests, so that logging of these trees does not result in making anything worse so far as biodiversity or forest loss is concerned.

I understand kudzu makes great paper…

Here in British Columbia where pulp and paper is really big business, there are still a great deal of old growth forests being cut down. Granted the forest industry is getting better, but it is nowhere near at a level where they are only logging second growth trees.

Thanks for that info. I wonder what the situation is in the United States. I’ll have to admit, I generally have had respect for Penn and Teller, but I’m really interested to see a point-by-point analysis of the claims that they made in this episode. As I said before, if recycling programmes really are more harmful than beneficial, that’s a serious policy consideration. I certainly am disappointed that they took the attitude that those in favour of mandatory recycling are merely in it to tell people what to do.

Well, I know I’ve decided to dedicate my career to solid waste reduction purely to tell other people what to do. The sheer power of it all surely makes up for the low pay and almost nonexistent advancement opportunities … :rolleyes:

I can’t find a transcript of the show, but this response from Environmental Defense to a 1996 article “Recycling is Garbage” hits most of the high points of the usual arguments. I know, it’s old, and Environmental Defense isn’t exactly an unbiased source - but I’m not sure who is these days.

Green Bean, I could not agree more about the composting! I just don’t know how to get people to do it at home. My experience has been that residents are happy to take yard waste somewhere, and even to pay to get rid of it - but mention building a compost pile, and most of them shut right down. I don’t know if it is a function of “my neighbors will think it’s ugly” or “I think it’s ugly” or “composting is voodoo that I don’t know how to do” or “it’s too much work” or something else altogether. Even just leaving grass clippings on the lawn has so much impact in terms of waste reduction and putting nutrients back into the system, it’s even easier than bagging and trashing … and yet it’s a hard sell.

Winkie, I wonder if people tend to think of composting as Something That Only Gardeners Know How to Do–arcane mystical knowledge that is not available to ordinary shmoes? Really, if you throw the stuff in a pile it will decompose eventually–my own pile is hardly scientific*–but people don’t seem to realize. Also I bet they’re afraid it will smell bad.

*And clearly visible from the living room, which I feel kind of dumb about. :smack:

acsenray: Thanks for expanding on my post and expressing my position better than I might have done myself.

If you read anti-environmentalist tracts closely, you’ll see that one of their favorite tactics is to cite data that is ten years or more out of date, because the more recent data just doesn’t say what they want it to say. A recent spate of articles claiming that wind power could never be cost-effective was based entirely on data about the output of the models of windmills that were being built in the early 90’s, with no mention of the fact that today’s windmills generate up to three times as much power.

Thanks for the compliment.

/Quercus arrives huffing and puffing/
Gosh guys, why didn’t you tell me you’re in the Café ? I got here as soon as I could once I found out!

A bunch of comments:
The basics responses to ‘recycling is a fraud’ have been covered, perhaps best by the Perfect Master himself four years ago. It may bear repeating that regular trash disposal costs taxpayers money anyway, so a recycling program doesn’t have to turn a direct profit to be financially worthwhile, it just has to cost less overall than regular trash disposal.

Two tree points:
One, even if most wood and pulp comes from forests dedicated to production, it doesn’t mean that conserving/recycling paper isn’t a good thing. A well-managed forest isn’t a disaster, but there are plenty of other things to do with that land and the resources used to manage it, right?

Second, there are a lot of fairly misleading and not very useful statistics about ‘the number of trees in the U.S. today is higher than in 1900’ or whatever. The short explanation is that in 1800, most farming was done in New England and the East, which are naturally forested. By the early 1900s, most farming had moved to the midwest, which was naturally grassland, and the abandoned farms in the east regrew into forests. In both places, we’re continually using up undeveloped land for houses, highways, and WallMarts.
So bottom line, since 1800, we’ve used up quite a lot of land to build houses and other development, and the pace of this is only increasing. At the same time, we’ve moved farming from tree-land to grass-land, leading to a temporary increase in trees at the expense of grasses. Not real environmental improvement there.

And finally, no offense to Rex, but saying
‘I have always felt that recycling is a waste - this show “proved” it to me.’ doesn’t lead me to think you’re going to ever be convinced by rational argument.

Unfortunately, this is also my impression of Penn and Teller’s attitude, from the scraps of bulls**t that I’ve seen.

My impression was that Penn & Teller were attacking the vague claim that recycling, overall, was profitable - and did fairly point out those areas where it currently is profitable. So there is no big deal comparing recycling with traditional garbage removal - both cost money, but nobody claims that you can make money in garbage removal (Mr. Tony Soprano excepted). Also keep in mind that this is supposed to be entertainment, not just a high school documentary. So they take extreme views and present them forcefully.

I’ve never heard anyone making such a claim. This episode is beginning to look like a textbook case of Straw Man fallacy.

For most of the first season, their targets were things for which no rational case could be made: so-called mediums like John Edward, homeopathy, bottled water. Things that were essentially outright frauds in one form or another, even if some practioners were well-meaning but self-deluded. (I don’t consider Edward to be either. He’s a knowing fraud, IMO.) I didn’t have so much of a problem with P&T’s free and easy manner in dealing with these things. I also think they were a lot more restrained, fair, and playful.

The current season has taken on far more political targets: drug prohibition, PETA, and now recycling. Moreso than their earlier topics, these are areas in which people can have reasonable differences of opinion. They are also areas about which more people feel strongly.

On the first two of these, I happened to agree with their position. It was only when they hit something I believe in (but like ascenray, am willing to question) that I squawked. So I may be a bit of a hypocrite, but I think they crossed a line with the recycling show. The facts here (and perhaps in some of the other shows that I agreed with) are not as cut and dried as they presented them. I think they deliberately distorted the discussion, and they definitely poisoned the well with their smear of the “power-mad enviromentalists.”

It’s really a shame to see P&T using the smarmy tactics of O’Reilly, Hannity and Faux News.

I take it you’re not a Westerner or you’d know this is not true. There are numerous forests near “civilization” and the trees are easily accessible. And if they aren’t accessible, it’s very easy to make roads to get them. We are not in danger of running out of trees to cut (or easily accessible forests) any time soon.

While I admit that sustainable forestry is relatively recent, that doesn’t matter. Back in 1986 my grandfather had to clearcut a section of land. He didn’t replant it. Today that land has a very thick forest on it (it would be thicker if I hadn’t thinned it ten years ago) which was a result of natural processes. Similarly, my family did a lot of clear cutting of forests in the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s with no re-planting, and the land that was clear cut is indistinguishable from other forest land now. To think that forests won’t regrow because of bad logging practices in the past is unrealistic.

Actually, from the numbers I’ve seen (which only accounts for trees grown on U.S. Forest Service land – though this accounts for a vast amount of U.S. forestland), it’s that more trees are being grown per acre than in the past. There is about the same amount of acreage of forestland, but the amount of trees being grown on that has increased dramatically, due mainly to the reduction in logging and fire supression techniques. Of course, whether this is a good or bad thing is a topic for a different discussion.

I’ve toured a lot of these forests and have not found this to be true at all. In fact, most forests that have been replanted have a variety of species in them and are very similar to natural forests.

I’m interested to hear more about this. Does anyone have figures on, say, pollution genenerated per ton of paper made from new vs. recycled material?

Logging trucks are heavy. Building and maintaing a logging road is expensive. I wouldn’t call it easy. At some point, the distance between the forest and the market becomes too great and it isn’t economically feasible to do it.

Yes, they regrow. But you don’t get back exactly what was originally taken. You get species that do well in open spaces, which tend to be looked on as ‘weeds’ by the forest companies. (i.e. not worth any money). They grow more spread out, not tall and straight like the original (and much more valuable) trees. Generally you get back about the same volume of wood, but it’s much less valuable than what was originally taken out. This is especially true if the original logging took only the valuable trees and left behind the crap ones. These would be the seed source for the new crop, which would then be significantly inferior.