Monthly Archives: January 2014

Third-Best Option

“Recycling is better—I won’t write “good”—for the environment…Placing a box or can in a recycling bin doesn’t mean you’ve recycled anything, and it doesn’t make you a better, greener person: it just means you’ve outsourced your problem….if that realization leaves you feeling bad, there’s always the alternative: stop buying so much crap in the first place.” — Adam Minter, in “Junkyard Planet”.

JunkyardPlanet cover

If Adam Minter has a main point in his fascinating new book, it might be this—recycling isn’t a free lunch. While better than putting material in landfills, there are costs associated with recycling that can’t be ignored. And if he has a second major point, it is probably that the huge, billion-dollar global scrap trade is driven nearly entirely by market forces. You can put your newspapers or plastic bottles into a recycling bin, but if market conditions aren’t such that profits can be made, then that material will often wind up in a landfill. And, in a tremendous number of cases, it is conditions in China, and other developing countries, that allow those profits to be made.

Along the way, he has some truly amazing stories. As the son of a scrapyard operator, and a journalist for trade magazines in this field, he seems highly-qualified to tell these tales, and his stories about what happens to our trash and recycling are fascinating. A very-short version of some salient and interesting points—In 1970, there were 40 million abandoned cars in the U.S., so many that President Nixon referred to the problem in one of his speeches. Despite all the recoverable metal in old cars, they just can’t be melted whole. For one reason of many, even 1% copper melted with steel will ruin the properties of the steel. So, they had to be disassembled and sorted prior to being melted, and in the U.S. it just didn’t pay to do so. Then, about 1970 machines were invented that shredded cars, which turned them into fist-sized or smaller chunks, whereupon magnets could pull out the steel. Suddenly it became profitable to recycle old cars, but it took until 2008 to clear the backlog. Likewise with electric motors—for decades in the U.S. it wasn’t economical to repair them, and it also didn’t pay to take them apart for recycling, so they piled up in scrapyards by the millions (or were landfilled).

According to Minter, in 1970 there were 40 million abandoned cars in America. An economical way to recycle all of those metals had yet to be invented.

According to Minter, in 1970 there were 40 million abandoned cars in America. An economical way to recycle all of those metals had yet to be invented.

Then, everything began to change with the advent of the truly global economy of the 1990s, and the rise of China as a manufacturing power. All of the shipping containers that brought goods from China to the U.S., and the ships that brought them, had to return to Asia for their next loads. Since they had to make the trip anyway, shipping rates from the U.S. to China were (and are) extremely cheap, in many cases much cheaper than moving material between cities in the U.S. Suddenly, scrap began to flow to China, to be recycled with low-cost labor and used as raw materials for goods that would end up back in the U.S. Labor rates were low enough in China that it also paid to sort all of the material from shredded cars that wasn’t steel (SNF in the parlance, for “Shredded Non-Ferrous”), in addition to repairing or disassembling old electric motors. The same economics held true for other recyclable materials as well, and according to Minter, 46 million tons of scrap metal, paper, rubber, and plastics are exported to China and other developing countries every year.

Huge container ship off of Santa Barbara, CA., likely headed back to Asia.

Huge container ship off of Santa Barbara, CA., likely headed back to Asia.

Other points that I found extremely interesting—whereas materials are sorted by hand in China, some U.S. companies have invented automated lines to sort materials such as SNF. One way they do it—by making water heavy enough (with the addition of salts) that aluminum floats. That’s pretty amazing. And who knew that used Christmas tree lights are exported to China by the 2,000-lb. bale, or that industries exist in China to remove insulation from scrap wire of all sizes, whereupon both the metals and the plastics are reused? Who knew that recycled electronics are disassembled by hand and their computer chips reused across Asia, in everything from scrolling signs to toys, or that just one city in China recovers 6.5 tons of gold, per year, from e-waste? I’ll stop here, but the book is chock full of such material and insights.

Neighborhood recyclers in Shanghai, of the type Minter discusses.

Neighborhood recyclers in Shanghai, of the type Minter discusses.

But, back to the bent of this particular blog, I see two big takeaways from this fascinating book. One– as Minter writes repeatedly, recycling is the third-best option. Reducing consumption is best, and reusing (and repairing) is second-best. Only then comes recycling. Minter describes the pollution caused by recycling in places like China, where acids, solvents, and caustic solutions are dumped on the ground or in rivers, and where electronics of all types are sometimes burned to recover metals. Because of this, Minter writes, recycling is a “morally complicated act”, and an act that isn’t a “get-out-of-jail-free” card that offsets the consumption of wealthier societies. In some instances material can be recycled in a more environmentally friendly manner in the U.S. and other wealthy countries, but, paradoxically, the hand-sorting methods used in poorer nations actually recover more usable material per ton of scrap. Continue reading

And Now for the Hard Part

This is difficult...

This is difficult…

I’m slightly perplexed. I’m almost positive that we can all save the planet (post, “Getting This Figured Out“), and I’d like to live my life in a way that I’ll be doing my part, and in a way that if others were to use me as an example, that we would indeed achieve that goal (though that ideal lifestyle isn’t going to be the same for all people around the world, at least not until we have a lot less inequality on the planet. See post “Pondering Kant“).  But I don’t think I’m quite there, and yet I’ve done most of the easy stuff. I read a question in a book the other week that gets to the heart of the issue—“How much can we expect people to actually change their lifestyles?”. This is a key question, and one that includes me. For example, I’m more than happy to find a way to heat water for our house with solar power. BUT—am I willing to only take a shower every other day in order to save energy or water? (Or, can we all have our cake and eat it too?). Similarly, I can see cutting back on optional travel, but does that mean never getting on a plane again? How much is enough; can we all do what needs to be done without becoming zealots? Or, is zealotry required? And even when we cut back, how do we deal with the fact that, for those of us lucky enough to live in the richer parts of the world, that there might not be enough resources for all seven billion people to live like we do, even after we cut back? How do we solve THAT?

An electric deliver van. Progress...

An electric delivery van. Progress…

So, I’m not sure I have a definitive answer. I suppose that there are several different issues here. First, how far do I need to go to do my part? And, to what degree can we have our cake and eat it too; i.e., could we set the world up so that we can “decouple” our lifestyles from their environmental impact? And to throw in yet another difficulty, the answers to all of these questions are likely to be currently in a state of flux as our world and technologies change. Our economies aren’t decoupled from their environmental impacts, it could be that even with large degrees of change on my own part, that I’m still negatively impacting the planet, because I live and work and consume in a world whose systems aren’t sustainable. Just to use a simple example—to buy a printed book today has water and energy and pollution impacts. But, books being 100% compostable and recyclable, it could be that in the future I could buy a book that was printed on recycled paper, with natural inks in a publishing house powered with renewable energy (RE), and delivered by FedEx in an EV van powered with RE, in such a way that the entire process could be decoupled. I’m not sure there’s a reason that we can’t all eventually have material goods that are created sustainably and can be fully recycled when we’re done with them.

But despite these difficulties in even setting up this question, let me take a stab at it. I think, at a minimum, that I should live in a net-zero house (post, “Net-Zero is Possible“), I should drive electric vehicles and power them with renewable energy, I should avoid consumerism, I should purchase and eat food that is grown or raised in sustainable and/or humane ways, I should recycle and compost and minimize waste, I should invest money that I don’t spend in ways that further these values, and I should spend at least part of my time actively participating in efforts to improve the direction that humanity seems to be heading. And I suppose this list could be even longer (hmmm, and I wrote something like that last year: “Ten Ways to Move in the Right Direction“). But, let’s just keep it short for now. And here’s the point that prompted this whole post—I’ve done most of the easy stuff that pertains here, and I’d say I’m only 2/3 of the way to fulfilling the spirit of even this relatively short list. So here are my thoughts on the easy parts and the hard parts:

The Easy Parts: Well, relatively easy, but for me much of what I’ve done to this point is the low-hanging fruit. Our house is powered by solar and wind, but that was originally (ten years ago) due to the fact that it would cost too much to bring power lines in. We have leased (and really love) the Nissan Leafs, and power them, at least part of the time, with renewable power. But, it hasn’t been a sacrifice in any way, and the Leafs are cheaper than the gas-mobiles. We buy grass-fed beef from a local farmer, we buy local and organic groceries when we can, we have a big garden and fruit trees. But, though some of this food is more expensive than conventionally-produced food, we would probably buy it anyway, for health benefits. And, I’ve “minimized” quite a bit in the last six months. But, far from being a sacrifice, I’ve been able to sell the bigger items, and have quite a bit less clutter in my life overall. I could probably make this paragraph a bit longer, but the basic idea would be the same—the moves I’ve made toward sustainability, to date, haven’t been much of a burden. As I often find myself saying when asked about our off-grid lifestyle, “we live like normal people”.  But, the low-hanging fruit is mostly gone, and now comes the hard part, I think.

Onions from the Bruhl-garden.

Onions from the Bruhl-garden—free food.

The Hard(er) Part: I can illustrate what I’m talking about here by using that same list that I started with–

1.) To get all the way to net-zero at our house, we probably need to bring in the power lines and rewire the systems in the house to be grid-tied. It’s just dramatically more efficient that way (post, “Not Sexy“), and there’s not another way to easily achieve net-zero. But, I’m guessing we’re looking at $15,000 to do it; not pocket change. But, this would save us the gallon of propane we use every day for hot water, and the fuel for the generator in the winter.

2.) As for the electric vehicles, we have them, but they aren’t powered full-time with renewable power. The easiest way to achieve this is also to be grid-tied, and then to add PV capacity to our system. We have 3,000-watts of solar now, and I’m guessing we’d need 2,000 more to fully power both cars. This would be about $4,000, I think, after we were grid-tied, if I did the installation. Again, not really cheap, and not really easy.

3.) Consumerism. I actually think I’m doing ok here.

4.) So, food, since I think I’m doing ok in the consumerism department. I really don’t want to support the factory-farmed meat industry, and I think that in many cases we humans need to eat less meat anyway. Or, we’re going to need to eat less meat in the future, in order for humans to grow enough food to feed our burgeoning population. I have to say, I’m not fully doing my part here. Related, we probably need to source all of our groceries from known entities, in order to support farmers who are moving agriculture in the direction in needs to be moved in. That’s going to take some time and effort. To really achieve this, we’d have to cook nearly everything. We already cook a lot, and further moves in this direction will take up more time in the week.

5.) Recycling, composting, and minimizing waste. Two things stand out here— we should be moving toward a zero-trash household, and we shouldn’t be wasting food. Both require thought, effort, and self-discipline. We currently do better than most with regard to trash; we might make one bag of trash a week after recycling and composting. Not too bad for a family of five. But, there’s room for improvement there, though I haven’t studied that one. Not wasting food is something that we do know how to do, but it’s something that we have to pay more attention to. When the whole family is busy, the tasty and easy-to-prepare food gets eaten first, and the leftovers get bypassed. If we’re not careful, fruits and veggies go bad and end up in the compost, or leftovers end up in the trash. It’s not hard to not waste food, but it takes (like everything else) a bit of discipline.

6.) Investing in responsible ways. We do save a chunk of our incomes every month, and that money does get invested in run-of-the-mill retirement accounts and mutual funds, but the problem here is a lack of knowledge about how to do it differently. I’ve known this for awhile (one of my first posts, “The Environmental Paradox of Thrift“), but haven’t had time to pursue it. Our energy co-op is hosting a workshop on this topic next week; I’ll be attending.

7.) Participate actively. And, I also think I’m doing ok here.

So, there you have it; my challenge to myself. Not super easy. On the plus side, most of these items, if completed, have a monetary payoff. This is worth a few sentences here—achieving net-zero by grid-tying the house would have a payoff, though I need to run some more specific numbers. My guess is a return on investment in about 10 years. After that, powering the cars with solar would also pay off in about the same period of time (because we don’t currently pay for some of the electricity that we charge them with, the payoff stretches out here). Reducing consumption has an immediate monetary effect. Changing the source of our food is probably a net wash (organic and local food is more expensive, but cooking more instead of eating out or buying processed food is cheaper), though improved health is probably priceless. Trash reduction has a very small monetary payoff, but reducing food waste might add up to more savings than I would guess. And, lastly, investing in sustainable ways probably has about the same returns as my current investments. All together, however, while “hard”, I’d come out with more money in the long run if I did all of the things on my list.

Fast food---probably not a good option most of the time.

Fast food—probably not a good option, most of the time.

Lastly, it has struck me about how we all trade money for convenience. This isn’t always bad (I could go to a local restaurant and buy local food, and support the economy while enjoying a healthy meal), but it often is, either in terms of health (processed food for supper, paying for gas instead of riding a bike) or in terms of the environment (using the plastic bags at the grocery store instead of bringing the reusable ones) or both (eating a less-healthy fast-food meal that is served in lots of disposable paper, plastic, and foam). So, it could be that with a dose of self-discipline, that I could be wealthier, healthier, AND more sustainable. Not a bad thing to work toward; I’ll let you know how it goes.

Top image credit: Flickr Creative Commons, Alexindigo,
Delivery van: Creative Commons, Gruenemann, Image has been cropped.
Fast food meal: Flickr Creative Commons, El Gran Dee,

Never as Simple as it Seems

Inefficient cooking fires for 500 million--- a tough problem to solve.

Inefficient and unhealthy cooking fires are used by 500 million people around the world— it’s a tough problem to solve.

In my last post, I discussed (among other things) the fascinating potential benefits of highly-efficient micro-gasification stoves, and the potential agricultural and climate benefits of using the char they produce as a soil amendment. There seems to be tremendous promise in the basic idea—around the world, 500 million of the world’s poorest people cook on inefficient stoves that burn biomass, usually wood or charcoal, and they often cook on them indoors, which creates horrible indoor-air quality and related health problems. The new stoves are relatively cheap, and they are efficient, burning 40-50% less fuel than a traditional “three rocks and a pot” cooking setup. They can also burn a wide variety of biomass, including agricultural wastes and dung. This could reduce pressure on forests, and could reduce or eliminate traditional charcoal production, which is highly polluting. The stoves also release dramatically fewer harmful particulates and other emissions into the air.

Tanzanian woman cooking with a Philips, fan-assisted micro-gasification stove 2009.

Tanzanian woman cooking with a fan-assisted micro-gasification stove, in 2009. Such stoves could help save the world?

The good news doesn’t seem to stop here—the stoves produce charcoal that can be applied to gardens or agricultural land as “biochar”, which improves water and nutrient retention, improves the workability of soils, and improves yields. AND, the carbon in biochar is in a chemical form that is “recalcitrant”, and therefore stays in the soil for hundreds or thousands of years, which effectively removes it from the carbon cycle, which, if practiced by millions upon millions of people, could reduce atmospheric carbon and help ameliorate global warming.

What’s not to love? But despite the fact that improved, inexpensive cookstoves have been around for decades, and have been supported by groups such as the United Nations, the Global Alliance for Clean Stoves, WorldStove, and the World Health Organization, they haven’t fully caught on in the developing world. The biochar addition to this whole idea is a newer one, and groups that promote it appear to encountering glitches as they try to implement a biochar system, despite its promise. It’s a case, it seems, of things never being quite as simple as they seem at first glance.

This can be seen in an interesting study of the effectiveness of one such program to help poorer families in Cambodia and India adopt both the new stoves and the use of biochar—“Biochar Stoves: An Innovation Studies Perspective“. Written by researchers at the University of Edinburgh, it tracked the use of several different stove designs in a variety of real-world contexts in 2010 and 2011, and studied many aspects of the improved-stove and biochar ideas. As it turns out, in the real world a wide variety of obstacles prevented the stoves from quite fulfilling their potential. The study is over seventy pages long, but here are some of the salient points—

— Not all the stoves make char. Some, like the TLUD (Top-Lit Up-Draft) stoves, make char, but have to be stopped at the right time, or the char combusts completely into ash. To get the char, they either have to be quenched with water or dumped out at the right time in the burning process. Both methods appear to be cumbersome in the real world, as one might imagine. Of all of the stoves, the Anila designs, in which biomass is loaded into an outer ring where it pyrolizes, made the most char. But, the Anila stoves work even if you skip the step of loading the outer ring, and it seems many families did skip this step, probably because they didn’t see the value in burning extra wood just to make char.

— When char was produced, it wasn’t always applied to the soil as biochar. Char (charcoal) is a valuable product in the developing world; something that can be burned or sold. Many families did just that, and burned the char in charcoal stoves, or sold it to others for that purpose. To take something that was worth money and till it into the soil, despite promised benefits, didn’t seem to always catch on. Some argue that this is exactly why we need to put a price on sequestering carbon, to bring market forces to bear on this issue, but others, such as Biofuelwatch, argue that this is exactly the danger we should fear—a world where the burning up of trees becomes profitable. In a world of shrinking forests, I can’t exactly say that I feel that the fears of Biofuelwatch are misplaced. It’s a tricky issue.

— There were cultural obstacles. The new stoves didn’t always fit into the cultural regimes that governed cooking and gender roles. Sometimes this was due to how the fuel was obtained, other times it was something as simple as the height of the stove. For cultures where cooking is done from a squatting position, some of the stoves were just too tall (many designs work better with a short stack on top of them, which increases the chimney effect). This one surprised me, it’s one of those unexpected items one wouldn’t normally anticipate.

— The “energy ladder” often means that the whole idea of a biomass stove that produces char has limited appeal. This one also surprised me, but made perfect sense once I thought about it. Here’s a chart from the World Health Organization—

The "Energy Ladder"

The bottom line here is that what many of the families REALLY wanted was a propane or natural gas stove. And once families have them, they have no real desire to “revert” to a stove that burns biomass, even if the biomass stoves were cheaper or could produce other benefits.

A version of a rocket stove, an improvement over an open fire. Rocket stoves are easier to cook on than biochar producing stoves, but don't produce any char.

A version of a rocket stove, an improvement over an open fire. Rocket stoves are easier to cook on than biochar producing stoves, but don’t produce any char.

— The biochar stoves were often harder to cook on. Though the stoves may be more efficient than other improved stoves (like rocket-stoves), they are fueled in batches, at the beginning of a cooking cycle, which makes them more difficult to use. In addition, the study found that it is difficult to increase or decrease the heat on most of the biochar stove designs, which is something a rocket stove can do well.

— The use of biochar was effective as a soil amendment, but not overwhelmingly so. The explanation for this doesn’t seem to be in this particular study, but from what I’ve read elsewhere, biochar needs to be “loaded up” with nutrients before it is applied to fields, because it is so absorptive that it actually will capture nutrients from the soil if applied directly to the soil in quantity. This biochar preparation can be done, for example, by adding the char to organic materials as they compost, and then adding the compost to agricultural soils. The study found improved yields from the methods that were employed, but not in all cases, and they conclude that more study needs to be done.

The Istovu, a modern rocket stove, in action.

The Istovu, a modern rocket stove, in action. This stove is promoted by the organization Cookstoves for Africa.

All of this is a bit sobering, and might be a reminder that just because something sounds like a good idea, that it doesn’t mean that it’s workable. There are still plenty of solutions to all of these stove-related problems, such as the pelletization of grass crops for fuel, or improved stove designs, or more education and research about the benefits of biochar. But what I really wonder is whether the whole effort is a Band-aid, when we might be needing a tourniquet. The average poor person in the developing world has something like 1/20th of the climate impact of someone in the United States or the industrialized world (good Tom Murphy post, “The Real Population Problem“). Americans and other citizens of the wealthy world can (and do) choose to eat lots of meat, drive big vehicles, power up their hot-tubs, and run their air conditioners, and the consequences of these actions dwarf those of the world’s poor trying to cook a meal.

It seems we have met the enemy, and he is us.

Top image credit and Energy Ladder graphic: World Health Organization,
Tanzanian woman image: Frank van der Vleeten, Creative Commons at
Rocket stove image: David Mellis, Creative Commons at
Istovu image: Cookstoves for Africa, Creative Commons at