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Category Archives: Environment

It’s A Crazy World: Be Thankful For Engineers! (How They Look at “Global Warming”)

Having been trained in the scientific method, it is both amazing and disheartening to be living in today’s modern era of “fake news.” Important — even critical — issues that affect our society are almost never discussed rationally on the major news outlets. Instead we are subjected to emotionally charged pontifications of politicians, bloggers, and those that call themselves journalists. It is bad enough that the aforementioned generally are incompetent with regard to the use of critical thinking, but compounding the matter immensely is the corruption of many in the science/engineering profession, who, in my opinion, have become all too happy to ignore proper science in return for the perks and privileges bestowed upon them by their masters in the political and governmental classes. But enough generalities, let’s look at “global warming” as a specific example

If one were to unskeptically follow the mainstream news, one would believe that man-made global warming (now often called “climate change”) is an undisputed fact. But let’s look at the issue from an engineering-thinking perspective:

1. Proponents say, “97% of scientists agree” that mankind is responsible for global warming, therefore man-made global warming is a fact.

Even if the 97% figure is true (I’m not sure that it is), the consensus argument is actually proof of ignorance by those who use it, because using consensus to support a position is the logical fallacy known as “argument by authority.”

Science is never determined by a vote of scientists. For example, I’ve never been in a design project meeting where the lead engineer said, “Okay, now let’s take a vote to see which design is correct.” Engineers know that design approaches are based on analysis and testing, not majority votes. One of my favorite true stories on relying on a vote of experts to determine the truth can be found here: “Advice From Professionals: Who Do You Trust? (Part 2)“. (Also see “Global Warming:Consensus Is Not Science.”.)

2. The predictions made by those who believe in man-made global warming have, thus far, been completely wrong; our earth has stubbornly failed to conform to those predictions.

When predicted results do not occur, instead of concluding that the warming hypothesis failed, we see excuses (“our model was a bit faulty”) followed by tweaking of the models. However I have yet to see where the new models are back-tested far enough to actually validate their accuracy; i.e. an accurate model will explain prior climate, as well as recent climate. Experienced engineers, who rely on rigorous analysis and testing, are familiar with the tendency of inexperienced engineers to “tweak and tune” simulation results until the desired result is obtained, regardless of how far the simulation may depart from reality.

Senior engineers may also try to fudge their data to salvage a failed design hypothesis, because engineers are human. That’s why engineers employ a peer review process, to guard against the natural foibles of fellow engineers.

3. There are many respected scientists who disagree with the man-made global warming hypothesis.

These experts offer alternate and reasonable hypotheses, such as the effects of the sun. Indeed, there are some who believe that we are on the cusp on entering a mini ice-age, based on climate correlation to lower solar activity (e.g., “Sun’s activity will cause global cooling“).

On the international stage, however, proponents of global warming try to shut down peer review by qualified dissenters. This is a clear sign that the warmist arguments will not withstand objective scrutiny.

For example, Australian climate expert Dr. David Evans found an error in the climate prediction model used by the warmists (“World will start COOLING DOWN in 2017, claims one of planet’s top climate change experts“), which shows that climate sensitivity to CO2 is small, which negates the “man-made” claim of the warmists.

4. “What can it hurt?” is offered as a reason to implement global warming reduction measures.

This plea is based on the theory that the consequences of warming would be so catastrophic that it is reasonable to have a global big-government effort to reduce CO2. This statement is based on many fallacies; e.g. “appeal to consequences,” “appeal to emotion,” and the “politician’s syllogism” that states “we must do something!” regardless of whether or not that measure will be an overreaction, ineffective, or even make things worse. It is also reflects superstitious and hysterical thinking.

Ironically, some respected scientists have argued that some warming (man-made or natural) is likely good for humanity because maintaining warmer climates helps produce the higher crop yields required for growing populations.

Summary

A majority consensus is not a scientific proof. Science will be determined by the facts, as supported by replicable analysis and test. In the meantime, respect should be afforded minority opinions; there are numerous times throughout the history of scientific advancement when a minority (and often ridiculed) opinion has become generally accepted wisdom. Also, scientific conclusions are rarely “settled,” they will be tentative or conditional, based on the best available evidence at the time.

Is man-made global warming occurring? I don’t know. I do know that the warmists have not proven their case, that they tend to use logical fallacies and emotionally-driven statements to promote their position, that their predictions continually fail (followed by model tweak “corrections” that are not validated by back-testing), that they use ridicule and other ad hominem attacks against qualified scientists who disagree with them, and that they also seem to be closely allied to governmental entities that provide them with salaries and perks, which suggests confirmation bias. And if the warmists are wrong, the consequences of imposing a solution for which no problem exists can not only potentially make matters worse, it can also result in gross economic distortions which cost jobs and drain resources that could otherwise be applied to actual problems, such as earth-threatening asteroids, severe damage to the ocean by nanoparticles and other modern pollutants, ebola and other plagues, etc.

Because engineers are applied scientists, they employ critical thinking to successfully create the wondrous things which make our lives comfortable and fun. They are pretty good at keeping emotions at bay, and are adept at evaluating claims in a skeptical yet open-minded manner. Engineers are also willing and able to change their opinions — pro or con — based on a careful evaluation of new claims. This ability to rationally, albeit sometimes imperfectly, evaluate a variety of issues is one of many reasons why I believe that engineers are often the best ones to evaluate the important issues of the day.

-Ed Walker

 

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Green Energy Storage: We Can’t Get There with Batteries (Why Systems Analysis is Essential for Making Good Decisions)

wind farmThe Catch-22 of Energy Storage” by John Morgan is quite an article. It exemplifies proper systems analysis, which requires one to stand back and look at the overall Big Picture — examine all of the important variables — in order to improve the odds of arriving at a proper solution.

In brief, the point of the article is that using batteries for energy storage actually results in negative energy savings, when one properly considers the energy required to build and maintain the batteries.

It is quite amazing that — because of the lack of a proper systems analysis — enormous sums have been spent on what strongly appears to be a Quixotic attempt at achieving “green energy savings” based primarily on wishful thinking about batteries.

This is not a criticism of those who like wind or solar power, because those who do have been taught to favor those approaches by a media which is largely incompetent with regard to scientific matters, and corrupt with regard to political policy. This deadly brew has resulted in a culture which embraces emotionally-laden “feel good” pseudoscience at the expense of hard-nosed but effective solutions, solutions that may actually help the environment, as well as ease the pain of our overburdened taxpayers.

Related post: “Look the the Big Picture

-Ed Walker

 

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Is Organic Food Actually Better For You?

organicfoodThe typical argument against organic food is that it is more costly, yet does not provide any additional health benefits.

The argument for organic food is that, because it does not contain nearly as many pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, and contaminants, organic food is both safer and more nutritious.

Which argument is correct?

One way to find out would be to use what engineers call a comparative analysis. In a proper comparative analysis, two trials are compared, where the only major variable that is different between the trials is the variable of interest. (If too many significant variables are present, they can obscure the actual results and yield misleading or erroneous conclusions.)

Many trials have already been done of organic versus commercial farming of plant-based foods. A recent study (“Nutritional, food safety benefits of organic farming documented by major study“) reviewed the results of these trials, wherein most of the trials were well-controlled to minimize variables. The conclusion was that organic foods were indeed clearly much safer and much more nutritious. “This study is telling a powerful story of how organic plant-based foods are nutritionally superior and deliver bona fide health benefits,” said Charles Benbrook, co-author.

 

 

 

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5 Big Reasons Why “Global Warming Is A Fact” Is A Lie

burningearthIs man-made global warming occurring? Despite what you may read or hear from the media, man-made global warming has not been established beyond a reasonable doubt. Here are five big reasons why:

1. Many experienced and credible scientists with good character do not believe that man-made global warming has been proved.

2. Proponents of man-made global warming claim that warming is a fact because of “consensus”; i.e they say that a majority of scientists agree that man-made global warming is happening. But consensus is a logical fallacy, and a sign of junk science. There have been numerous instances where a minority of scientists have ultimately been proven correct, regardless of the prevailing consensus of the day. Science is based on fact, not on a vote of scientists.

3. Proponents of man-made global warming, if they truly believed in their research and analysis, would welcome the views of skeptics, because only by such challenges does science eventually converge on the truth. Instead, many proponents of man-made global warming do not welcome criticism or skeptical inquiry, and instead wage personal attacks on the skeptics. (Personal attacks are an example of the “ad hominem” logical fallacy.)

4. Proponents of man-made global warming base their beliefs on data that cannot be replicated by other scientists.

5. Proponents of man-made global warming are continually adjusting the “models” they previously created and used for predicting today’s weather, when today’s weather is not what was predicted by their earlier models. And rather than admit failure, the proponents try to obscure that fact by making up excuses and continually tinkering with their models.

A couple of interesting and thorough overviews of the junk science underlying the proponents of global warming can be found here (both by Robert Wagner):

Global Warming ‘Science’; What Investors Need To Know, Don’t Just Trust The “Experts

Climate ‘Science’ Bombshell May Be Getting Ready To Burst

The following recent article is also of interest:

The game is up for climate change believers” by Charles Moore.

(Be sure to check the comments at the end of the article by Exton, “Word of the Environmentalist.”)

p.s. I’m finding less time to compose in-depth posts, so am trying to provide brief updates of interesting news bites through twitter, which you can follow here: http://twitter.com/engthinking

-Ed Walker

 

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Autism and Other Neurodevelopmental Disabilities: Are We Poisoning Our Future?

brainscan“…many more chemicals than the known dozen or so identified as neurotoxicants contribute to a “silent pandemic” of neurobehavioral deficits that is eroding intelligence, disrupting behaviors, and damaging societies.”

from “Growing number of chemicals linked with brain disorders in children,” 14 Feb 2014, Harvard School of Public Health,

 

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Global Warming: Consensus Is Not Science

Proponents of the idea of human-induced global warming often claim that there is an overwhelming consensus among scientists that such warming is a fact. For example, consider this recent article:

Consensus Confirmed: 97 Percent of Climate Papers Agree on Manmade Global Warming
by Brendan DeMelle, 22 June 2013 Huff Post Green

burningearth“A new survey conducted by a team of volunteers at Skeptical Science has definitively confirmed the scientific consensus in climate science literature — 97 percent of peer-reviewed papers agree that global warming is happening and human activities are responsible.

“It does not get any clearer than this. It should finally put to rest the claims of climate deniers that there is a scientific debate about global warming. Of course, this bunch isn’t known for being reasonable or susceptible to facts. But maybe the mainstream media outlets that have given deniers a megaphone will finally stop…”

The problem with grandiose statements such as the one above is that consensus is simply a collection of opinions, it is not scientific proof. In fact, when “consensus” is presented as “proof” then you can be sure that the presenters do not actually have verifiable proof. Instead they are merely practicing junk science.

And what about the opinions of those scientists who hold a minority view? Should their opinions be ignored because they have less votes than the majority? No, of course not. The role of true science is to determine which group is correct.

Science converges on the truth by requiring that scientists provide verifiable
evidence of a hypothesis, not by counting scientists’ votes for or against the hypothesis

Still not convinced? I agree that it may seem intuitive that scientists’ beliefs, as confirmed by a consensus of their peers, should be used to guide us when proof is not available. But this is just gambling; there have been numerous times throughout scientific history when the consensus of scientists has been completely wrong. For example, at one time the near-unanimous consensus of doctors was that it was perfectly fine to perform their work without first washing their hands: see “Advice From Professionals: Who Do You Trust? (Part 2).” (For other reasons to be cautious about allowing intuition to be our guide, see “Why Not Go With The Gut?“)

Bottom line: Those who promote “consensus” as being equivalent to a scientific proof do not understand how science works, and should be ignored.

-Ed Walker

 

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Is Recycling Worthwhile? An Investigative Report

Note: Unlike my typical posts, this one is quite lengthy. But if you have the time and patience to read it, I think you will be rewarded by a good example of a professional and civil science-based discussion of an important topic. If you’re short on time, please skip down to Conclusions.

I recently came across an old article that described how some scientists had concluded that recycling is not worthwhile (“Time to throw out ‘myth’ of recycling,” 4 Mar 2003, Washington Times). A more recent view can be read here: “Is Recycling Worth the Trouble, Cost?” (Geraldine Sealey, 8 Mar 2010, ABC News). Subsequent online research yielded numerous articles promoting both positions, but they were (a) just talking points, lacking in substantial empirical or analytical support, (b) produced by potentially biased organizations that have political agendas, and/or (c) ambiguous, containing conclusions which varied wildly with assumptions.

So is recycling worthwhile, or not? Fortunately, there is a powerful method available to help answer that question.

Verification: Confirming Expectations and Value

In engineering, a vital concept is verification. Technology firms verify that their products work properly by thoroughly testing and analyzing prototypes, before the products are offered for sale. Why? Because technology firms are guided by a critical and constructive feedback equation: poor performance = going broke. Verification also provides quantitative data that allows a firm to compare the cost effectiveness of a proposed design to other alternatives.

By contrast, government-directed actions employ other people’s money, so the feedback link is missing, and the verification step is often missing or incomplete. As a result, oftentimes poor performance = no effect: the programs keep going or even growing, government employees keep their jobs, and all of the waste is paid for by the taxpayer. Lack of constructive feedback is therefore one of the primary reasons that governmental systems are inherently ineffective systems, compared to private enterprises. This is why it makes sense to challenge government expenditures, regardless of how well-intentioned or intuitive or emotionally-satisfying they may seem. Verification = proof, and as a taxpayer, I would like to see the government verify that it is using my money wisely.

So I decided, as a test case, to check out the recycling situation here in my county, where a truck comes through each neighborhood for garbage pickup, and then later a second truck lumbers through to pick up recyclables. The basic question was: how did the county verify the worthiness of this recycling program? Little did I realize where this simple question would lead…

My Quest For An Answer To A Simple Question

The discussions below are verbatim copies of original email correspondence. Also, I would like to acknowledge that all of the folks contacted with regard to my information requests responded quickly, courteously, and professionally. In particular, Mr. Henricks (of the Florida Department of Environment Protection) was quite gracious with his time.

Step 1: Talked to Waste Management

I contacted the Hillsborough County Department of Waste Management and asked if I could review the analysis that was used to economically justify their recycling program. They said they had not done an analysis, that they were required by the Hillsborough County Public Utilities Department to do recycling.

Step 2: Talked to Hillsborough County Public Utilities Department

I contacted the department and asked: can you please provide the analysis that was performed that justifies the recycling program for the county? I received a generic response [Ref 1], to which I replied:

Dear Ms. Cullins:

1. Thank you for your response, but it did not address my question, namely, what analysis did the County use to justify its decision to institute the existing recycling program?

2. From your response it appears that the program was started without such analysis, and the decision was based on the general assumption that recycling would be of overall net benefit; correct?

3. The after-the-fact data such as you provided are ambiguous and appear to be insufficient to allow a proper cost-benefit analysis of the existing recycling program. Does such an analysis exist?

Thank you.
Ed Walker

To this request I was told by Clifford J. Amundsen (Waste Reduction Specialist, Hillsborough County Public Utilities Department) that Hillsborough County does not have such an analysis, and that the County is only required to provide its annual Recycling reportable totals to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). [Ref 2]

Step 3: Talked some more to Hillsborough County Public Utilities Department

Dear Mr. Amundsen:
Thank you for your detailed response.

Would the following be a fair statement?: “Hillsborough County has neither performed or reviewed an analysis (e.g. considered personnel costs, equipment costs, fuel costs, the pollution created by the pickup trucks, the income received from recycling, etc.) to determine whether, overall, the present residential recycling service results in a net benefit to residents, as compared to not having a recycling service. Therefore it is possible that residents are paying more for waste pickup and being subjected to more pollution than would be the case without the recycling service.”

If you do not know the answer, I would appreciate this being forwarded to the appropriate County administrator. I am simply trying to ascertain the amount of diligence that has been applied to the decision to start and maintain the recycling service. (I write about how scientific principles can be applied to everyday issues (Engineering Thinking).)

Thanks,
-Ed Walker (resident, Hillsborough County)

To which I received the following response:

Mr. Walker – Clifford Amundsen forwarded your email to me.  We are not aware of any cost analysis performed to determine if recycling is cost effective.  Hillsborough County is required by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to recycle materials and curbside recycling was implemented to comply with the DEP requirement.  I would imagine that DEP has conducted such studies or if not, would be the agency to contact regarding this information.

Please let us know if you have any other questions.

Lynne E. Fillmon, CPPB, CPPO
Contract Administration & Assistance Group Manager
Public Utilities Department
Hillsborough County BOCC

Step 4: Closing in on the governmental entity responsible for the recycling requirement

I sent a query to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection through their web questionnaire:

To: Office of Citizens Services

Subject: Feedback from a Web Visitor

I contacted Hillsborough County dept of waste management and asked if they had done a cost-benefit analysis of recycling. They said they had not, that they were required by your dept to do recycling. Therefore, can you please provide the analysis that was performed that justifies directing Hillsborough County to provide a recycling service? Thanks.

name : Ed Walker county : Hillsborough

Step 5: I finally get an answer

Mr. Ron Henricks (Environmental Administrator, Waste Reduction Section, Florida Department of Environmental Protection) responded by informing me that the Florida Legislature, not the DEP, requires the county to have a recycling program. In particular,

Mr. Henricks: …As far as I know, neither the Legislature or anyone else conducted any specific cost-benefit analysis of recycling in Florida. [REF 3]

Okay, there you have it: no one has done an analysis! But, like the inexperienced attorney who asked one question too many…

Step 6: Attempt to obtain a conclusion

Dear Mr. Henricks:

Thank you for your quick and clear response.

Would the following be a fair statement?: “The Florida Legislature has neither performed or reviewed a cost-benefit analysis (e.g. considered personnel costs, equipment costs, fuel costs, the pollution created by the pickup trucks, the income received from recycling, etc.) to determine whether, overall, mandated residential recycling services result in a net benefit to residents, as compared to not having a recycling service. Therefore it is possible that residents are paying more for waste pickup and being subjected to more pollution than would be the case without the recycling service.”

If you do not know the answer, I would appreciate this being forwarded to the appropriate legislative administrator. I am simply trying to ascertain the amount of diligence that has been applied to the decision to start and maintain the recycling service. (I write about how scientific principles can be applied to everyday issues (Engineering Thinking).)

Thanks
-Ed Walker

Mr. Henricks provided the following full and thoughtful response:

Mr. Walker:

My degree is in civil engineering, so I understand and appreciate your focus on applying scientific principles to everyday issues. It would be nice if more people did that.

In responding to your question about your draft statement, allow me to break it down into two parts. First part:

“The Florida Legislature has neither performed or reviewed a cost-benefit analysis (e.g. considered personnel costs, equipment costs, fuel costs, the pollution created by the pickup trucks, the income received from recycling, etc.) to determine whether, overall, mandated residential recycling services result in a net benefit to residents, as compared to not having a recycling service.”

Mostly true. There was no cost-benefit analysis. However, the Legislature did not specifically mandate residential recycling services. The Legislature set recycling goals for the counties and left it up to the counties as to how they reach the goals. If a county can reach the goal without implementing a residential curbside collection program, relying instead citizens to voluntarily drive someplace to drop off their recyclables, more power to them. On the other hand, the data I’ve seen over the years clearly shows that voluntary dropoff programs result in much lower residential recycling rates than curbside collection programs. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why. Convenience, pure and simple. That’s why there are over 300 curbside collection programs throughout Florida.

(Incidentally, only about a third of municipal solid waste (MSW) comes from the residential sector. The other two thirds comes from the commercial / institutional sector. The state’s recycling goal cannot be achieved without much more recycling from that sector. Most of that sector will end up actually saving money by recycling, though many of them aren’t aware of that right now.)

Now on to part 2 of your draft statement:

”Therefore it is possible that residents are paying more for waste pickup and being subjected to more pollution than would be the case without the recycling service.”

Maybe. It depends on the local situation. For example, here in Tallahassee we had twice weekly garbage collection service for decades. A few years ago, the garbage collection was cut back to once per week while weekly recyclables collection was initiated. No change in total number of miles (or pollution). Over the last couple of decades, many communities in Florida have followed that exact same pattern.

But what about increased cost, you are no doubt asking. Based on anecdotal evidence I’ve picked up over the years, the cost of residential curbside collection varies from around $1.50 to $3 per household per month, depending on where you are in the state. However, it also costs money to dispose of waste. Floridians decided a couple of decades ago that open dumps, with no liners and no proper gas ventilation systems, had to go, to be replaced by highly engineered and regulated structures (to protect groundwater and air) called landfills. Properly designed landfills don’t come cheap. Society now appears to have decided that it would prefer to keep as much recyclable material out of those expensive landfills as possible to extend their useful life. For the residential sector, that currently has a cost in most places, and most people seem willing to pay it. (When calculating cost-benefit, one should include the avoided cost of less landfill space requirements due to recycling.)

The much harder cost-benefit recycling calculations—or, maybe more accurately, the harder to allocate cost-benefit calculations for the individual resident—are also the least local and, in my opinion, the most important. For many recyclables, the real benefits are in virgin feedstock displacement. For example, using recycled aluminum cans to make more aluminum requires much less energy and has much less environmental impact (and much less greenhouse gas production) than making virgin aluminum. Those are real economic and environmental benefits that accrue where the aluminum is made, but those benefits also result in a better environment for everyone. How to quantify those benefits in the cost-benefit calculations for the residential curbside customer?

I hope you don’t think that I’m obfuscating and rambling all around the question you asked without giving you the simple answer you wanted, like the stereotypical image of a government bureaucrat. If you feel that way, I’m sorry. But, you, as an engineer, if anyone, should appreciate that complex questions generally require complex answers. You asked a complex question, whether or not you realized it. Please feel free to get back with me if you have additional questions (simple or complex) or comments.

Ron Henricks

Wow, a lot of new wrinkles. Mr. Henricks’ response indicates that he approaches the issue from a broader perspective. I reply as follows:

Step 7: Another Attempt to Clarify  

Mr. Henricks,

Thank you for the detailed response.

Regarding my “Part 2” question, (“Therefore it is possible…”), your response appears to have interpreted the comment to say that recycling was indeed not overall a good thing, and then you pointed out it may or may not be. But my point was, as I think you confirmed, nobody knows, because nobody has done the work required to properly evaluate it. Therefore, isn’t my Part 2 statement indeed correct?

When I get this written up I will run it by you, if you like, to give you the opportunity for corrections/clarifications.

Thanks
-Ed

To which Mr. Henricks responded:

R. Henricks

In my previous email I should have included specific reference to some work that has been done in recent years to try to calculate at least a general quantification of some costs/benefits of recycling. Probably the best work to date is being done by David Allaway, a physicist working for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, who delivered this presentation in January 2011:

ftp://ftp.epa.gov/reg10ftp/westcoastclimate/webinar_1-6-2011/3_EPA_West_Coast_Forum_webinar_allaway_0111.ppt

On slide 13 of the presentation, he shows that for every 100 tons of mixed recyclables collected from households (curbside):

6 MTCO2e in greenhouse gas emissions from on-route vehicles (including diesel production)

232 MTCO2e greenhouse gas savings (net) when these recyclables displace virgin feedstock in production

Also, slide 14 shows that the collection and transportation of recyclables has relatively minor greenhouse gas impact, contrary to some popular myth and assumptions otherwise.

Not all of those greenhouse gas savings (and other concomitant environmental pollution savings) will occur in the specific neighborhood where recyclables are collected curbside. In fact, most of those savings won’t occur anywhere near the neighborhood, but rather nearer to manufacturing facilities that are using recyclables to displace virgin feedstock. But, that is all part of the worldwide atmospheric soup and everyone benefits from those savings.

So, I’m led to conclude that, in general, residents would not be subjected to more pollution than would be the case without the curbside recycling.

As far as giving me the opportunity to review/correct/clarify what you write, I appreciate the courtesy but I leave that decision up to you. However, I would like to see you make a couple of corrections to some verbiage already on your web site. Specifically, on this web page:

More Unintended Consequences: Energy Non-Savings

you make this statement:

recycled trash (the gas consumption and pollution created by trucks used to pick up “recycled” materials exceeds the benefits of the recycling, plus the recycled materials often are not even recycled, they’re just trucked to the same waste dump as normal trash)

The first part of that sentence, about the gas consumption and pollution, has been addressed in our current correspondence. I think there is enough data to show the statement is not true, though you may or may not agree with that. The second part of the sentence, about recycled materials “often” being landfilled, is simply not true—at least in Florida (nor, from what I can tell, in hardly any other places in the nation). It does occasionally happen. But, it is by far the exception rather than the rule, and it’s certainly not often. I’ve received several calls over the years from citizens across the state thinking they discovered recyclables being dumped. Most of those calls turned out to be misunderstandings about what exactly it was they saw.

Thanks for attempting to find out the facts before publishing your theory. Not all skeptics about the merits of recycling display that level of intellectual honesty.

Ron

Step 8: Pausing to sum things up

The discussion is branching into several side issues, informative as they may be, that are diverging from my original question. It has become apparent that Mr. Henricks is thinking globally, whereas I am trying to maintain the focus on the basic issue of whether or not recycling has been specifically verified as being worthwhile to the local taxpayer, as compared to spending taxpayer dollars elsewhere. Can these perspectives be reconciled? Also, Mr. Henricks has read my blog and has provided some thoughtful criticism of an earlier post. So I continue to discuss the issues with Mr. Henricks, who continues to be gracious with his time:

Hi Ron,

On 5/7/2012 5:58 PM, Henricks, Ron wrote:

Fair question. I should have been less equivocal and more definitive in my earlier email. I’ll fix that here. Recycling is indeed overall a good thing—but, you must take a systems approach to come to that conclusion (as an engineer, I’m sure you can appreciate that). Most importantly, the system being analyzed cannot be limited to your neighborhood, your city, your county, your state, or even your nation, because both the costs and the benefits are not limited to any one of those sectors.

I understand the importance of systems analysis, but I disagree that sub-components cannot be analyzed for individual effectiveness. In fact I think that they must be. Making the assumption that recycling provides net wide-area benefit, and then imposing an unmeasured mandate on the local governments, seems to be non-optimum at best, and potentially counterproductive at worst. In my experience, putting one’s faith in a broad generalized statement (recycling is good) without specific analysis and supporting measurements to close the loop (to prove the hypothesis that recycling is indeed good) is not particularly good science. For example, the assumption that all the recyclables are used to displace virgin feedstock seems a stretch; are there any data to justify this? Has the net pollutant reduction been measured in a few locations, or is this just an assumption, or a statistical extrapolation from a couple of cases? (FYI, thanks for the link to the presentation, but it just opens up a blank powerpoint window??? Perhaps some of these concerns are addressed?)

It appears that no analysis has been done by the local governments to vet the efficacy of their recycling programs. It is therefore possible (although perhaps unlikely) that the efficacy for some is very poor, or even negative. For example, an auto might have acceptable overall emissions, but may also be using a very inefficient and polluting carburetor. If individual analysis is performed, you learn what works better (or not), and this knowledge can then be shared.

In addition to the holes due to lack of analysis, the lack of analysis also does not allow rational risk assessment for comparative purposes; i.e. perhaps the benefits from dollars spent on recycling do not provide as much benefit compared to other potentially worthwhile goals; e.g. would you rather spend a dollar for the unquantified benefits of recycling, or spend a dollar to detect and prevent an asteroid colliding with the earth? At the local level, the question might be dollars for recycling versus dollars for roads or law enforcement.

Therefore I continue to question whether it is appropriate to impose on individuals or smaller governmental entities a mandate, without confirming analysis and related empirical metrics. You said earlier, “…the Legislature did not specifically mandate residential recycling services. The Legislature set recycling goals for the counties and left it up to the counties as to how they reach the goals.” Well, if the legislature says you have to meet a goal, that’s a mandate, isn’t it? Wouldn’t it have been better for the legislature to say, at least as a first step, “Do an analysis at your local level to quantify the costs and benefits of recycling.”? The the state could have reviewed these, modified them for large-system variables, and provided some recommendations. What we have now appears to be a throw-the-dart approach, without benefit of seeing where the dart lands on the target.

Regarding your comments on my earlier post, “the gas consumption and pollution … exceeds the benefits of the recycling”: Perhaps you are correct, even probably correct, but without verification who really knows? However I agree with your point that my comment was incorrectly stated as fact rather than supposition, and I will update the post with a qualifier added. The second part, “…about recycled materials “often” being landfilled, is simply not true.” I did not say landfilled, I said trucked to the same waste dump, e.g. perhaps to an incinerator. However I can see that my statement was not clear, and will update it also. I appreciate you taking the time to read the blog and provide a thoughtful critique.

I would like to see the link you sent, if you have a working one that you can resend. I will examine it to see if it addresses some of the concerns mentioned above.

Thanks,
-Ed

To which Mr. Henricks responded:

Ed:

If we aren’t careful, this correspondence will turn into a book before we’re done.

You wrote:

“I disagree that sub-components cannot be analyzed for individual effectiveness. In fact I think that they must be.”

I agree. I never meant to imply that sub-components cannot or should not be analyzed for individual effectiveness (and I’ll also add efficiency). My point is that those sub-components cannot be analyzed in isolation, especially when it comes to an issue like recycling, whose benefits and costs extend way beyond the area where recyclables are collected. Otherwise, you are getting a very skewed (and parochial) view of the costs/benefits of recycling, and you’re in effect saying, “It’s irrelevant to me if something I do here results in a better environment elsewhere (as well as here).”

You wrote:

For example, the assumption that all the recyclables are used to displace virgin feedstock seems a stretch; are there any data to justify this? Has the net pollutant reduction been measured in a few locations, or is this just an assumption, or a statistical extrapolation from a couple of cases? (FYI, thanks for the link to the presentation, but it just opens up a blank powerpoint window??? Perhaps some of these concerns are addressed?)

The assumption that all the recyclables are used to displace virgin feedstock is common sense, not a stretch. Here’s why. The recyclables that are collected curbside are taken to (and bought by) Recovered Materials Dealers (about 250 of them across Florida) for processing. Those folks make their money by selling the recyclables after processing. Their customers don’t buy those recyclables to put them in a dump or stand around admiring their looks. They buy them because they have a use for the recyclables from which they hope to make a profit. That use replaces other materials that otherwise would have been used. (Granted, there is some waste that results from the processing by the Recovered Materials Dealers. But, the profit motive provides the incentive to minimize waste.)

Regarding net pollutant reduction, the attached presentation, which was supposed to come up when you clicked the link in my last email, provides some data on relative greenhouse gas emissions, which is a good proxy for pollutants, too.

Regarding your concern about “no analysis has been done by the local governments to vet the efficacy of their recycling programs,” that had more truth a few years ago than it has had since the recession hit. You seem to be a keen observer of local government. If that’s the case, then you must be aware of the budget cuts that have been occurring in almost all local governments since 2007. Their recycling programs, like their other programs, have been closely scrutinized, looking for ways to do more with less.

As with anything, some local programs are much more effective than others. But, it’s my experience that they do share information on what works best. A good example of that is the upcoming Recycle Florida Today annual conference in early June in St. Pete Beach. If you want to get a sense of what’s really happening with recycling in Florida, you might consider attending for a session or two. Most of the major public and private sector players in recycling will be there, as will I (maybe we could meet). More details are here:

http://recyclefloridatoday.org/forms/Agenda%20-%202012%20Recycle%20Florida%20Today%20Conference%20&%20Exhibition.pdf

You asked:

Wouldn’t it have been better for the legislature to say, at least as a first step, “Do an analysis at your local level to quantify the costs and benefits of recycling.”? The the state could have reviewed these, modified them for large-system variables, and provided some recommendations. What we have now appears to be a throw-the-dart approach, without benefit of seeing where the dart lands on the target.

I’m not going to try to either defend or criticize the Legislature. (I have to work with those folks, so I have to be careful exactly what I say.) But, from what I can tell, the Legislature felt they had enough information to conclude that the benefits would outweigh the costs. (Not trying to suck up to them, but if that was indeed their rationale, I think they were correct.) Keep in mind that a lot of the legislators were city or county commissioners before being elected to the Legislature. In their former roles, they had to deal with solid waste disposal issues, so they are aware of the costs associated with building and maintaining landfills or waste-to-energy plants. And many of them are familiar with their local recycling programs. That may be why It was a very Republican and very cost-conscious Legislature that raised the state recycling goal to 75% a couple of years ago.

Regarding my statement that recyclables are not often landfilled, you replied:

I did not say landfilled, I said trucked to the same waste dump, e.g. perhaps to an incinerator. However I can see that my statement was not clear, and will update it also. I appreciate you taking the time to read the blog and provide a thoughtful critique.

I stand by my original statement, just substitute the words “same waste dump” or “incinerators” for “landfilled.” Waste-to-energy (WTE) plants (which are different from incinerators) are another story. Until recently, waste burned in WTE plants did not count towards the recycling goal. There are nine counties that have WTE plants (Hillsborough being one of them), and Florida burns more waste in WTE plants than any other state. Paradoxically (you might think), many of the WTE counties also had some of the highest county recycling rates.

When the Legislature upped the recycling goal to 75% a couple of years ago, it also decided to allow some recycling credit towards the goal for WTE. So burning waste for electrical energy production now counts towards the recycling goal.

Finally, I’m hoping the attached presentation by David Allaway gives you the data (slide 14, I think) to persuade you that gas consumption and pollution from collecting recyclables is more than offset by the benefits of recycling.

Thanks for considering my comments.

Ron

Conclusions

As in most cases where professionals discuss issues civilly, and try to rely on empirical and analytical evidence to support their positions, a great deal of objective and useful knowledge can be quickly exchanged. I found the discussions with Mr. Henricks to be highly informative, expanding my knowledge and appreciation of the varied and significant factors that impact recycling. I tend to agree with his thinking, when recycling is viewed globally and in isolation with respect to other possible expenditures of the same taxpayer dollars, that recycling achieves net benefit.

However, my goal from the start was a comparative analysis that was locally focused on the interests of the average taxpayer, the guy who drives a truck or the gal who sells cosmetics. Despite the potential wide-area benefits of recycling, I doubt that these taxpayers would be happy to learn that, directly or indirectly, their dollars are going to a mandated recycling program that has never been verified for cost effectiveness anywhere in the state. Without this analysis, we don’t know — for sure — whether recycling is of overall net benefit to the state. Even if we assume that it is, without such analysis we can’t know which recycling programs are most effective; i.e., are we getting the most benefit from the recycling dollars spent in this county, or in that one? Finally, we don’t even know whether or not the dollars spent on recycling would bring the taxpayer a better return than if the dollars were spent on other options, such as on drug rehabilitation programs or efforts to reduce the homeless population.

Perhaps this is parochial, as Mr. Henricks states, but it leads to a practical question: why should local residents pay more, and put up with more local pollution and noise, to reduce the pollution density in faraway places caused by the effects of the big upstream polluters? From that perspective, residential recycling is like having an army of taxpayers patrolling the shores, continually mopping up oil-soaked sands and picking up tar balls, rather than having a government employee row out to the huge leaking oil tanker to plug the hole in its hull.

-Ed Walker

I appreciate the time and effort that Mr. Hendricks has spent on providing his informed opinion, and offered him the opportunity to have the last word (without my editorial intervention) by commenting on this post. Mr. Henricks responded by providing the following:

I want to thank Ed for allowing me to comment on this post. He asked reasonable questions, including the last one: “Why should local residents pay more, and put up with more local pollution and noise, to reduce the pollution density in faraway places caused by the effects of the big upstream polluters?” Those persons reading the entire post above will find the reason I provide for why many, and possibly most, communities in Florida will not have to put up with more local pollution and noise. (That’s a not-so-subtle attempt to get you folks to read the entire post.)

But, even if more local pollution and noise were to happen, it would be a minimal amount and more than offset by energy and environmental benefits. Granted, a lot of those benefits will probably be outside the local area. But, based on my experience over the years, when the general public learns that their recycling benefits more than just their local area, they tend to support it even more, not less. People tend to like the idea that their recycling is having a bigger impact over a larger area than they may have been aware of.

One final note. I appreciate Ed’s metaphor of “residential recycling is like having an army of taxpayers patrolling the shores, continually mopping up oil-soaked sands and picking up tar balls, rather than having a government employee row out to the huge leaking oil tanker to plug the hole in the hull.” However, I would modify it somewhat to say: residential recycling is like taxpayers reducing the need for tankers in the first place, resulting in less oil-soaked sands and fewer holes to plug. This is literally true when it comes to recycling plastic bottles, which are made from oil. The more plastic bottles are recycled, the less oil is needed to produce them, which presumably would result in a reduced potential for oil spills. And, as all of us in Florida know from recent events, the benefits of that can occur not just far away, but right here.

Ron Henricks

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REFERENCES

The data below are extracted verbatim from email correspondence.

REF 1 (sent by Ms. Sandra Cullins for Mr. Amundsen)

Thank you for contacting the Hillsborough County Public Utilities Department with your questions concerning recycling in the County.

First let me preface by saying that each year Hillsborough County (unincorporated Hillsborough County, the Cities of Tampa, Plant City and Temple Terrace)is responsible for supplying the Florida Department of Environmental  Protection (FDEP) with statistics for their Annual Solid Waste Report. This is required from every county in Florida. This report is done in arrears and the most recent report available is for 2009.  So the data I will be using to answer some of your questions will be from that report.

I will also supply you with the link to the main FDEP web site as well as the Hillsborough County section specifically for your reference.

Below are some frequently asked questions as to specific statistics on the Hillsborough County recycling program:

1. How much recycling is collected each year;

A. In 2009, Hillsborough County recycled 690,286 tons.

2. What percentage is actually recycled;

A.  Recyclable material is collected by private companies, combined with material from other municipalities, baled and sent to end markets to be purchased by manufacturers for reuse – there are no records of how much is actually used by the manufacturers or what volume of the material was actually collected from Hillsborough County.

3. What percentage is sold;

A. There is no way to determine how much recyclable material from Hillsborough County is actually sold since it is combined with recyclables from other municipalities before it is sent to end markets by recycling facilities that sort and bale the material for marketing.

4. How efficient your system is;

A. In 2009, 66% of the County’s residential customers participated in the curbside recycling program, which would indicate an efficient system.

5.  Is the single stream recycling more or less efficient;

A. Municipalities that do employ single stream recycling have reported that it is an efficient system with both advantages and disadvantages when compared to a dual-stream recycling system.

As stated at the beginning of my response to you, here is the link to the Department of Environmental Protection for reference:

http://www.dep.state.fl.us/waste/categories/recycling/SWreportdata/09_data.htm

The link to Hillsborough County’s solid waste management data for 2009 is: http://appprod.dep.state.fl.us/www_rcra/reports/WR/Recycling/2009AnnualReport/AppendixG/Hillsborough.pdf

Thank you  again for contacting the Hillsborough County Public Utilities Department with your concerns. If you have any further questions please feel free to contact me.

Clifford J. Amundsen
Waste Reduction Specialist
Hillsborough County Public Utilities Department
Hillsborough County BOCC

REF 2

Dear Mr. Walker

Thank you for again contacting the Hillsborough County Public Utilities Department with your concerns about Recycling and it’s Cost Analysis.

I would like to take a little more time and be more specific or at least try to clarify a couple of points for you in hope to help you better understand the answer to the question you are requesting.

Due to the fact that Hillsborough County does not have the staff or the vehicles to provide Solid Waste / Yard Waste or Recycling Collections, the County  therefore does not directly provide these services.

Instead, the County has a contract with three Vendor’s who perform these services for us.

The weekly Services that are included in this contract which are to be provided by the vendor to the resident are:

2 Garbage Collections

1 Yard Waste Collection

1 Recycling Collection

The Contract requires that Hillsborough County only assess for Solid Waste Collection and Disposal. Nothing else. The cost for the Solid Waste Collection and Disposal services can be found on your annual property tax bill under the Non-ad-valorium taxes. They are listed as SW-Collection and SW-Disposal.

I am sorry to say that they are not (and cannot be) broken down any further. (again, because we only assess for collection and disposal) So the Yard Waste and Recycling Collections are provided free of charge to the resident as a requirement of the contract by the vendor.

It is therefore the Vendor’s themselves that have to do their own cost analysis and not the County. I am sorry, I know that this does not answer your question directly but it is the only honest answer that can be provided at this point.

It is however, the County who has to provide to the Florida DEP its annual Recycling reportable totals. (The link you were provided with earlier) The Vendors due Report to the County each month how much recycling was picked up at curbside and how many homes Recycling was collected at on a monthly basis. But nothing else. So you still would not be able to do a cost analysis from these reports. These totals reflect only the information needed to fulfill the Annual DEP Reporting.

Again, I am sorry because I know that this does not directly answer your question but since the County does not incur any costs for Yard Waste / Recycling Collections it is the honest and best answer that I can provide to you.

If you wish to talk to me directly my contact information is listed below.

Thank you again for contacting the Hillsborough County Public Utilities Department.

Clifford J. Amundsen
Waste Reduction Specialist
Hillsborough County Public Utilities Department
Hillsborough County BOCC

REF 3

On 4/30/2012 11:41 AM, Henricks, Ron wrote:

Mr. Walker:

Thank you for your interest in recycling. Actually, it is the Legislature, not our department, that requires counties to do recycling. Back in 1988, the Legislature directed our department to set rules for and monitor implementation of the county recycling goals they first established at that time. One of the reasons for the goals was the Legislature’s concern about the increasing difficulty in siting new landfills due to Florida’s geology and also due to public resistance to new landfills. As far as I know, neither the Legislature or anyone else conducted any specific cost-benefit analysis of recycling in Florida.

In 2010, the Legislature increased the county recycling goals to 75% by the year 2020. This is the highest county recycling goals of any state in the nation.

If you would like some additional history concerning Florida’s recycling goals, please see our 75% recycling goal report, which we developed for the Legislature (per their request) shortly before their 2010 legislative session: http://www.dep.state.fl.us/waste/recyclinggoal75/pages/report.htm.

I hope this information is useful to you. Please feel free to contact me if you have any additional questions.

Ron Henricks, Environmental Administrator
Waste Reduction Section
Florida Department of Environmental Protection

 

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