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It's the environment, see?

For anybody who thinks about these things for longer than a couple of seconds, it's pretty much clear that recycling is something that should happen to scarce, valuable resources rather than cheap and readily available ones. This is because recycling itself uses resources, so you don't want to expend a load of time, money, effort and materials in order to get something that is not worth very much.

In the FT today, Pillita Clark notes that the collapse of oil prices has put plastic recyclers under a great deal of pressure, as container makers have started to prefer virgin material to recycled. Some companies in the trade have collapsed as a result. This is as it should be. The effort of collecting, sorting and then grinding up old plastic bottles is clearly too high when the product has a low value.

Moreover, according to Clark plastic bottles are relatively inert. This of course is a good thing, meaning that they are not much of a problem in landfill, so it looks very much as if there are no significant externalities that might lead us to the wrong result. (In fact, Clark presents the stability of the bottles as a problem - "[plastic] can take so long to decompose that it is a menace to the environment" - but I'm not sure she has thought it through: if they are not decomposing, they are not any kind of "menace".)

So, the market works its magic, seeking out and destroying the least-efficient ways of doing things, with the inevitable result that those whose ways and means have been made redundant scream for politicians to help them:

In the UK, the dilemma lower oil prices are posing for plastic recyclers has led to calls for more industry support.

Stuart Foster, chief executive officer Recoup, the industry support group, says surveys have shown consumers would support laws giving bottle manufacturers a responsibility to include recycled content in plastic milk bottles, even if that meant higher prices for consumers.

“The financial drivers need to exist for manufacturers to actually use recycled instead of virgin plastic in their products,” he adds.

There can be little doubt that the measures demanded will be implemented; either voluntarily or imposed upon us by the EU bureaucracy. Expect lots of money to be wasted on driving empty plastic bottles around the country and grinding them into pellets. Its the environment, see?

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Reader Comments (67)

Genuinely gobsmacked by this post.

I just, I can't even, I give up.

[BH adds: Good argument!]

Apr 30, 2015 at 10:54 AM | Unregistered CommenterGubulgaria

The eternal question.

Why are people so stupid?

Apr 30, 2015 at 11:00 AM | Unregistered CommenterGeckko

I've long been intrigued by the fact that aluminum and glass are commonly the most economically recyclable of materials, despite silica and aluminium compounds being among the most common materials in the earth's crust. What's common to the two is the need for cheap electricity to fuse the silica or separate the aluminium from the ore. It takes much less energy to melt the glass and aluminium than to make it in the first place.

I can't be bothered to check, but I've read that Napoleon and Josephine had a set of aluminium silverware; the metal was rarer than gold in the elemental state, and the electrical process for making the metal from bauxite had not yet been invented.

It's somewhat counterintuitive, because you'd think that sustainability would require recycling rare things. Heh, what's being made rare is cheap energy.....unsustainable, that expensive energy.

Apr 30, 2015 at 11:07 AM | Unregistered Commenterkim

Paper, plastics, wood can all be burnt to get energy.

The most scarce resource is time, it cannot be recycled.

Apr 30, 2015 at 11:07 AM | Unregistered CommenterJohn Marshall

Kim, you are wrong about glass as glass making needs cullet (broken glass) to make the process less energy hungry, moulton glass melts at a lower temperature and this helps to melt the silica lime basic materials.

Aluminium matal melts at 640C but the ore at 1000C, again less energy required recovering the metal.

Apr 30, 2015 at 11:13 AM | Unregistered CommenterJohn Marshall

When I was a lad, milk came in glass bottles that were returned, washed and re-used. It was delivered in electric milk-floats - now a very rare sight. We were much greener in the 1970s than we are now.

Apr 30, 2015 at 11:13 AM | Registered CommenterPaul Matthews

I thought there'd been an uptick in the already high rate of fires at recycling centres.

Apr 30, 2015 at 11:15 AM | Unregistered CommenterTinyCO2

Where I live in the US, we have three varieties of collection -- garbage/trash to the landfill, recyclables (glass, paper, cans, plastic) and yard waste (to be composted by the city and sold). Each collected by its own very large truck. Zoom, Brake, Zoom, Brake, Zoom, Brake up one side of the street and down the other.

Wall Street Journal ...
High Costs Put Cracks in Glass-Recycling Programs

Some cities pull back as processors begin to charge for accepting trash-heavy shipments

Apr 30, 2015 at 11:21 AM | Unregistered CommenterSpeed

Wait a minute even I, as a regular supporter of the views expressed on this blog, feel uneasy about filling holes with plastic bottles. I accept the Bish's point that they are not going to ruin (poison) the environment but our household produces quite a few each week so multiplied all round won't we get mountains of air filled bottles? Landfill sites are in short supply as most of us resent the noise dust and smell associated with them. Recycling has other benefits as well as reducing the need for the original material.

Apr 30, 2015 at 11:23 AM | Unregistered CommenterAnthony Hanwell

"“The financial drivers need to exist for manufacturers to actually use recycled instead of virgin plastic in their products,” he adds."

"The financial drivers are now working against us, so the State should step in to over-ride the financial drivers, push up the prices, and give us more of everyone else's money."

There, I fixed that for you.

Apr 30, 2015 at 11:26 AM | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Duffin

Paul Matthews
When I was a lad lemonade and beer came in glass bottles with a 3d deposit. Us village kids would hunt round for those left in ditches and hedges as a source of irregular and unpredictable income (rather like power from wind turbines). The less honest of us would try to recycle already recycled bottles; the supply of the unreturned ones was fairly meagre for some reason ;-)

Apr 30, 2015 at 11:29 AM | Unregistered CommenterSandyS

@Paul Matthews: where we lived in the 70's, the milk floats were still horse-drawn. Does that mean I can feel superior to you because we were even greener?

Oh, and we got to shovel up free manure from the streets, too!

Apr 30, 2015 at 11:30 AM | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Duffin

It seems that the hackneyed old expression about the loonies taking over the asylum is still applicable

Apr 30, 2015 at 11:30 AM | Unregistered CommenterPeter Stroud

11.23 My last sentence would be better expressed as " Recycling has other benefits than just reducing the need for the original material"

Apr 30, 2015 at 11:31 AM | Unregistered CommenterAnthony Hanwell

Some good news in an early comment too!

Apr 30, 2015 at 11:32 AM | Unregistered CommenterSandyS

11.23 My last sentence would be better expressed as " Recycling has other benefits than just reducing the need for the original material"

Apr 30, 2015 at 11:34 AM | Unregistered CommenterAnthony Hanwell

To be a bit fairer to the recycling industry - there is another aspect to plastic recycling over and above its cost - that is it is pretty much indestructible, so causes large land-fill problems.

Apr 30, 2015 at 11:36 AM | Unregistered CommenterTheBigYinJames

Landfill is, of course, a form of recycling.
When you have swathes of countryside that have been devoted to sand, gravel, and limestone workings or opencast coal mining then you have the choice of leaving the remains as an eyesore, and a potentially hazardous one at that, or filling it in and bringing it back into use as farming land, recreational land, or land for commercial development or housing (after due diligence on any potential drawbacks to health and welfare, of course).
This is what is usually called these days a "no-brainer" especially bearing in mind two things: 1. that land is a relatively scarce resource in the UK; 2. God has, by and large, stopped making any (the occasional volcanic island excepted). So you would assume that it makes economic and social sense to recycle those things that need to be recycled either because of raw material scarcity or on cost grounds (John Marshall demonstrates good examples) while the rest can, with proper regulations be used to bring derelict land back into productive use.
This concept appears to be beyond the comprehension of politicians, environmentalists and people with a vested interest in the recycling business.
(Also, probably, Great Uncle Trollgaria though I can't quite work out what his post actually means.)

What problems? The UK excavates more volume in raw materials per annum than it generates in inert waste. It's the inert stuff — rubble, glass, plastic, most general detritus — that fills up the holes. The indestructibility is a plus not a minus.

Apr 30, 2015 at 11:38 AM | Registered CommenterMike Jackson

If it's worth recycling drunks and drug addicts will do it for free

Apr 30, 2015 at 11:40 AM | Unregistered CommenterTmitsss

And still we do not use bio-degradable plastic bottles.....

Apr 30, 2015 at 11:43 AM | Unregistered CommenterSteve Richards

Occupying landfill space is not "the" problem; the problem is the tax (2015 = £82.60/tonne) the government decided to impose on local authorities who pass the costs onto rate payers.

When Stuart Foster, chief executive officer Recoup, bleats “The financial drivers need to exist for manufacturers to actually use recycled instead of virgin plastic in their products,” he really means raise Landfill Tax rates.

Apr 30, 2015 at 11:49 AM | Unregistered CommenterJoe Public

Well I can see your point but I guess the journalist meant they are a menace to sea and river life - which is undeniably true. I don't feel particularly happy either about just burying plastic when it's incredibly easy to melt and reshape. The big effort is in separation but it would be a hell of a lot easier if they just colour coded different plastics. Neither is landfill a zero-cost sustainable option. What happened to these plasma garbage disposal systems that turn all waste into usable syngas. Did nobody buy any?

Apr 30, 2015 at 11:52 AM | Unregistered CommenterJamesG

Again we have the vested interests overlooking the plight of the population in general, a period of silence from them all would be desirable. They are all hypocrites looking only at their own bank balances and the People and Country can go to Hell.

Apr 30, 2015 at 11:53 AM | Unregistered CommenterDerek Buxton

Since the material to make plastic is going to run-out or become prohibitively expensive, the Greens claim, then we owe it to future generations to store, safely, used plastic and glass etc. in Gaia given holes in the ground for later use. In the mean time the sites can be used for other purposes.

Apr 30, 2015 at 12:02 PM | Unregistered CommenterJoseph Sydney

Check your council tax bill. Look for the rebate you get for recycling.

If it's money saved then it's resources saved and so your bill goes down.
If it's money lost then it's resources lost and so your bill goes up.

Bet you'll find your wasting resources through recycling.

Apr 30, 2015 at 12:07 PM | Unregistered CommenterMCourtney

Plastics getting into the ocean is an issue. Taking a black sticky substance out of the ground changing its structure a little, using it for a short while & then putting it back in the ground is not pollution.

Apr 30, 2015 at 12:10 PM | Unregistered CommenterPaul

@Paul Matthews
...We were much greener in the 1970s than we are now.

Er, yes. We were also much 'greener' in the 1770s than the 1970s. Further to that, we were much 'greener' in the 1270s than the 1870s...

Do you see a pattern emerging? 'Green' is effectively defined as 'not industrially advanced'. The greens want to turn the clock back a thousand years....

Apr 30, 2015 at 12:13 PM | Unregistered CommenterDodgy Geezer

Glass was 'recycled' as hardcore for the m56. Landfill by another name.

Shows how much value the product has.

It's sand for goodness sake.

Apr 30, 2015 at 12:14 PM | Unregistered CommenterClovis Marcus

Climate science likes to recycle old, failed ideas. Despite all the glitzy and expensive repackaging, they are still the same old, failed ideas. The only difference being that every time old failed ideas are repackaged as new and improved, they cost ten times as much.

The Grauniad has quietly dropped Peak Oil theory, and repackaged it as Keep it in the Ground, without ever conceding what went wrong with Peak Oil. A lot of time and energy went into Peak Oil, and it has been dumped. What a waste.

When they can make recycling bins, out of 100% recycled materials ................

Apr 30, 2015 at 12:14 PM | Unregistered Commentergolf charlie

Apr 30, 2015 at 11:29 AM | Unregistered CommenterSandyS

Ah yes, the joy we felt when we managed to get a few cider bottles through the fence at the back of the offy, just to take them back in the front door for the deposit, was far greater than the money was worth ;)

And our smiths crisps with the blue twist of salt never tasted as good as when they were paid for with the proceeds of crime ;)

Misspent youth eh?

Apr 30, 2015 at 12:21 PM | Unregistered CommenterClovis Marcus

if they are not decomposing, they are not any kind of "menace"

Sorry, but I think this is very wrong. Plastic does lots of bad things to wild life and to the rivers and seas. This doesn't become less bad because it's cheaper.

Apr 30, 2015 at 12:48 PM | Unregistered Commentersteveta_uk

"Why are people so stupid?"

Well, if your pay cheque depends on it...

Apr 30, 2015 at 12:56 PM | Unregistered CommenterDaveS


My point presupposes proper disposal.

Apr 30, 2015 at 1:13 PM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill

In the late 80's, I was involved in a European working group investigating consumer safety aspects of recycled materials. Recycled plastics and paper are not allowed to be used for food packaging because their recycling processes are not extreme enough to remove/destroy any potential toxic contaminants (the only exceptions being production-line wastage).

Interestingly, at that time, although clear and brown glass bottles and containers were being recycled within Europe, all green glass was sent to Brazil for recycling, I never found out why.

Apr 30, 2015 at 1:13 PM | Registered CommenterSalopian

Apr 30, 2015 at 11:26 AM | Andrew Duffin
agree +1

I don't know how such companies could get into trouble ..there are some very well paid and well 'informed consultants advising them is called Lord Debden.

By coincidence Veolia (who he was chairman of) run a High Temperature Incineration plant "Our Ellesmere Port rotary kiln incinerator is not only the largest of its kind in the UK but is also one of the most technically advanced HTI facilities in Europe. "
There is another at Southampton.

Apr 30, 2015 at 1:18 PM | Registered Commenterstewgreen

Applying that same argument, we should stop fracking, now that the Saoudi's have managed to drive the oil price down.

So no, I don't agree. Furthermore, the argument relies on the implicit assumption that the environment should not cost anything. In reality, we already pay a lot to protect the environment and we experience the benefits of it all the time. But of course, there needs to be a certain balance between benefits and cost.

Apr 30, 2015 at 1:21 PM | Unregistered CommenterCees


That's only true if unconventional oil is more expensive than conventional. True for some fields, not for others.

I've addressed the cost of the environment issue in the text - viz "externalities".

Apr 30, 2015 at 1:24 PM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill

Very good Penn & Teller vid. So if landfill sites are generating methane gas for power plants then surely that is partial-recycling.

Of course if you take the 'if it costs too much it's no good' argument too far then you end up saying -'why collect it, let's save even more money by just throwing it away'. We were already forced to make a choice to collect rubbish which costs us extra money for the sake of public health & safety. And some places clearly go a bit further by lining its landfill sites and adding a methane extraction system too. Forcing us to spend such extra money is indeed for our own good. We would not have made that choice willingly - and if you doubt that you need to pay a visit to China.

But local councils have seemingly made a choice that meaningless recycling should be ring-fenced while more important things like community-care or public transport can be sacrificed. Then they blame current austerity rather than previous profligacy!

Apr 30, 2015 at 1:30 PM | Unregistered CommenterJamesG

Of course plastics do degrade to harmless end products in the environment by the combined action of physical forces and oxygen/sunlight/seawater etc. It's just that it appears unsightly to many eyes while doing so. Hence the carrier bag laws in various places.

While I'm sure that some young swans will occasionally choke on an article, the worst plastic offences I see in the environment are the little presents comprising dog lead wrapped in a plastic bag. It probably accelerates the decomposition of the plastic while slowing the dispersion of the noxious biological products.

Apr 30, 2015 at 1:47 PM | Unregistered Commentermichael hart

Putting plastic bottle in Landfill - is the best possible form of "carbon capture" because it's totally free.

which is why no one advocates it - because these "green policies" don't get supported for any actual benefit to the environment, but because someone stands to make a lot of money out of it

Same with solar heat collectors. There's one type that is far and above the most efficient most cost effective form of solar heat collector and it's called: "A window". But being so free and cheap it doesn't need subsidy so none of these green sharks have worked out how they can make money from it. So no one talks above the free solar energy collectors called windows.

Apr 30, 2015 at 1:56 PM | Registered CommenterMikeHaseler

MikeHaseler, be careful with windows, they have been taxed before ....

Apr 30, 2015 at 2:08 PM | Unregistered Commentergolf charlie

All part of making us all feel guilty about living or even existing! As per Agenda 21. I used to work in landfill preparing monitoring plans for ones all over Devon, & checking the methane/CO2 output from each. Many were on farms where a sidued railway cutting ran through the land, & they were only loosely licenced but never really monitored. There was lots of talk about venting landfill sites freeing up the methane gas for use, & I wouldn't be surprised if British Gas as was leant a helpful hand somewhere down the line (no pun intended). Squashed by greenalism! I still incinerating waste is best as one can generate electricity from it. Unfortunately the greens just stick their fingers in their ears & close their eyes & scream "No, no, no, no, no, no, no,no," ad infinitum! Good Penn & Teller video though.

Apr 30, 2015 at 2:26 PM | Unregistered CommenterAlan the Brit

Apologies, "disused" that should have read.

Apr 30, 2015 at 2:34 PM | Unregistered CommenterAlan the Brit


Lots of information in the Penn & Teller presentation, but it's definitely not safe for work.

I have been saying those things since the 1990's, and now my son believes me, thanks to a comedian.

Apr 30, 2015 at 2:52 PM | Unregistered CommenterJames Strom

A mine is a place close to transportation where valuable things are in high enough concentration
that they can be extracted for a profit.

A landfill is a mine. Whether the plastic tubs and pill bottles are recycled next week or next century,
is of no consequence except that it's likely to be more economically favourable next century.
I see nothing wrong with disposing of this kind of trash into 'sorted' landfills where a bit of curbside labour
at your house and onsite sensor driven sorting could make quite a nice little 'ore pocket' for your grandchildren's use.

Apr 30, 2015 at 4:21 PM | Unregistered CommenterL Leeman

Perhaps it would become more acceptable if renamed PCS - plastics capture & sequestration.

Apr 30, 2015 at 5:04 PM | Registered CommenterHaroldW

Usually I find myself on the side of CAGW skeptics/realists. In this posting I understand the free-market premise behind recycling versus virgin materials. However, several of the points are a bit off. For aluminum, recycling is inherently cost effective. Aluminum minerals are extremely abundant in the earth's crust, however refining bauxite and electrowinning aluminum from the oxide is roughly 10X the energy cost of remelting the metal (recycling). Glass presents recycling issues due to contamination (colors vs. clear)--it's energy savings thru recycling are minimal. Plastic recycling has similar issues--separation and cross-contamination. The economic benefit is primarily due to reducing landfill costs and the effects on incinerator scrubbing systems from some of the materials. Paper products follow the economics--recycle, reapply, burn, or landfill--the choice is driven by cost.
A factor not considered in the post is the capital costs of recycling facilities. The cost of recycle materials undergoes wild swings (it is produced without a "demand" so the supply is very inelastic). The "general good" of resource recycling is fair justification for some level of regulation to dampen this volatility. The unfortunate side is that "regulation" tends toward heavy handed command-and-control in most government agencies.

Apr 30, 2015 at 5:12 PM | Unregistered CommenterBobJ62

L Leeman:

Domestic rubbish collection in rural areas of the UK was relatively rare until the 50's. Up until then you had a limited number of choices to deal with what you couldn't burn - either chuck it down a hole such as a disused mine or well, or dig a hole in the garden and bury it.

I have plenty experience of the first as a mine explorer - there are literally hundreds of mine shafts if Salop and Powys stuffed full of 60+year-old domestic rubbish. As far as the latter, I found a midden deposit in the garden of the house I'm restoring that included 4 bucketfuls of pre-war lead-zinc batteries.

BTW, Severn-Trent have just finished a lengthy clean-up of the upper Wye, 60% of the rubbish removed was agricultural plastics.

Apr 30, 2015 at 5:25 PM | Registered CommenterSalopian

Well this is a first for me - I totally disagree with a BH post.

Our countryside is filling up with plastic. Maybe not up in Scotland yet, but down here in the south of England our country lanes are littered with plastic. Actually it's not just the country lanes, I had the misfortune to visit Swindon a while ago. It looks like someone has built a town in the middle of a landfill site.

Apr 30, 2015 at 5:49 PM | Unregistered CommenterJames Evans

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