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Part 1: Mark Baumer Reflection: Impounding Vehicles & Immigrant Rights

This is part of a multi-part reflection I've been doing following the death of my friend, Mark Baumer . There's nothing graphic i...

Trashy Business

Image from the NY Times recycling piece.
The New York Times had a very well-written, thoughtful opinion piece on the way we approach recycling (hat tip to Aaron Renn, who tweeted it out). A lot of what it said I roughly knew in some form or other, but it organized ideas in a way that I hadn't thought of them. 

I'm sure many of you know, for instance, that the most useful things to recycle are metals, glass, and paper, roughly in that order. Metals are really worth your effort to recycle: aluminum cans made from newly mined aluminum use twenty times as much energy to be produced as cans from recycled aluminum, and of course there's also the issue of toxicity from mining. Conveniently, metals, glass, and paper are also pretty easy to recycle compared to some other goods. 

Plastics are much less worth our time to recycle, and some plastics are practically unrecyclable. But the NY Times article brought to clarity something I've often wondered: is it worth my time to wash a plastic peanut butter jar? According to The Times, if the hot water in your house is heated by fossil fuels, the answer is an emphatic no. You'd be far better to throw the jar away. Insights like these were new to me. The overall point of the piece is that we need to think about these cost-benefit analyses when we decide what our approach to trash is, because though we may wish to do good in our actions, sometimes our well-wishing does more harm than good. It also brings, arguably, an interesting complimentary study to questions about why working class families are less likely to recycle (I know I've had some trouble convincing some members of my family). It argues that recycling is a very labor-intensive act in a world that increasingly highly values labor but does not value things, and that only relatively affluent people are going to go through the effort to carefully wash a peanut butter jar to put in the recycling (more on that jar later. . . ). 

Incidentally, Providence's rate of recycling, 25%, isn't as bad as you might think (at least according to the Times piece). The piece says that experts contend that only about 35% of U.S. waste is worth our time and effort, environmentally and economically, to recycle. So arguably we're pretty close to where we should be. I'm not going to pass final verdict on whether that's true, and I'd be fascinated to hear counterpoints in the comment section (with citations, not just from your butt) but learning that certainly made me feel better.

The Times article brings up an issue of importance and then simply glosses over it: what is the effect of the trash and recycling trucks on our streets? The article suggests that efforts to collect recycling and compost in cities is a negative with the exception of certain highly-recyclable items, in part due to the added truck traffic. Trash trucks are actually something I've spent some time thinking about, so I wanted to stretch my mind here and think this issue through.

Trash trucks are really bad for the environment, and of course, a recycling truck is just a trash truck with different paint on the outside, and different freight inside. A Governing article on the subject cites an average efficiency of trash trucks of 3 miles per gallon. A big issue that leads to this inefficiency is not only the fact that trucks are heavy diesel vehicles, but also that they move along at walking speed. It's the worst possible use of a technology--trucks should be what we carry huge things long distances very quickly in, not tools for hovering around at 2 mph. 

The Governing article suggests that a "quiet revolution" is happening by changing trucks to compressed natural gas. I'm agnostic on this question: diesel is a tremendously polluting source of fuel, not just in the trendy climate-related ways that we've been heavily talking about lately, but also in terms of deadly lung ailments. Though trucks are a tiny part of the vehicle mix, they account for a majority of the particulate matter from transportation--that's the stuff that gives you asthma and lung cancer, and it strikes whether you believe in climate change or not.  Having natural gas in place of diesel would certainly help with that, although as many others have pointed out, natural gas is not exactly a great green savior come to rescue us either. It has a lot fewer of the particulate issues, but escaped methane and ground water pollution from fracking are serious issues to be considered too.

A more important "revolution" might be rethinking how we use trucks. This issue of them moving at walking speed is very fixable. We can use bike carts to collect trash, recyclables, and the like and carry them to central depositories, where larger trucks can take hauls that are too large or too long distance for bikes to go. The efficiency of a trash truck moving at full speed without stopping is--much like with your car--going to be a great deal better than when it's rolling along house by house by house. 

The other question to bring up with the NY Times article is whether it's really fair to lump truck pollution into the problems with recycling. I'm not going to claim expertise on this, and it's possible I've misthought the question too. But the way I look at it, if my peanut butter jar is not worth recycling, then I still have to throw it out. That jar is going in a truck one way or the other. It seems plausible to argue that you need two trucks (or at least, two truck trips) to pick up trash and recycling separately, but the same Governing article I cited earlier says that cities are very quickly finding ways to put trash and recycling in the same trucks. So it seems like a case of double counting.

A local Rhode Islander who lived abroad told me once that the Danish have huge trash bins under the sidewalk at the end of each block, with separate holes for people to put trash, recyclables, and compost. Families in cities are expected to walk to the end of the block and toss things down the various slots, and a truck comes--once--to the end of the block to pick the whole thing up. The closest thing I found to confirmation on this tale was this about underground containers that are conveyed to their destinations using pipelines--I have to admit that sounds more fanciful than practical, and compared to the truck story, for some reason doesn't add up to me as a reasonable solution to the problem. But hey, what do I know?

Here's a great video some acquaintances of mine in Philadelphia made back when they were running a "pedal coop" to pick up recyclables (Philadelphians were not the first to do this--in the United States, at least, the first people to think of it were people in Northampton, Mass., which has a much more sprawly, snowier, and hillier terrain than Philadelphia--or for that matter, Rhode Island). 

The coop was practical because the City of Philadelphia did not collect recyclables for businesses, and some businesses were willing to pay bikers to collect recyclables rather than a truck. Philadelphia has areas to drop recycling and trash that are actually reachable by bike. I put some time and effort into thinking about whether such a thing was possible here, because obviously making money to bike around all day would be a dream for me. It's not practical here because the trash and recycling goes to Johnston--very far, very uphill, and very un-bike-friendly. It's a worthy and valid discussion for us to talk about what we recycle, and what we throw out. But we should be thinking about how to plan our pick-up areas to allow bikes to do the short-distance hauls, and have the trucks come into things only for the larger, more long-distance jobs. 



  1. What about waste diversion to conserve landfill space and increase the functional lifetime of the landfill? How would that affect the math of every family throwing away every bit of plastic packaging that isn't "energy efficient" to wash out? Also, why use hot water, cold water and a little extra effort work pretty darn well too.

    Or, switch to less package intensive solutions - grind your own PB (or if you can afford whole foods, use their grind your own bins with reusable containres), make your own yogurt, buy milk in paper containers which are more easily recycled? Of course, convincing people to make those changes more generally will likely be harder than convincing people to recycle more, which means perhaps some packaging regulation/standards need to be enforce (and unfortunately, it would have to be national to be effective/implentable).

    Also, while glass may be easily recycle, at least in RI, most of the time it is not, because it is not cost effective to ship the glass to the nearest facilities/companies that handle that portion of the waste stream. So it gets pulverized and buried along with all the nappies, compostables and unrecycled plastics.

    1. Reuse is definitely better, and making choices about what materials to buy in the first place is also important (and I agree with your point about incentives towards certain materials, as does the author to some extent).

      For the purposes of this article, I'm not necessarily endorsing the author's views on recycling, though I find them interesting. I just wanted to address the trash truck aspect, which I thought was worth a deeper look too.

    2. So, extrapolate the costs... How much trash/recycling could a single person on a purpose built bicycle shift how far to a neighborhood collection point, assuming a living wage of $12/hour. Then scale it up, how many people would be needed to service the city of providence in one week? What about winter? What's the operating cost of two trucks and driver to provide service to the same bit of neighborhood or city?

      Perhaps horse drawn wagons are more appropriate technology for trash collection in urban environments (slow moving, largish cargo capacity) than bicycles in terms of the time use of the workers (I would imagine that bicycle collectors are going to spend more time running empty to return bins and move to the next house in sequence)

      Out of curiosity, have you been to Mackinaw Island? No motor vehicles except emergency vehicles and snowmobiles are permitted, all other transport is by foot, bicycle or horse drawn carriage/cart.

    3. I'm not sure what the labor costs pencil out to. In the old days, trash trucks had two or three workers. Nowadays, it's more like one driver, and the truck just mechanically picks up the bins. But even with just one driver, some bike cart services could have parity. The bike and the truck waste time in roughly the same way, as a proxy for labor costs, but the mechanical repair, insurance, and diesel for the trucks tips the scales. You might have an advantage, too, in the fact that people somewhat enjoy biking. I would do a shift of bike pickup for much less than I'd be willing to do most other jobs, because I like the work. In a lifetime assessment of costs, assuming that drivers get health benefits--which they should--you could also imagine that bikers would come ahead.

      But obviously there would be two slanted lines that meet somewhere at an optimal. I wouldn't suggest that even in urban environments that we should get rid of the trucks, just that we should use them differently. If you had people collect their trash and bring it to a central depository, the trucks could provide a more minimal service of taking the large loads off to dumps.

      By the way, in regard to your question about running out of space in landfills, the NY Times commenter says that this is not really a serious threat as thought before, although the more that I thought about what he said, the more qualms I have with that as well. It may very well be true that land is cheap and available and that even our biggest projections of trash account for tiny fractions of a percent of the land we have, but there's still the fact that new landfills would likely be further away, thus increasing the transportation costs. Assuming that we do accept that reality, what trucks would be good for is taking things to those landfills further away (barges would make sense too). Bike carts would do the more local work of collecting things to those areas of long-distance departure.