Recycling: Is it the right thing to do?

Recycling, “it’s the right thing to do,” right? We hear that line in Montana a lot. And the people that use it gain the moral high ground against skeptics, like me. I have been accused of being an anti-environmentalist as a result. Environmentalist or not, I do believe in conservation. And recycling more to meet an arbitrary mandate does not necessarily make environmental sense.

Montana State University, like many others across the nation, has a goal to increase recycling. The stated goal is to cut waste by 25 percent by 2020. I am not sure where the 25 percent figure came from. It is a nice figure, divisible by five, sounds good.

The purpose is to reduce waste by recycling more because it saves money and is good for the environment. And, we are told, it reduces our carbon footprint. The argument is that recycling more means less garbage is sent to the landfill, so less money is spent in tipping fees. But the costs expended to do that extra recycling are not fully accounted for. The university may “save” money by sending less to the local landfill, but money is spent collecting and delivering the recyclables. A lot of that is done by individuals using their own time and resources to get the material to a common location. That energy and effort expended is hard to tabulate, so providing a fair analysis can be difficult.

Those recyclables then need to be delivered to the manufacturing plant where they are actually transformed. That can be a long way. That transportation takes energy, and more energy is used to remanufacture them. The additional transportation and remanufacturing have their own environmental impact.

Finally, by reducing the waste in the landfill there is less methane produced which can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Many new landfills actually collect methane, however, and use it to power homes and industry nearby. The local landfill here does not have that capability. But all that additional transport of recyclables and the remanufacturing increases carbon emissions. Whether those emissions are better or worse than the methane that would otherwise be emitted from the landfill has not been determined.

The bottom line is that recycling can be more or less environmentally friendly than the alternatives. It depends upon the materials being recycled, the location of recycling, or distance from remanufacturing, and who is doing the recycling. Recycling at the industry level, for example, often makes more environmental sense because the recyclable materials are already in one common location.

For more, see Dan Benjamin’s study on the myths of recycling.

Originally posted at Environmental Trends.


A Market to Conserve

Recently, several scientists proposed a market based solution to ensure the future of whales in nature. Tradable whale quotas, these scientists suggest, could reduce existing conflict and enhance cooperation.  Quota shares would be provided to member nations of the International Whaling Commission. Share holders could decide to maintain, use, trade, sell, or permanently retire their allocation. Similar to international fishing quotas (ITQs), the total allowable catch would be based on a scientifically determined sustainable harvest.

The proposal is no panacea but it does provide different incentives than the current leaky moratorium. Shareholders can decide if they value whales in the boat more or less than conservationists value them in the sea. Determining the allowable catch and enforcing catch limits is no easy task. An open market, however, can help improve cooperation and create better transparency than the often illicit trades that currently take place.

Many that are in opposition to whaling resist any commercial take. While a share market allows for that outcome–whale conservationists can purchase all the shares–it is unlikely. One great benefit of the proposal is that it will demonstrate the value of whales both dead and alive. Those opposed to whaling can purchase share quotas to hold or retire. Commercial whalers can purchase quotas for harvest. The policy would free resources for investment in whale management and conservation rather than demagoguery and the black market.

Originally posted at Environmental Trends.


Abundance in 2012

In 1980, Paul Ehrlich, a world famous biologist and author, accepted a bet proposed by Julian Simon, an economist. The bet was to resolve an ongoing debate about resource scarcity. Ehrlich chose five metals (copper, chromium, nickel, tin, and tungsten) and hypothetically bought $200 worth of each. If the real price of the metals increased over the following decade, Ehrlich wagered, it was an indication of increased scarcity. Simon won the bet. The real price of all five metals declined, signifying less scarcity.

Timing is everything. As demonstrated in the figure, the prices of metals wax and wane over time following an overall downward trend. Regardless, Simon’s point remains true. It is human ingenuity that prevents us from running out of resources – even finite resources. The key is not that prices continue to fall over time, rather that prices reflect consumer desires, and producers, given appropriate institutions, will respond.

Prices do reveal scarcity by increasing which, in turn, encourages conservation, substitution, and increased innovation and supply. In the end, the problem of scarcity is resolved by market coordination as shown by prices that peak and fall through the course of history.

Originally posted at Environmental Trends.


Bison: Public to Private

Nearly 70 bison will soon find their way from Yellowstone National Park to a couple of Montana Indian reservations. The transfer is the outcome of negotiations between the state Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Commission and tribal officials. The tribes have long wanted the majestic beasts to return to their native ground.

The long battle for relocation results from the fear of harm that the animals can cause on neighboring land, the spread of brucellosis is just one point of contention. Bison are not easy to contain and can cause costly property damage.

Property is the key word. The tribes are to take full ownership of the bison as their property. Hence, tribal members will be responsible for any harm the animals inflict on the property of others.

That makes this transfer different than repopulating the American West with wild Bison. Wildlife are owned by the state. The state, unlike private owners, is not responsible to compensate for the damage the creatures cause.

Therein lies much of the debate for the reintroduction of species: Who pays and who benefits? It is easy to support an idea that suits your preferences and costs you little. Affected property owners, however, may suffer inordinate costs.

Originally posted at Environmental Trends.


Christmas Trees: Real or Fake?

It is the time of year for the seasonal debate over the family Christmas tree: live or artificial? A live tree means removing a tree from the forest, or tree plantation, as it may be. A fake tree is usually an import from a foreign factory.

About 30 million live Christmas trees are sold in the US every year. That is a lot of trees. But do not fear! Our Christmas tree harvesting activities result in growing more trees, not less. Two or three seedlings are planted for nearly every single Christmas tree cut. Christmas tree plantations cover 350,000 acres of land in the US and are growing about 350 million trees. As long as people continue to demand a fresh tree at Christmas, farmers will continue to provide them.

While it is still popular in some regions, such as here in Montana, to head to the local National Forest to cut a tree, the majority of Christmas trees are grown on tree farms. Regardless, Forest Service permits to harvest a tree are issued to help manage the forest under agency guidelines.

At seasons end, real trees can be recycled and used for making everything from mulch to medicines, or to enhance wildlife habitat and prevent erosion. They can be cut into firewood and burned for home heat or as the centerpiece for your next weenie roast. They are even used as biomass to create energy.

Alternatively, you can buy a fake tree that is probably made in China. Artificial trees are not biodegradable, nor are they a good fuel source.

If Christmas is your holiday and you desire a tree, buy your Christmas tree with pride knowing that by purchasing a tree you are helping to plant several more.

Originally posted at Environmental Trends.


Thank You

As you enjoy your Thanksgiving feast, take a moment to look around at all there is to be thankful for; great food, and more of it growing on less land; great variety, goods are delivered to us daily from around the world; a clean environment, that contrary to much belief, is improving over time; resource abundance, even if finite in supply.

We should all be grateful for the abundance that surrounds us. Whether you are in the top 1 percent of income distribution or the other 99, we are all fortunate to live in a free country that gives us opportunity to enhance our wealth and prosperity, that provides us with a multitude of goods from around the world at affordable prices, and that gives us rights so that we can and do protect and invest in our resources. This Thanksgiving Day give thanks for the freedoms that we have, share your knowledge about their importance, and be prepared to stand up to maintain them.

“When it comes to life, the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.”  G.K. Chesterton (1874 – 1936)


Feeding More From Less

Halloween marked a new population milestone with the birth of the seven billionth person — an idea that is scary for some but sanguine for others. Worried about the finite resources available to a growing population, there is fear among some that we are headed toward famine and starvation in a world where population exceeds the earth’s carrying capacity.

A similar concern was demonstrated by Thomas Malthus 200 years ago. Population grows exponentially, Malthus explained, while food production grows at the slower arithmetic rate. Everything else the same, starvation would be indisputable.

Everything else is not the same. Crop yield is not constant, it has increased (see chart). The United States provides a good example of how population and food production have grown in a region with a strong rule of law. While corn yield has doubled nearly every ten years over the past half century, it took the population 36 years to double. At current rates of growth, it will be the next century before population doubles again. The growth in yield for other crops, such as wheat and rice, has also exceeded population growth rates (data here). In the end we are growing more food on less land, feeding ourselves and helping to feed the world.

Adapted from Environmental Trends.


Recycle the Intermountain West

Since 1997, more than 40 million acres of forests across the West have been devastated by pine beetle. The beetle is a natural predator, but historic timber management and climatic conditions have given advantage to the species in current times. The end result is tinderbox forests across the Intermountain region.

Fire is another natural predator in the forest. The increasing kindling in the forest — such as the bug-killed trees — together with growing development in the wildland-urban interface are a dire mix.

Recycling dead and dying trees through harvest and re-use is one method to reduce the problem. Though the timber value of small-diameter wood is low, there are beneficial uses. The wood can be used for firewood, fence posts, and poles, even garden mulch, but these are small players. The real potential is in biomass but existing uncertainties are making investment tenuous.

The inability of the Forest Service to provide a continuous supply of material is troublesome. It is not a lack of biomass material available on National Forest land, nor a question of the benefits from removing the material, rather it is the process of contracting for timber removal that is costly and time consuming. The Forest Service expenditure on procedure to allow timber harvest, even for restoration, is excessive and slow.

Another barrier to investment in biomass is forthcoming regulation on emissions. In spring of last year, the EPA instigated, then suspended, the tailoring rule. The rule would tax emissions from biomass energy production at a rate equal to fossil fuel emissions. The tax would marginalize the profitability of biomass production.

There is a significant difference in the carbon cycle between wood and fossil fuel energies. Wood sequesters carbon from the atmosphere in its living, tree form, then emits it back into the atmosphere when burned for energy. Put simply, it has net zero atmospheric emissions. Fossil fuel moves carbon that is held in the earth and releases it into the atmosphere when burned, causing a net increase in atmospheric carbon.

Recycling small diameter forest products is one answer that could help reduce the risk, and therefore the costs, of catastrophic wildfire in wildland-urban interface, while providing renewable energy. The fight to get there, however, is a battle between enviropreneurs, who see good environmental results from profitable economic activity, and environmental advocacy groups that see profit as evil and exploitive.

Originally posted at Environmental Trends.


A Decade to Determine Nothing

The Clinton administration signed off on the Roadless Rule [PDF] in 2001 to preserve 58.5 million acres of national forest land by preventing road construction, reconstruction, and timber harvest. The lands designated for roadless protection were inventoried in the 1970s to determine their merit for inclusion into the National Wilderness system. Some are now Wilderness; the rest remain under roadless and wilderness study area protection. Over the last decade, the Roadless Rule has been challenged, appealed, promulgated, upheld, replaced, and in the latest court decision on October 21, upheld again.

Of the 58.5 million acres of inventoried roadless, 24.2 prohibited road construction prior to the Roadless Rule. Of the 34.3 million acres remaining open to road construction, roads were built on less than three million acres between 1970 and 2001. Forest Service road building is declining in response to current agency policy, growing controversy, and agency multiple use goals.

The driving force behind the Roadless Rule was to protect the areas from fragmentation and move the lands into hands-off management status. There was, however, no eminent threat of road building and harvest on the land. The alternative would be to allow Forest Service managers, which are trained and educated in forest management, to manage the lands as directed by Forest Service goals and guided (and restricted) by applicable federal legislation and regulation.

Unfortunately, the management of our public lands is dictated by politics and court decisions that are slow at responding to the dynamics of nature. Between federal land regulations, legislation, and litigation, the hands of public land managers are essentially tied, but the Roadless Rule has them hog tied.

Public lands do, after all, belong to us all. By giving every one of us a say (educated on land management or not) in how they are managed we are getting non-active management — by intent, such as directed by the Roadless Rule, and default, through a continual barrage of appeals and litigation. That is exactly what some parties aim to achieve.

Originally posted at Environmental Trends.


State Parks: When in Doubt, Bail ’em Out

Amid the state’s budget crisis last spring, California’s governor threatened to close more than 70 state parks by the spring of 2012 to save the state money. This threat of park closure is a common occurrence in California and other states. Typically, the threat garners enough concern and uproar that funds are found. In fact, never in California Park’s century of existence has a park been closed due to lack of funding.

There are alternatives for state park systems to get out from under the ebb and flow of state finances. The state could lease park operations, for example, as has been demonstrated by private firms such as Recreation Resource Management (RRM). This is the topic of my recent PERC Case Study and a forthcoming RRM conference on public-private partnerships in parks.

The current sentiment to “bail out” troubled entities in our nation, however, is overwhelming. The National Park Service has negotiated with California State Parks to take over operations of at least three of the parks threatened for closure. But the National Park Service is not known for its abundant finances or even its stewardship. Add in the current federal financial situation and it does not seem to be a prime time for federal agencies to take on more responsibility and acreage for management.

Nonetheless, rather than let private entrepreneurs provide the desired recreation opportunities at the same or lower user price and make a dime, park agency bureaucrats prefer to have all taxpayers split the tab. It doesn’t have to work this way.

To read the case study, click here.


An Oil Plateau

We are running out of oil, so the story goes. A finite resource with limited supply and massive consumption — at some point the last drop will be used up, right? Wrong. The theory of peak oil is based on the assumption that global oil demand will continue to increase and as a result supply will eventually dwindle to nothing.  Both assumptions are myopic.

It is true that demand for oil has followed an increasing trend as developed and emerging countries increase use for production and personal vehicles. But at the same time efficiency has increased enabling us to get more power from less fuel.

On the supply side, proved oil reserves continue to grow. Yes, though a finite resource, the quantity that is economically viable to remove is increasing. Proved reserves are the known oil pools that are practical to access with current technology and price. As technology advances, so does the amount of oil that is economical to remove. While consumption in the decade between 1998 and 2008 was near 322 billion barrels, the available reserves grew by 480 billion barrels.

If supply does not keep up with demand, indeed, the price at the pump will rise. As it does, alternative energies become more appealing. They become more cost competitive and will be even more so with technological advances. The future will bring a transformation from the current-day oil economy to increased use of alternative energy sources. Daniel Yergin calls this the oil plateau in his recent persuasive article.

We did not depart the Stone Age by running out of stones. Nor will we run out of oil. It is markets that will determine the end of oil use. The last pools will be too expensive, relative to the alternatives, to extract. It is markets that will harness the next energy source that will lead us into the next era.

Originally posted at Environmental Trends.

Wolf Counts and Management Costs

Largely extirpated in the 1930s, wolves were reintroduced into the Rocky Mountain Region of the United States in 1995. The recovery plan required approximately 300 wolves, as defined by at least 10 breeding pairs in three distinct regions. Today there are more than 1500 wolves in the combined regions and more than 20 breeding pairs in each region. Yet debate continues over the removal of the gray wolf from endangered species status.

Even though wolf numbers exceed recovered status according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, many groups continue to oppose their delisting. The debate, fought in both the courts and Congress, has cost individuals and taxpayers millions of dollars (see chart above).

According to the Fish and Wildlife Service [PDF], “Delisting the [Northern Rocky Mountain] wolf population would allow implementation of a more efficient, sustainable, and cost-effective wildlife conservation model, but has been difficult to achieve.” In the meantime, the costs of wolf management increases with their population.

Originally posted at Environmental Trends.