So… recycling is mostly bogus

I’ve been doing some reading up on recycling, and it’s kind of distressing. It turns out the whole thing is mostly bogus.

1) It doesn’t save money. Only recycled aluminum saves anybody any money. The rest of it — paper, plastic, “green”, whatever — is all subsidized by local, state, and in some cases federal money.

2) It doesn’t help the environment. In most cases more energy is spent creating new stuff from old stuff than creating new stuff from raw stuff. Paper comes from tree-farm trees, not old-growth forests, so you’ve got a renewable resource right there. I’m not sure what the energy I/O is for plastics, but since you’ve usually got oil-fired equipment making your oil-based goods, burning more fuel oil in order to save a bit on the longer-chain polymers is likely a wash. Again, aluminum is the notable exception. This is why aluminum recyclers and junkyards full of metal don’t need government subsidies.

3) Landfills are good things. With current technology and “green” legislation surrounding them, they don’t stink, and they end up as beautiful parks, wildlife preserves, and golf courses when they’re filled up. We’re not running out of space for them, either. Note also that landfills end up as very, very deep carbon sinks for those of you worried about greenhouse gases. Tree-farm trees soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, that carbon stays in the paper they get turned into, and then we BURY IT FOREVER. Oh, and then we plant MORE TREES.

4) It makes us feel good. Um… so what? I’d rather learn to feel good planting trees than sorting my plastic wastes.

I got onto this anti-recycling kick after watching a very entertaining episode of “Penn & Teller: Bullshit” on DVD. But that was just entertainment (and rather foul-mouthed entertainment at that), right? I decided to do some reading up, to see how much of what they were saying actually held water.

It turns out it all did. Recycling is a Big Lie, perpetrated by misguided, uneducated idealists, and funded by People In Favor of Big Government.

Okay, before you flame me, read up a bit.
Link, Link, Link. From those articles you should be able to Google your way into all kinds of additional information.

All that said, we have a recycling bin here at home and we’re keeping it. Why? Because the taxpayers here in Orem, UT are subsidizing it. I can get a recycling bin for $3.00 a month, or another garbage can for $6.00 a month. I no longer harbor any illusion about the recycling being “good.” It’s just a trash can I don’t mind keeping in the garage because what goes into it isn’t smelly.


101 thoughts on “So… recycling is mostly bogus”

  1. In consumer recycling, aluminum is profitable because Al is mined in the form of bauxite ore, which requires large amounts of power to refine. In industrial recycling, the general split is metals: worth it, plastics: not.

  2. Actually, the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island is an eyesore, and a nosesore. It really does smell, even from accross the road. More than that, there’s documentation that the cancer rate amongst residents in the Fresh Kills area is statistically higher than the rest of the island. Enough documentation that plans to build a NASCAR track went all the way out to Red Hook rather than pave over the landfill (which has been ‘closed’ by the way, so it doesn’t stink so much in recent years.)

    Now, there are probably “smart” and safe ways to make landfills, and Fresh Kills probably isn’t one of them. Plus there’s the plastic, styrofoam, and other non-degradables that get thrown in there. Not sure what the ideal solution would be.

    1. You have to be careful throwing around “non-degradable”, I don’t think there is such a thing. Mother Nature is resourceful, and things evolve to eat almost anything. Look at the change of the PCB profile in the Hudson River because of bacteria actually eating it.

      Now, those things evolving in a time frame useful to humans or before people get hurt, that’s something completely different.

    2. You also should realize that the plastics and styrofoam are made from a non biodegradable product. So you are really just taking oil from under the ground in one place, changing the nature of the product, and then placing it in the ground somewhere else.

      As for better landfills, you bet they are designing ones that are more useful. Alot of newer landfills have piping systems to remove the methane from the degrading agents in the trash that then run to a generator to help supply cheap electricity to the local comunity. How is that for helping the enviroment?

      1. Except that crude oil is biodegradeable. Otherwise the gulf of mexico would be sitting under several inches of oil slick right now. (The GoM is the site of the largest oil “spill” on earth, except that it is more of a long term oil seep, and it is naturally occuring.) Bioremediation of oil spills is easy. PCB is harder (and requires some tricky conditions.) But since PCBs (and other PCHs) are relatively small simple molecules, it isn’t impossible. Same with the PAH series of industrial wastes. Plastics on the other hand are several orders of magnitude harder to break down through microbial means. Annoyingly enough the way our regulations work, manufacturers can call a plastic product “biodegradable” even if only a fraction of the material is degradable. This caused problems for farmers in the midwest because they were buying these sheets of “biodegradable” plastics which were actually pannels of trashbag plastic connected by thin strips of a degradable plastic. The next year they would come out to their fields to find them covered with thousands of little meter square sheets of plastic that they had to remove by hand.

        1. I agree with you there, but even if we were to never recycle another plastic bottle we would never fill all of our landfill space. Think about it, how much land has oil under it? Then how much of that oil is used for the creation of plastic products? I will admit that the products take up almost 100x the space of there crude elements, but that still doesn’t add up to alot of the over all land space of the earth.

          I read somehere that you could fit 1000 years of americas trash in a land fill that was something like 100 miles square and still have some room left over (this included increased pop growth) which seems large, but when you break that down by community that is nothing.

          Then you take in the cost of recycling the product, the chemicals used in recycling the product, the polution put out by the factories and trucks in processing and transport, the man hours used sorting the recyclables, and you just have to ask yourself if it is worth it.

          By the way, love the Usagi icon! Did you get that from the UY Dojo or did you make it yourself?

          1. Actually, splitting the landfill up is probably a bad idea. If you have it localized then any adverse effects of a massive landfill will also be localized.
            We have no idea how much carbon in industrialy useful forms is locked up in the geosphere, but some estimates have it outmassing the carbon actively in the bioshpere, which does a credible job of covering the surface of the Earth as is.
            A thousand years? Personally, I’d like to see this place inhabitable and pleasant for rather longer than that. Sure, I’m likely not to be around long enough to care, but I’d like the folks who are here in a thousand years (which isn’t really all that long anyway) to be able to choose if they are going to have a 100,000 square mile garbage dump or not.

            The chemicals used in recycling are comperable to the chemicals used in producing a product from raw materials, and in both cases we should do a better job of reclaiming and or neutralizing them.

            Transport is an example of why there aren’t single answers. With either a hydrogen economy that doesn’t rely on fossil fuels or a functional thermal polymerization schema in place, transportation can be taken out of the equation.

            And manhours? That is just a matter of insuficient automation. You find me a way to employ 9/10s of america in non-production jobs, and we could automate production massively. (and if recycling can’t be automated, then there is a place to employ some of those people.) That is the modern capitalist problem. How do you employ your population usefully if you have heavy automation and you don’t want to enter a socialist or communist or agrarian economic system?

            The Icon… I don’t remember exactly where I found it. It seems to me to have been the 5th or 6th page of a google image search the day I started my journal.

          2. You kinda missed my point on the landfills. If all of the garbage that we produce during the next 1000 years could be fit into a landfill 100 miles by 100 miles and right now most communities have a couple of landfills (or plans for landfills)that are around 1 square mile, the landfills that we have now will last us more then long enough to come up with a better technology for recapturing the raw materials that we use.

            As far as transport, then why don’t we stop this recycling nonsense until we have a better answer for transport? Why continue to polute our enviroment more then the amount that we are saving?

            I think that we could put those manhours to alot better use then a job that basicly equates to cutting a lawn with a pair of toe nail clippers. Lets pay them to rebuild parks in underprivlaged neighborhoods, or clean litter on the highways, or build homes for habitat for humanity.

            Right now most communities are paying twice as much to have the recycling picked up in there neighborhoods, when a good 40% of it ends up in the landfill anyway because some people just don’t get the concept that not all plastics or papers are recyclable. It just seems like a huge waste to me.

          3. $.02

            In no particular order…

            If all of the garbage that we produce during the next 1000 years could be fit into a landfill 100 miles by 100 miles

            Key word here is “if”. “I read it somewhere” doesn’t exactly reek of credibility.

            Right now most communities are paying twice as much to have the recycling picked up in there neighborhoods

            Twice as much as what?

            a good 40% of it ends up in the landfill anyway because some people just don’t get the concept that not all plastics or papers are recyclable. It just seems like a huge waste to me.

            You’re right – that is a huge waste. Thing is, that’s not so much an argument against recycling as it is an argument for increased education about recycling.

          4. Re: $.02

            I know that the fact that I don’t remember the source doesn’t lend my statment credibility, I was hoping that someone else had read the same report and would remember the source.

            I know that I pay around $165 dollars a year to have my regular trash picked up and $300 a year to have my recycling picked up. Most communities have the same kind of disparity between the cost of regular trach pick up and recycling.

            As far as educating more people about recycling how much more are we willing to spend on the project? Our government is already paying billions a year to keep recycling going. If recycling really was working it should pay for itself, like aluminum and copper, but it cost more and hurts the enviroment to recycle things like paper, that comes from trees specificly planted for it and is naturaly bio-degradable, and plastics where it takes a month worth of a cities plastics just to make one small piece of playground equipment.

            Why should we continue to pay this high cost for little benifit? Why not wait until we have the technology to do it right in the first place?

          5. Re: $.02

            See, THAT’s a great point. If recycling is going to work, if it’s going to be worth it in any sense, it has to MAKE MONEY for the recyclers without being a drain on the taxpayers. I get paid for aluminum cans. I should get paid for that recycling bin. Maybe then I’ll think about learning how to sort stuff.

            Re: the 1000-year landfill — it’s just math. Take the “how much garbage do we produce per year,” figure the volume by using some figure for the average “density” of consumer waste, and then pile that volume up 200 feet high and see how far it spreads out.

            I’m not linking you guys to a site for it, because you can do your own math with your own collected stats if you really care enough. If you want, you can extrapolate future garbage creation based on a trendline for the last 30 years, and factor that in.


        2. Hm.

          Not trying to argue or sound antagonistic at all or anything, it just occurred to me…

          Isn’t crude oil essentially what everything biodegrades _to_?

          Or are the mechanics of crap turning into oil underground fundamentally different from crap turning into dirt aboveground?

          1. Very different.

            First, the crap that we’re burying isn’t proportionately the same in terms of its composition, so whatever it becomes isn’t going to be identical.

            Second, the underground method involves high pressure and heat.

            Third, if you’re doing it the “old fashioned way”, it involved MILLIONS of years of high pressure and some heat.

            The modern methods involve pressure cookers.

            (This assumes that the Deep Biosphere explanation for oil is incorrect. If it IS correct, the whole set of calculations assuming oil as fossil deposits is now out the window).

          2. Re: Hm.

            Very much different.

            Petroleum and friends require pressure, darkness, heat, lack of oxygen, and lots and lots and lots of time. Bacteria is not involved once degradation has occurred, and indeed would ruin the whole process if they had access to the outside world. A bottle of oil, once opened, takes a while to go rancid, but boy does it ever go rancid.

            Biodegradation means basically that it all goes back into the biocycle when it’s done. It involves bacteria and fungus at the interface, plants to eat the processed nutrients, and animals to eat the plants, and more animals to eat the other animals, and more fungus to eat the animals’ wastes, and so forth.


          3. Re: Hm.

            Nah. At least according to prevalent theory, Crude, as well as Coal and most Natural Gas are the results of things that don’t end up biodegrading. (The NG actually comes from several sources.)
            Plants and animals are deposited somewhere where they are immediately buried. Some anoxic degredation goes on, but not a lot. They get buried under more and more silt and eventually, due to plate movement, they get shoved way down deep where the are heated and compressed for very long times yielding Oil and Coal and some of the NG. (Natural gas pockets are also produced by microbes eating things like dead plants that haven’t entered the subduction zones and, at least in some sea floor situations by critters who munch on petrolium (microbial ecology is a wonderfully fun class to take.)

            If something is biodegradeing, we are talking about months to centuries, if it is becomming oil or coal we are talking about millions of years. It is entirely possible that the buried carbon reserves in the form of Coal, Oil, and Calcium Carbonates is quite a few times larger than the entire amount of carbon currently in the geosphere. (Actually, I am almost certian that the Carbonates outmass us, and I think the deposited hydrocarbons do too.)

    3. Non-degradable is an interesting thing in the anaerobic environment of a landfill, though. Ever see pictures (from National Geographic, say) of what you get if you dig into one? Readable newspapers from decades ago, in some cases. Plastics, from what I recall, actually degrade much better in landfills than organics do.

  3. We recycle in Fairmont because we have a definite economic incentive to do so. We pay some 40 cents a month in recycling fees, and for that we get to have them take away all the cardboard, paper, cans, and bottles we can give them. The garbage bags sold here include the fee for handling them – $2.35 for a 30-gallon bag.

    You bet we recycle. We’ve never gotten the warm fuzzies from it; if’s just that government distortions have made it the economical choice.

    I don’t buy recycled products, however, unless they’re the best option economically – which they almost never are.

  4. While I won’t say that the articles are outright falsaties, since they are grounded in some reality, I will say that perhaps not all of thier claims should be taken at face value. Particuarlly the second one, which ends with this little, unbiased, and totally objective statement:

    Bit by bit, they will be abandoned in the same fashion that so many other environmental programs will be when proven to be the same hot air as global warming.

    1. Yes, the end of that article was politically charged. But consider that everything else he said was echoed by the other, non-charged articles. It’s possible you’re drawing the wrong conclusion, and treating HIM as a wacko, when perhaps he’s right about Global Warming.

      Global warming is a great example of a place where “conventional wisdom” and the environmentally sensitive scientific establishment are politically aligned, and ignoring key data.

      It’s not that greenhouse gases aren’t real, or that a 20th-century warming trend hasn’t been observed. It’s that proposed remedies, especially electric cars, are two to three steps removed from the issue, and are counterproductive. Statistically, Electric cars get more than 50% of their electricity from coal-fired power plants, and do so at a massive ineffeciency of transform. Hybrid cars (burn fossil fuels, and generate your own electricity when braking) are cleaner overall.

      I’m somewhere in the middle on Global Warming. I don’t believe it’s the crisis it’s being made out to be, and I certainly don’t think that international laws are the solution to what is not now nor likely EVER going to be a serious problem. And yes, I’ve read the research on both sides there. It’s not conclusive enough for me to be anywhere BUT the middle.


      1. I didn’t mean to come across like I was fully behind the global warming theory. If anything, my position is more like yours… yes, its a problem, but I don’t think its as huge a one as all the “OMG, we are KILLING the Earth! THINK OF THE CHILDREN!!!” type people try to make it out be. I’m just weary of any article that presents a side to the extreme, be it the “we are all doomed!” side or the “Environmentalism is a load of crock” side.

      2. Meh.

        See, me, I could go either way on global warming.
        On the one hand, we have no clue what the fuck we’re doing to our planet, its entirely reasonable we may destroy everything beyond repair.
        On the other hand, if we do nothing about global warming, and it is the big thing they say it is, then all of Florida, much of California, Japan, and, um, New York City would all be destroyed. If only we could somehow make global warming eradicate Texas, too, then every place I hate would be wiped out.

        Sooo, its a wash.

        1. Re: Meh.

          “[…] if we do nothing about global warming, and it is the big thing they say it is, then […] New York City would all be destroyed.”

          Uh …. sounds like a win to me. 😉

          (Not serious. But I’ve only ever visited NYC once, and I hated it.)

      3. The other problem with global warming…

        … is that much of the data focuses on changes in the past ~100 years.

        ON A GEOLOGIC TIMESCALE???? That’s a hiccup. It’s irrelevant that it happens to trend along with our emissions; it also trends along with the number of people (and cows) on the planet. And with a number of other things. The ice ages come and go on 10,000 year timescales or more (even though it appears that once they START they go fast, they still cycle on very long timescales indeed). We don’t KNOW how much temperatures varied around the globe over 100 year timescales in the past 30,000 years. It may well be that it always varies up and down slowly over periods of a few hundred years.

        1. Re: The other problem with global warming…

          We don’t KNOW how much temperatures varied around the globe over 100 year timescales in the past 30,000 years.

          Not globally, no – but we do have some climate data in some local spots, such as Antarctica, Greenland, and some dry areas in the American Southwest (where data was gained from, I kid you not, the analysis of pack rat middens…), to name just three examples.

        2. Re: The other problem with global warming…

          It’s worth keeping in mind, though, that the basic evidence for “global warming” isn’t that the temperature is changing a tiny amount that’s nearly lost in the statistical noise.

          The basic evidence that has people worried is that levels of CO2 and other “greenhouse gasses” have gone up dramatically. They have gone up dramatically, and it is fairly clear that this dramatic increase is a result of human activity, and it is also fairly clear that the increases from the last century are small compared to what we can expect this century. The numbers are uncertain, but the qualititative data is pretty obvious.

          And this raises the question: what does all this extra CO2 do to everything else? This isn’t nearly as clear — but it appears very likely that one thing it does is warm the earth, probably in ways that affect the weather such that that warming is fairly uneven. We can’t predict the details with all that much certainty. But there is also good reason to expect that it will have a notable effect, and some fair possibility that it will have a significantly detrimental effect.

          The temperature data is merely secondary, supporting evidence. As you mention, it’s hard to say with any assurance whether it’s actually coming from the CO2 or not, and in isolation it doesn’t mean much.

          There are people as smart as you are on the research teams that are thinking about these problems. Give them a little credit for not missing the bloody obvious, ok? 🙂 (Though, admittedly, once things get filtered out into the public press, it does seem to get warped by people who don’t understand it well at all.)

        3. Re: The other problem with global warming…

          It’s irrelevant that it happens to trend along with our emissions; it also trends along with the number of people (and cows) on the planet.

          It would appear as though you are attempting to make a “Correlation does not equal causation” argument of the type so beloved by statisticians (My parents are both math professors, so I was practically raised on that phrase). If so, I must say that you are not making it well. Yes, global warming trends with all three of those things. The thing is, all three of those things trend together (more emissions mean more industry, which enables larger numbers of people, who then require more industry (etc., etc.), with the same sort of thing holding for cows) – and what’s more, all three of those things release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, to greater or lesser degrees.

          Seeing this, it appears that essentially what you have come up with is that it is irrelevant that global warming has trended with emissions – because global warming has also trended along with the sources of those emissions! I hope that I do not need to further press my case as to the ridiculousness of this particular assertion on your part.

          Moving on…

          And [it has trended] with a number of other things.

          First of all, I would have to inquire as to what precisely these “other things” might be.

          Second of all, let’s assume that these unspecified “other things” really are clearly and demonstrably seperate from human-caused emissions, unlike your earlier examples. Even so, to assert that because of this emissions may not be clearly identified as at least a major cause of global warming might be equivalent to holding that economic and political fluctuations cannot be said to have a definite effect on the stock market on account of the fact that the stock market has also trended over time with sunspot activity. The theoretical link between the aforementioned fluctuations (human-caused emissions) and the stock market (global warming), while not empirically provable, is clear and direct. And with global warming as with the stock market, the costs of holding otherwise – or even of simply waiting for more definite proof – may well prove to be disastrous, both personally and socially. By comparison, the costs of acting “only” on the data presently known are minimal.

          1. Re: The other problem with global warming…

            Wow. In retrospect, this could really have used some heavy-duty editing.

            Spilled milk now, I guess.

      4. On electric cars and other countermeasures

        Statistically, Electric cars get more than 50% of their electricity from coal-fired power plants, and do so at a massive ineffeciency of transform.

        In two parts:
        1), I would like very much if you would provide some manner of reference to these statistics on the “massive inefficiency of transform”;
        2), Global warming plans tend to frown upon coal-fired plants as with other forms of fossil energy – hence, one might expect that any major push for electric cars justified by global warming would likely be matched by a major push for renewable, nonpolluting energy sources such as wind, solar, geothermal, and tidal power, as with the Gubinator’s recent “One Million Solar Roofs Initiative” (or whatever the name is).

        …Hmm. Come to think of it, I’m not sure “tidal” is a word.

        Hybrid cars (burn fossil fuels, and generate your own electricity when braking) are cleaner overall.

        In three parts:
        1), Even by what you’ve earlier said, the formula you have just described is precisely that which electric cars employ. The main power is provided by burning fossil fuels at coal-fired plants, and the charge is then extended through regenerative braking;
        2), In actuality, things would likely not be as you earlier described them, as I noted earlier. A significant percentage – if not the majority – of the power for electric cars would come from non-fossil sources.
        3), And as for the “cleaner overall” – again, says who? This is certainly news to me.

        And in miscellany:
        1), I’m not clear what you mean when you say that “proposed remedies … are two to three steps removed from the issue”. Illumination would be appreciated.
        2), In addition to addressing what is – to some, at least – the dubious issue of global warming, a major drive towards developing and implementing “green” energy and automobiles capable of making use of it would likely serve to create many new jobs and revitalize America’s scientific establishment, whose preeminence (current and, especially, future) is increasingly in question.
        3), Furthermore, such a drive would almost certainly yield significant returns in the realms of geopolitics and national security. This, both for the reasons outlined by Thomas Friedman in what he has termed his “Geo-green” strategy (reduce or eliminate Western dependence on foreign oil reserves largely held by nations or peoples hostile towards us, most particularly in the Middle East), and owing to what would almost certainly be a pressing demand in rapidly developing Third-World economies for affordable sources of green energy to abate the horrific pollution which often plagues industrializing nations. Demand would likely be particularly strong in probable future superpower China, where it is estimated that pollution costs absorb up to twelve percent of the annual GDP – and this is to say nothing of the human costs of such widespread pollution.

        Anyway – that’s my $0.02 on the matter.

      5. Oh, and before I forget…

        …I should probably make an official Full Disclosure (TM): My family currently leases an electric vehicle and is very happy with it (though the company that makes it is terminating the lease shortly, and is doing it’s damnedest to scare us out of buying it outright), and owns a respectable set of rooftop solar panels, so I do have a not inconsiderable personal interest in the matter.

  5. The heat polymerization processes will make landfills goldmines to some enterprising souls. You can feed just about anything and water into them and get fuel oils or food oils out.

  6. Tamiami Park

    There is this park in Miami where I grew up. It was a great place as a kid. It had a lake in it and these big hills (hey it’s Miami you get excited over anything that goest over 20′ in the air).

    I was almost shocked when I found out that it had been a landfill at one point in time.

  7. Penn & Teller’s Bullshit is mostly exactly that. There are plenty of things they cover, that they cover badly.

    The worst I can think of is toilet seat covers. They conducted a test of 6 people’s bums, to see if those bums had much in the way of infectious diseases. Yes. Only six people. “Randomly” selected. To test for infectious diseases.

    On the basis of this massive population sample (and you will notice that they didn’t actually test toilet seats), they called toilet seat covers bullshit.

    You gotta love scientific reasoning like that.

    With that said, they basically nailed recycling on the head. The only good thing about the recycling movement is that it has spawned effort towards finding break even solutions (with paper, unfortunately, we found it – tree farms – and continued to peddle the sham).

    Now as far as garbage dumps are concerned, they once again fell into their usual batting average: one well-designed dump does NOT equal “people who say dumps are bad are wrong.” It equals, at best, “all of those bad dumps need to FIX themselves.”

    1. Re: Penn and Teller, absolutely. They’re angling for entertainment value, and their programs are 30 minutes long. Of the Season 2 episodes, the most solidly founded ones were the PETA exposé and the debunking of recycling. All the others had some good information in them, and lots of “things that make you go hmmmmm,” but a dearth of in-depth research.

      Re: toilet seat covers — sure, their sample was tiny. It was supported, however, by interviews with CDC professionals who made it pretty clear that a much larger body of data also indicated that you can’t catch stuff from butt-cheek-to-plastic-to-butt-cheek contact. If the seat is shiny (e.g. “there’s no crap on it,”) then you’re safe. And if it’s NOT, that wax paper flimsy isn’t going to help.

      Re: Garbage dumps — it would be nice if we spent all this recycling money on making our existing landfills better. Fishkill is an unacceptable solution, and needs to be cleaned up. There are landfills like that ALL OVER. But none of them — NONE OF THEM — are new ones. It’s a problem that WILL solve itself over time.


    2. I got this link from Gene W of the post. I dunno what the truth of any of it is, and this conversation is SO over, but the first link ought to give you plenty of google fodder if you really care.

      The upshot is, sitting is ok – flushing not so much.

  8. I’ve been saying that for years.. All of it..

    Glad someone of Import (yes, I’m talking about YOU) realizes it, too..

    Wonder how this topic could be worked into Schlock? ::grin:: I see sources for Action and Comedy here…

      1. Re: Blam.

        I hope that ‘ounces’ figure is ‘metered over the course of a hundred years’ and not ‘all at once.’ ^^ Else that’s going to make a landfill into a ‘BLAMfill’ and you’re back to ‘Not On My Planet,’ and ‘Not Over In The Next System, Either!’

    1. oh Gahd,
      Not that fake Patzek study again 🙁

      You do know that the scientists who conducted this supposed study are current/former Oil Industry lackeys right?

      Oh and that the only way they could cook the numbers to make their study come out the way they wanted to was to use outdated efficiency numbers (some from the 1950’s) right?

      Or are you just attacking our best chances at energy independence because someone you don’t know told you to?

      Sorry, I don’t mean to make this sound like an attack. But it seems like whenever anyone brings up biofuel, someone trots out this study as the be all end all of why it won’t work.

      1. I don’t know if it will work or not, but I do know that ethanol as a fuel, right now, is not an economically sound choice. The reason is simple: Ethanol has a lower energy content per gallon than gasoline.

        In Minnesota, where I live, every gallon of gasoline sold for current vehicles must contain at least 10% ethanol (referred to as E10). I get approximately 20 miles per gallon on the highway in my 2001 Lexus RX300. When I fill up with 100% gasoline, that number goes to between 22 and 23, with no other changes in my driving habits. Even in Iowa, where 100% gasoline is 10 cents a gallon more expensive than E10, it’s worth it: that extra 5% in cost is more than made up by 10% in fuel economy.

        There’s one station in my town that sells fuel with 85% ethanol (E85). It charges 25 cents a gallon less than it does for E10. Those who have tried it tell me they get 2/3 of the gas mileage on E85 that they do on E10. That makes it an especially lousy deal.

        Ethanol may be a good idea to environmentalists, but it’s a bad deal for the average motorist.

        1. Um, no. There’s no such thing as a “energy content per gallon”, unless you’re thinking about E=mc^2, and at that point there is no difference between any kind of matter.

          What you mean is that your car is less efficient at burning the ethanol-to-gasoline mix than it is at burning pure gasoline. Those numbers work only for your own car (of, let’s say, for the current generation of cars). Now eventually, the engineers can and probably will create engines that work better, or only, with ethanol.

          It’s simply a matter of optimization.

          1. Actually, if you’re talking about “how much energy can be released via oxidation,” then such a measure can be made independent of the engine in which the reaction takes place.

            Have a look at this page. About 3/4 of the way down you’ll see that pure hydrogen’s energy content (their term, not mine) is 120kJ/g. Gasoline is 51.6kJ/g. Ethanol’s is 27.3kJ/g. In short, Ethanol has just a little more than HALF the energy content of gasoline.

            It doesn’t matter how your combustion engine is built — gasoline will make a more efficient fuel than ethanol or an ethanol/gasoline mixture. Hydrogen clearly would be best, but it’s much harder to work with, and you have to liberate it from its oxidized state first, which means putting more energy into getting it than you’ll ever get from it.



          2. What total and complete bunk. Of course there is a difference in the stored chemical energy of different materials. You can “optimize” the combustion of a mass of dirt to theoretical perfection, and you’re not going to get as much energy out of it as inefficiently combusting a lump of coal.

            You’re not describing optimization, you’re describing alchemy. Why not burn some wood in the fireplace, and then through the magic of optimization, burn the ashes again?!

          3. Yeah, ok, if you want to be technical about it, “energy content per gallon” is bunk.

            That’s because that the technical term for what people are talking about is “exergy”. The exergy of a fuel is defined as the amount of “usable energy” (yes, there’s a technical term for that, too) that can theoretically be obtained by reacting the fuel with the environment (in our case, air at atmospheric temperature and pressure) using perfectly efficient devices.

            Using perfectly efficient engines, reacting a gallon of ethanol with air will not allow the extraction of as much energy as reacting a gallon of gasoline with air will allow. This should be no more surprising to you than the fact that reacting a gallon of water with air will not allow the extraction of very much energy at all. (Yes, there are crackpots who claim scientists can make engines that run on water, too. They’re crackpots.)

            This is basically the same Second Law of Thermodynamics that means that you can’t build a perpetual motion machine, or that a heat engine at reasonable temperatures can’t be anywhere near 100% efficient. It’s fundamental stuff, not a case of “it’s not practical with current technology”.

            Yes, it’s definitely possible to make engines that work better on ethanol than current car engines do. But they’ll almost certainly never be as good — insofar as energy “production” per gallon — as engines with equivalent technology that run on gasoline.

            I will grant, though, that “per gallon” is a nearly meaningless number, except that lots of gallons get a little awkward to carry around. The relevant numbers are “per dollar” and “per gram of pollutant created”. And what the “per dollar” numbers are going to be like in a few decades is very much debateable.

          4. Yes! This is exactly what I meant. I realize that my previous comment wasn’t very clear or accurate, and I apologize.

            I do want to thank Howard for his precisions. I don’t really want to say anything to partiallyclips.

            I’d just want to add one thing to that last sentence. (I will grant, though, that “per gallon” is a nearly meaningless number, except that lots of gallons get a little awkward to carry around. The relevant numbers are “per dollar” and “per gram of pollutant created”. And what the “per dollar” numbers are going to be like in a few decades is very much debateable.)
            Especially considering that we produce a lot more corn (which is what ethanol is made from) than fossils (which is what gas is made from) per year. Eventually, (and I’m not saying “within 10 years! AAAUGH! We’re all gonna die!”, but you have to realize that we WILL run out, just not tomorrow) it’ll be nigh-on-impossible to get your hands on gasoline, and very easy to get your hands on some corn.

            (And, I’ve got no idea on this, I’m being a speculating bastard here, but WHEN the Persian Gulf ends up petrol-less, won’t they start begging the large corn-producing nations for ethanol? Won’t the roles be reversed? Won’t it be ironically satisfying? Isn’t this an entirely different debate? )

          5. Yes, it’s definitely possible to make engines that work better on ethanol than current car engines do.

            Actually it’s already been done.
            Popular Science has a review in this month’s issue (on newsstands now™) of the new SAAB 9-5 2.OT Biopower Sedan. The engine in this baby uses sensors to detect if you are running regular gas or E85 and adjusts the turbocharged air intake accordingly. The end result, E85 produces 25% more horsepower and 17% more torque with the same fuel economy as regular gasoline.

            I would not be surprised to see similar setup on domestic cars 1-2 model years and possibly conversion kits for existing cars becoming available in the same time frame.

      2. It was an attack. Why shouldn’t it sound like one?

        My beliefs are rational and empirical. I’m certainly willing to believe that the science in this report is suspect, and that the researchers were biased.

        But those are your claims and you offer NO support whatsoever for them, just a random set of opinions.

        You call the study a name. You call the researchers a name. You call the methods a name. You question my motives and insult my intelligence. You offer not the slightest new datum to consider.

        If you’d like me to believe as you do, why not explain the bases for those beliefs instead of acting as if they are self-evident? The only things which are self-evident in the above post are that you believe what you say very strongly, and that you don’t mind being authoritative, rude, and categorical to say it.

      3. My Research, Part 1

        OK, your comments, however unscientific, unconvincing and unhelpful they may have been, spurred me to waste this morning doing some research on the subject, and on the researchers themselves.

        First off, this is not “that fake Patzek study” but a new study, yet to be published. If the first one was built on flawed assumptions or logic, then this one coming out may also so suffer. Or it might be a valid response to the criticisms raised against the first study. We won’t know until it’s published, will we?

        UC-Berkeley and Cornell, where these researchers work, are hardly reputed to be shills for corporate interests, but one never knows. I found a money connection to the oil industry for Dr. Patzek, certainly. So let’s assume the worst and grant that despite his published papers on a wide variety of scientific subjects and public advocacy of conservation and alternative and renewable non-fossil fuel sources other than ethanol and biodiesel, and the fact that he says very petroleum-unfriendly things like this:

        Even though I have spoken in public about benefits of nuclear power, my big worry is that getting the energy drug addict (US) another fix will prevent him from a long-overdue medical treatment (energy conservation and efficiency) cite

        …that he is nothing but a mouthpiece for his corporate masters in the petroleum industry.

        Even so. “He would say that,” is very different from, “he is wrong.”

        The reason I hold science above all other human endeavors (including even art) is that it is an objective search for truth. Having a chip on your shoulder, having something to prove, that doesn’t matter to science. The question is, can you prove it or not? If you can, it doesn’t matter what I think of you, or what I thought before you showed me your evidence. I either believe it on the strength of good evidence, or I am not being rational.

        So I went out to look for cogent arguments against the net energy-loss idea. I found some really poor ones that don’t use any actual facts. Some of them say things which are provably untrue. Much like that poster in this thread who claimed there was no difference in the energy content of ethanol and gasoline, most of the people in that thread seem to think a gallon of ethanol is equivalent to a gallon of gasoline.

        I saw arguments like this: Since the wholesale price of a gallon of ethanol has come down to $1.20 a gallon and the wholesale price of gasoline (which started the year under 90 cents) has traded above $1.60, it now makes sense to produce ethanol on a mass scale. That would be true, but ONLY if they were both the same value energy-wise, AND you never had to burn any of that expensive fossil fuel to make it (rendering the cost of a gallon of ethanol responsive to the cost of a gallon of gasoline). The first can never be true, the second could only be made true through years of time and massive investments of infrastructure.

        However, among those posts I found one person who was advocating using only waste cellulose to produce the ethanol. This would undermine the major assumption of the study I cited in one way: namely, that you can’t count the energy expended growing the corn against the total net energy of the process.

        But nobody then runs the numbers and says, “well if you use only waste, it now makes the equation thermodynamically positive,” so that question remains open, awaiting new data.

        I found another poster drawing a distinction between ethanol and biodiesel. Biodiesel, they say, can be made to yield something like 2.5 times the energy it takes to produce it. This article seems to support that claim. This does sound quite positive and promising, as it also uses waste cellulose and takes the dedicated-purpose growing out of the energy equation.

      4. My Research, Part 2

        So there could be a future in biodiesel, though perhaps not in ethanol. If so, hallelujah! But the study that I cited was on existing, known methods of ethanol and biodiesel, and the question of its validity is still relevant. Congress is deciding right now whether to mandate more ethanol use. If that would constitute a net waste of energy by existing methods, it’d be a pretty stupid move.

        So I still looked for a valid debunking. And what was noticeably absent is any indication from a trustworthy, peer-reviewed source that either the original study or this new one is “fake.” It would seem, if corporate interests are playing politics with science, that if the first study were provably false it would have been thoroughly debunked by now. Such a study would not go unfunded, not when there’s an Archer-Daniels Midland around.

        What was noticeably present was another peer-reviewed article not by these two supposed “lackeys,” which came to the same conclusion on the net energy loss of both ethanol and biodiesel. The lackeys are growing in number, it seems, and they’re counting more scientists among them.

        Based on this and other science I have read on the topic, the energy-loss equations make a great deal of sense to me. They do not seem “fake,” but you do. I seriously doubt you’ve looked into the validity of these conclusions yourself, and drawn your own based on the facts as presented.

        I think it’s more likely that you’re one of those screaming bloggers who identifies with one “side” or the other, likes to talk a lot of trash and repeat the watered-down arguments of other screaming bloggers, and does not apply any more rigor to the standards of what he chooses to believe than the typical fundie/Neocon. To me, your name says it all. Truth isn’t “made,” pal, it’s discovered.

        In short, I think you’re just one more asshat on the internet. But that’s a conclusion based on too little data. The question is open to re-evaluation, should you care to write a well-reasoned, well-researched, and well-supported response.

        1. Re: My Research, Part 2

          See, now I feel guilty for not doing the level of research you did. It’s a good thing I’m nicer than you are. 😉


        2. A responce to your points and some things you may have missed.

          First off, this is not “that fake Patzek study” but a new study, yet to be published. If the first one was built on flawed assumptions or logic, then this one coming out may also so suffer. Or it might be a valid response to the criticisms raised against the first study. We won’t know until it’s published, will we?

          In this area I admit I was incorrect. This is in fact a new study, but given that the study I was confusing it with was only published in November of last year with this new one being published this past March. Quite a quick turnaround for the deep scientific study you would think something like this would require. Oh in case you are interested the extracts of the studies are available here and here. I would love to read the actual details of these articles and pick them apart piece by piece, but I don’t have the $30 and $40 respectively it would cost to legally obtain the full text and these journals are not carried by my local library, therefore, I am forced to rely on interpretations and excerpts from others the same as you.

          Another interesting note, the older article was critically reviewed in the San Francisco Chronicle a few weeks back and was linked to from Slashdot where I pointed out some research I had done on the Patzek study at the time. It was this that sealed the deal for me. What does the good Doctor do in his spare time? Why he’s the Director of UC Oil Consortium. And how is UCOC funded? Why by $60k-120k per year per affiliated oil company mostly. I find it very hard to believe that Dr Patzek would be in this position and receiving that kind of funding were he not on good relations with the Oil Industry.

          Two other things worth noting about the SFC article above:

          • First would be the linked graphic which I believe ran with the article. (Yes it does include the approx 5.8M KwH of solar energy required to grow a hectare of corn)
          • Second would be the criticism included of Patzek’s study by two individuals. While I’m not sure I trust the motives of David Morris the other critic, Hosein Shapouri, is worth listening to. Who is Hosein Shapouri? Well you see, he did a study (well 2 actually) on this very subject which you can find here. I recommend you read this study for three reasons:
            1. If you are a US citizen you already paid for it(it was done for the USDA)
            2. Unlike the studies I pointed to above. This one is actually included, free of charge (no abstract), at the link location as a PDF file.
            3. In addition to explaining his results and where he got his numbers Mr. Shapouri compares his study to a number of others including some from your friend Mr Pimentel dating back to 1991 (interestingly Pimentel seems to still be using about the same numbers in the most recent study cited as he did back in 1991, not taking into account production efficiency improvements in the intervening decade)

          As long as we are on the subject of things to read, you might want to check out this study as well. It was conducted by Argonne National Labratory (a government research lab funded by tax dollars). Again the full text of the study is available online in PDF format (another reason I like government research over corp funded studies).

        3. … and My Part 2

          Ethanol has been a subject I have been interested in since the late 1980’s (I grew up in a farming town of 4000 about 20 miles east of jmaynard‘s current base of operations) as such it can quite often take longer for me to look up a fact to determine where I learned it than it would to simply make the statement. Think about it this way, were a subject to come up that you had studied back in school you would know something about it right? You may not be able to cite exactly where you learned that information but you would certainly know it to be true (of course by saying this I am assuming you are an educated man, an assumption I am willing to make even though some of your personal name calling would hint otherwise). At that point you would have two options, you could spend hours/days researching to determine where you learned what you learned (assuming you still have access to those sources) or you could contribute to the discussion and share your knowledge of the subject. The choice is of course yours.

          Finally, while I enjoy discussing this subject, and you seem to be quite an impressive researcher for your position, I do not think that Howard’s post about recycling is the best place to continue this discussion. If you would like to discuss this further I’ll probably be posting something in my personal journal on the subject by the end of the weekend. Feel free to join the discussion.

          1. Re: … and My Part 2

            Howard hasn’t voiced much in the way of an objection. But this’ll probably be the last thing I say on the matter. I’ll keep my response here.

            Your triumphant TA DA over Patzek’s connection to the oil industry has to be the crowning “Duh” moment of this thread. It proves that you didn’t even read my post, as I have THE EXACT SAME LINK IN MY POST.

            You lightly skimmed what I wasted all that time researching and writing, and you missed my basic point. You are just a sloppy, sloppy thinker. You’re interested in proving what you already believe, rather than finding out what is correct. You admitted that you made up your mind about ethanol a long time ago. Clearly you’re unwilling to seriously question those beliefs in the light of new data.

            Your link to the San Francisco Chronicle includes this quote:

            Though his work has been vetted by several peer-reviewed scientific journals, Patzek has had to deflect criticism from a variety of sources. David Morris, an economist and vice president of the Minneapolis-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance, has attacked the Berkeley professor’s analysis because he says it is based on farming and production practices that are rapidly becoming obsolete.

            So my primary, as yet unchallenged (by you or any source I can locate) conclusion that Patzek’s science is sound remains accurate. No scientist (or scientific journal, or association) refutes the study.

            The fact that the San Francisco Chronicle is a newspaper and not a professional journal does not seem to factor in your evaluation of it as a source of data. This article, in fact, largely supports Patzek, but you hold it up as some kind of slap at the study. You fail to acknowledge this economist‘s vested interest in criticizing the study’s result, even while pointing to Patzek’s interests as some kind of proof he can’t possibly be right. And the other economist cited is from the USDA! By your own ad hominem reasoning, I certainly shouldn’t believe anything that comes out of the USDA.

            As I stated above and will say once more: proof stands on its own, regardless of the motives of the scientist. If there is bias or error in a study, another scientist without a vested interest (or with an opposing interest) will very quickly point it out. When experts with nothing at stake review the work and publish it, then you have something approaching the truth.

            As I have been forced to do still more research on this (I read the USDA studies from Shapouri too), I keep finding more studies going back to the 70s showing ethanol with a negative energy balance. I’m beginning to have a real picture of what is going on with ethanol.

            We had compelling reasons to look for a domestic energy solution in the 1970s. DOE did its research back then and knew that ethanol was a negative balance and a dead end. That’s why the federal government studies since then have been USDA studies. But as ethanol was not then, is not now, and probably never will be a solution for gaining energy, its only adherents remain farmers.

            Nearly all of the visible support for ethanol comes from the agriculture industry.

            Some ecology groups and some neocon groups hung up on foreign oil dependence are its only other supporters. I can find no ethanol-selling companies which make a profit on their ethanol operations without government subsidies. If there was energy to be gained, there would be money to be gained.

            I had a favorable opinion on ethanol even a month ago. Doing all of this research has led me to a completely opposing view. I now believe the only reason anyone promotes ethanol in government is that they are representing agribusiness and looking for a new domestic market for corn. Ethanol mandates are farm subsidies in disguise.

            I don’t want to believe that. In fact, I hate believing it. But I hate believing a lot of things that are true if you bother to look for the facts.

            The difference between you and me is that I’m willing to do so.

            Respond if you want, but I’m completely done with this garbage.

          2. Re: … and My Part 2

            You admitted that you made up your mind about ethanol a long time ago.

            Actually, I don’t believe he did. My recollection is that he simply “admitted” to a longstanding interest in the subject of ethanol. Hardly a damning statement, to my eyes.

            You are just a sloppy, sloppy thinker. You’re interested in proving what you already believe, rather than finding out what is correct.

            And speaking of ad hominem attacks…

            Anyway, my final point – such as it is – would simply be that you, my friend, badly need to decompress. All that anger isn’t any good either for you or for the reasoned, rational debate you claim to value so highly.

    2. Turning nuclear power into liquid form

      The benefits of those types of fuels in the future could be that they are a way of turning power from stationary plants like Solar, wind, and nuclear into a form that automobiles can use. There may be more effective fuels in the future for this though. That study just says “fossil fuel energy” where Nuclear and renewable could probably also be used.

      This is why even if TDP does not get the amazing results that have been attributed to it recently, it could still be a viable way of generating portable fuel from grid derived energy sources.

      1. Re: Turning nuclear power into liquid form

        That’s a heck of a good point. Nor does anything I said in my lengthy posts address the potential value to national security, should new methods of producing ethanol or biodiesel prove even a little bit thermodynamically gainful.

        But then, I didn’t mention any of the other negatives, either. It’s not very environmentally friendly. Really, we should just be building the newest generation of nuke plants. A new nuke plant is going to kill a lot fewer people, statistically speaking, than a new coal plant.

        1. Re: Turning nuclear power into liquid form

          Interestingly enough, the main waste product of a nuke plant (besides a relatively small amount of radioactive waste which is dealt with easily enough), is heat.

          Coincidentally, the main energy requirement of producing ethanol, is… Heat.


        2. Re: Turning nuclear power into liquid form

          Here’s a good article from Wired on GM’s current research paths.

          A quote:

          I don't believe that a hydrogen economy depends on a carbon economy at all. Do you know how many nuclear reactors China will be implementing over the next 20 years? Quite honestly, being in the car business, I don't care whether the hydrogen comes from wind, geothermal, nuclear, solar, or ­fossil. What I care about is that each local economy plays to its strength. You get 5 percent from here and 10 percent from there, and suddenly you've created a trans­portation energy market with a number of pathways competing, as opposed to just a petroleum pathway.

      2. Re: Turning nuclear power into liquid form

        The benefits of those types of fuels in the future could be that they are a way of turning power from stationary plants like Solar, wind, and nuclear into a form that automobiles can use.

        A personal beef of mine: power from all those types of plants may already be easily used by automobiles – electric ones.

        1. Re: Turning nuclear power into liquid form

          And what about the pollution caused by creating all of those lithium ion batteries that power an electric car? What about the resources it takes to make them? How long do they last before they need to be replaced?

          Liquid fuels have a distinct advantage over electric cars in many regards. Batteries are also really heavy for the amount of energy they can store which results in much lower efficiency. Even if you use up all the power in the batteries you still have to drag them around. When you use up a liquid fuel you generally no longer have to carry its weight around anymore.

          The exception being the hydrogen bonded to the cleaning chemical that they’re touting as the next way of converting electric to portable fuel. You do have to carry around the cleaning product after you break the hydrogen off of it.

  9. Forgetting the 3 R’s

    Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.

    In that order.

    First, you can help the environment just by using, consuming, and buying less stuff overall.

    Next, you reuse things. Like glass containers. Not everything, but buying reusables versus disposables is usually a better call both financially and for the environment (although you have to consider the energy and environmental costs of cleaning it, both hot water and detergents.)

    Once you’re doing the best of both, then recycle. This doesn’t just mean carting it away to facilities. Sometimes you can make your waste into other things. Composting is a pretty good idea regardless of how you feel about other issues.

    There’s many aspects to being environmentally conscious, and they’re all interrelated, and you do have to think big picture. is a fun site for that, they actually consider products from a more holistic perspective of what they’re doing (with obvious biases, but much better informed than a lot of places I’ve seen.)

    While we’re on it, the hydrogen economy is a myth. Thank you.

    1. Re: Forgetting the 3 R’s

      I have heard two plausable proposals for hydrogen economy not being a myth (merely misunderstood). The first is that hydrogen fuel cells would allow better matching of fission, solar, and wind power to demand (fission being hard to adjust output, and solar and wind having highly variable output independant of demand).

      The second is that chemical decomposition of fossil fuels into hydrogen and CO2 then using hydrogen fuel cells to drive electric motors may wind up being much more efficient than burning fossil fuels in internal combustion engines (IIRC, theoretical maximum is 16% efficiency for a Carnot heat engine, while a SWAG* of practical efficiency for fuel cell + electric motor is 50+%)

      * SWAG = Scientic Wild Ass Guess

      1. Re: Forgetting the 3 R’s

        Where does the fossil fuel get decomposed into co2 and hydrogen?

        Of course producing hyrdogen this way means you only get a decrease in co2 emissions vs internal combustion if the efficiency difference actually works out.

        1. Re: Forgetting the 3 R’s

          Where does the fossil fuel get decomposed into co2 and hydrogen?

          Chemical processing plants. IANA Chemical Engineer, but I’d guess the process would be similar to the process of cracking long hydrocarbon chains (naptha, et al) into things like gasoline and kerosene (this is a routine task at refineries).

          Of course producing hyrdogen this way means you only get a decrease in co2 emissions vs internal combustion if the efficiency difference actually works out.

          True, but if it does you get a factor of 2-3 reduction in CO2 emissions, and a similar increase in the effective supply of oil. The latter is a bigger deal, since it would reduce energy prices a lot, and it would reduce the oil demand in the US enough that for at least the next decade or so we’d be able to meet our oil need from domestic production.

          But, as you point out, the expected efficiency improvements are a big if, and if they don’t show up, we will have wasted billions of dollars barking up the wrong tech tree.

        2. Re: Forgetting the 3 R’s

          is right — virtually all hydrogen that’s produced commercially today is made by cracking natural gas. Electrolysis, right now, isn’t economically competitive.

          (I think it’s actually more of a water-gas-shift reaction than cracking, though; you mix hot steam and natural gas, and the natural gas splits, but the carbon also reacts with the water and you get CO2 and more hydrogen.)

          You can also get a decrease in CO2 emission if the natural-gas cracking process doesn’t vent the CO2 to the atmosphere. Since the CO2 isn’t mixed with air (unlike in coal-plant exhaust), it’s one of the simpler types of processes to trap the CO2 from and do something else with it.

          The point of hydrogen cars, though, isn’t really that they’re better with current technology — the point is that they won’t be much worse, and they will (hopefully) drive market forces for making improvements in hydrogen generation that might not be made with the current small market for the stuff, and will (hopefully) enable places to get their transportation “fuel” from locally optimum sources that can change as technology changes.

      2. Re: Forgetting the 3 R’s

        If you can get the hydrogen some other way than extracting it from fossil fuels with heat and energy, then it might work (my theoretical favorite is solar photovoltaics doing hydrogen dissociation from water.) Right now though the energy cost of creating hydrogen is just too high to be useful.

        1. Re: Forgetting the 3 R’s

          Try reading the Hydrogen Economy Roadmap. It addresses most of what you’re thinking about. One of the best sources for hydrogen will of course be nuclear powered dissociation plants (they just tapdance around SAYING nuclear when the Wrong People are listening).

          1. Re: Forgetting the 3 R’s

            Direct conversion is probably better. I admit to being a little biased toward microbial solutions, but this one makes sense to me. There are all sorts of bio cycles that go hydrocarbon, starch, lignin, protine, or sugar source + Microbe => 2 Microbes + H2 gas. You then recycle the biomass you gained by growing bacteria as, oh I don’t know, fertilizer for crops or potentially fuel for the microbe cycle and keep going.
            I don’t know if this is more efficient than the thermal polamerization systems mentioned above, though this is much more small site friendly.

        2. Re: Forgetting the 3 R’s

          As I understand it, the only major barrier to chemical decomposition of fossil fuels into hydrogen is the cost and efficiency of the current generation of fuel cells.

          The usual objection to the hydrogen economy is based on the assumption that you get the hydrogen by using heat or electricity (obtained by burning fossil fuels) to break down WATER.

          Decomposition of hydrocarbons is easier because the H*C* + O2 -> H2 + CO2 + O2 -> H2O + CO2 chain releases chemical energy, while the H2O -> H2 + O2 -> H2O chain is chemical energy neutral (in practice, an energy loser due to inefficiencies).

          1. Re: Forgetting the 3 R’s

            Also, the most interesting of the current generation of fuel cells do not use H2, but methanol.

          2. Re: Forgetting the 3 R’s

            There are no major barriers the chemical decomposition of fossil fuels into hydrogen; it’s currently commercial viable.

            The major barriers to running cars off that hydrogen are cost and efficiency of fuel cells, yes, but there’s also size of the fuel cells (currently, you need a SUV or minivan to fit them in), storage (getting enough hydrogen to have a reasonable range in something that’s small enough to fit on a car and is safe in an accident isn’t a solved problem), and then the economic chicken-and-egg problem of getting enough fueling stations.

            In any case, though, the objections to the hydrogen economy are not based on an incorrect assumption that the hydrogen comes from water. In the long term, a lot of the hydrogen will come from water, because the point is to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, so that assumption is correct. The objections are based on the faulty assumption (promulgated by a lot of the people hyping the hydrogen economy, I fear) that the hydrogen is supposed to be an energy source — it’s not; it’s supposed to be an energy carrier, like electricity, that allows us to move energy from a place where it’s easy to “generate” it to a place where we want to “use” it.

            And, once you recognize that the point is for it to be an energy carrier, it’s no more objectionable that the water->hydrogen->water loop is energy-neutral than it is for the loop of electrons flowing around transmission wires to be energy-neutral.

            (In the short term, though, the hydrocarbon-decomposition process is a nice way to get the system going. It doesn’t work long-term because the supply of hydrocarbons is finite — but how long-term it works is, of course, debateable, and it may well work for quite a while.)

      3. Re: Forgetting the 3 R’s

        The theoretical efficiency for an internal combustion engine, at the temperature ranges that can be obtained with modern technology, is considerably higher than that — something around 40%. I think most car engines aren’t too far off from that (maybe 25%-30%, but don’t quote me) when operating at their best; the problem is that they rarely operate at their best, because most of us don’t cruise at 50MPH all day.

        I also think that practical efficiency for a fuel cell and electric motor is a little higher than 50%, but that’s definitely up for serious debate right now. Another advantage, though, is that they work pretty well in off-optimum conditions; that 50% is pretty steady at all sorts of power loads, unlike with internal combustion engines.

      4. Re: Forgetting the 3 R’s

        One major problem with hydrogen, though, is that according to SSW*, compressed hydrogen (of the sort that’d be carted through urban areas in tankers, often enough) is actually quite highly explosive. Bit of a security problem when any nut with a rifle can blow up half a city block.

        *Some Source Somewhere (It was reputable, I swear it was! Just not… memorable)

        1. Re: Forgetting the 3 R’s

          It’s a highly compressed gas. Any highly compressed gas is (effectively) highly explosive if you have a tank rupture.

          On the other hand, any tank that’s strong enough to withstand the high internal pressures with a reasonable safety factor for possible accidents is going to think nothing of deflecting your nut’s rifle bullet, I should think.

          (Incidentally, from what I’ve seen, the range of theories of the danger levels from transported hydrogen is quite remarkably large, even if one only looks at reasonably reputable sources. I don’t think anybody really knows.)

          1. Re: Forgetting the 3 R’s

            any tank that’s strong enough to withstand the high internal pressures with a reasonable safety factor for possible accidents is going to think nothing of deflecting your nut’s rifle bullet

            Mm. I’m actually not so sure of that if we’re talking your more high-powered rifles, with armor-piercing ammunition. That said, such guns would likely be quite a bit harder to come by than your average hunting piece.

            the range of theories of the danger levels from transported hydrogen is quite remarkably large, even if one only looks at reasonably reputable sources. I don’t think anybody really knows

            Could well be – I’m certainly willing to admit that I don’t.

    2. On hydrogen, and global warming, and such.

      (I started out writing this in response to the “global warming and electric cars” thread, but decided it fit better here.)

      I should put a couple of disclaimers on this. First, global warming and the hydrogen economy pay my bills — or, more accurately, a number of large energy and automotive companies are funding research that pays it. (Details here.) Second, though I’m trained as an engineer, my statements here should be taken as those of an interested and educated layperson.

      Things like electric cars — and, for that matter, hybrid cars — are important right now not so much because they’re a solution right now, but because they’re likely to be important components of a solution for the future. Right now, yes, a lot of energy comes from coal, and most coal plants are pretty dirty. But it’s technically a lot easier to clean up a single stationary coal plant than it is to clean up a million mobile cars. It’s not even especially far-fetched to talk about pulling the CO2 — never mind the “traditional” pollutants — out of the coal-plant exhaust; the barriers are mostly economic ones, of doing it cheaply and convincing people it’s worth paying for.

      I’m also not sure the inefficiency of transform is as bad as you make it out to be — automobile engines are pretty inefficient and transforming the energy out of gasoline into motive power, too, and from the numbers I’ve seen, it’s not at all clear which is currently better (and it depends very heavily on the circumstances). Certainly both are going to improve in the future.

      The so-called “hydrogen economy” is somewhat similar to electric cars — essentially, a hydrogen-fueled car is a better electric car, because it’s possible to refuel it in minutes rather than hours. And so the same arguments really apply to both.

      Fundamentally, the problem is that cars (and transportation in general) are really difficult to deal with when we’re trying to make improvements in getting energy out of natural resources. There are millions of them, they’re privately owned by people who want to keep them for a long time, they’re small and have to be lightweight, and they have to be able to work just the same in Alabama and California and Timbuctoo, and if I drive my California car to Alabama, I need to be able to refuel it. Stationary power plants are much nicer — there are only a few of them, they sit still, and it works quite well to have coal-fired plants where there are coal beds, and windmills where there’s wind, and fission reactors where people are happy with those, and solar in the southwest where it’s sunny. And, if some technology (or tax) comes along that makes it economically sensible to retrofit coal plants to sequester the CO2, it’s possible to do it to all of them.

      This already means that your basic energy technology — hydrocarbon combusion — is somewhere between 50% and 100% more efficient in a power plant than it is in an automobile. This provides a fair bit of overhead to account for transmission losses in getting that energy to the automobiles and still come out nearly even.

      And so, if we’re going to move away from an energy monoculture — and, particularly, an oil monoculture — the only way to do that is to build cars that run on an artificial resource rather than a natural one. The options here are pretty much limited to batteries and hydrogen. I can’t, personally, peer into a crystal ball and say when we’re going to move away from oil for a transportation fuel (though we obviously are someday), but I can say that a number of big energy companies are putting quite a lot of money into being prepared for that if it happens.

      I don’t know if hydrogen will pan out, or electric cars, or any of it. At this point, nobody knows — but it’s an option that’s (in my opinion) well worth researching to find out about.

      (The fact that some politicians seem to use it as an excuse along the lines of “we’ll just switch to hydrogen and everything will be ok” — or so I gather from people griping about them — is a completely different matter. That’s malarkey, and gets in the way of those of us doing honest work in the field.)

      1. Re: On hydrogen, and global warming, and such.

        It’s not even especially far-fetched to talk about pulling the CO2 — never mind the “traditional” pollutants — out of the coal-plant exhaust

        Damnit, that’s right – coal gasification and all that. Wish I’d remembered that.

        And as long as I’m commenting here, I feel compelled to compliment you on your composition. Most of my comments leave me desperately wishing for an “edit” function.

  10. I think I love you.

    I’ve been opposed to recycling for a long time for all the reasons mentioned. You should see some of the stares and comments I get when I speak ill of recycling. But all in all, I’m glad to have you on the anti-recycling side.

  11. Interesting revelation. I don’t have 100% faith in Penn & Teller, particularly after their show on gun control let a couple of the most egregious falsehoods about it stand unquestioned as facts, but still … this does shed an interesting light on things.

    1. One of the things that happens with a lot of things is that the solutions, when we first come across them, are always going to be things of the “this isn’t actually an improvement right now, but if we put lots of work into improving it, it looks like it has a good chance of being lots better.”

      The problem is that there are also a lot of things that look like that but don’t turn out to be solutions. (And, really, I shouldn’t talk about any of them as “solutions”, because that makes them sound like some magical silver bullet that they’re not.)

      On some level, I think a lot of recycling is/was that sort of thing — an experiment, to see if a lot of economic incentives would make it possible to do it efficiently enough to make it worth the trouble. And, in some cases, it (so far) turns out not to have done so yet.

      I’m not sure what conclusions to draw from that about whether we should declare the “recycling” experiment a failure. (I think we can probably draw the conclusion that it’s not a big sin to not have recycling in rural areas where the fuel for the extra collection trucks and the fuel to transport things across the state to do something with them is substantial, though, at least. I used to be annoyed about that in the area where I grew up; now I’m not so much.)

      But I think it’s important to remember that the only way to find improvements is to keep making experiments like these, and some of them are going to fail, and that’s part of the process, and it’s always going to be part of the process unless we give up trying.

  12. Know what else is bad for trees? Old growth forests. Forests aren’t supposed to get old, they’re supposed to burn down and start over. It’s cyclic. Lack of hunting almost destroyed the ecosystem at Yellowstone, and Old Growth is threatening it now.

    Like you said. Uneducated idealists blah, blah. Last time I mentioned how harmful recycling is, I got flamed to a crisp.

    “Wait, did he say ‘Harmful?’” Why, yes I did. How very observant of me to mention that. Sure it costs more, but how can that be harmful? It takes more energy to recycle than to process raw materials. “But we use nuclear power now.” Yeah. Sure. So far, the only clean power source we have is hydroelectric. Wind power isn’t efficient enough to replace power plants, and not all remaining power, even in this country, is derived from nuclear plants. Recycling paper, ona global measure, burns more wood than making new paper does!

    Well, now I’ve ranted. I must quit.

    1. That’s not Old Growth, though.

      “Old Growth” forests are forests which were never cut down at all. They’re all but nonexistent on the East Coast (I think there may be three or four patches left somewhere).

      What you’re referring to are forests that are not allowed their usual random clearance. Which does NOT kill off everything in the area, mind you. Some things survive. Even some trees. The Pine Bush, in my area, needs burnoff fairly regularly because the pines can’t compete in the long haul with the diciduous trees like oak, maple, etc., unless they get burned off early. The pine trees and their seeds survive better after that. However, the Pine Bush doesn’t GET that, because no one wants a raging forest fire in their backyard, these things being notorious for getting out of hand…

  13. Throw me some numbers here. What are the net income/expense of doing the following…

    1) Throw a plastic bottle in a land fill.
    2) Burn that plastic bottle.
    3) Recycle it.
    4) Any other options? (perhaps not use plastic bottles in the first place)

    I’m not talking just present cost, I want to know the cost accrued over the next 10/100/1000 years down the road.

    1. Use the bottle to build a bottle island, store water in, store food in …etc. While it’s recycling you’re doing it without outside intervention.

  14. I mention something on my LJ about global temperature fluctuations, and Howard follows suit the next day and even mentions Carbon Sinks. Yay! I find it funny though that politically charged posts on Howard’s journal get tons of posts, while on mine they get dead silence and gaming posts get the replies. 🙂

    Great post.

  15. Not flaming you but…

    Want to make a bet that I couldn’t find 3 links on the web that say why recycling is a good thing compared to landfill?

    Personally, sorting my rubbish takes very little time and if my local refuse collectors chuck it in a big hole, or recycle it into razor-blades I’m not that bothered. Organic food and veg waste though is recyclable excellently into compost for the garden to make pretty flowers and tasty vegetables happy.

    1. What you’re unlikely to find, however, is any pro-recycling information that successfully:

      1) Refutes cost analyses
      2) Uses new landfills as examples (everybody points to Fishkill)
      3) makes its point without resorting to “everybody knows” or “this is a step backwards” or some such.

      “Recycling is good” is the conventional wisdom, and it grows out of principles that are true. Doing your own composting is good, for instance. Reusing glass and plastic bottles as containers at home is good (assuming you’re not reusing them unsafely, like using an empty chemical bottle for water storage). The deposits on glass soda bottles (remember that, anyone?) allowed bottling companies to re-use the containers fairly cheaply.

      But moving from first principles to the current tax-subsidized reprocessing of paper, plastic, and other materials is quite a leap, and was based on a scare-tactic EPA memo from the ’80s that said, in essence, “we’re running out of landfill space.” The numbers there were bogus, but government LOVED it because it allowed government to grow. Taxpayers went along with it because it seemed like a sensible extension of correct first principles which, unfortunately, it was not.

      And that’s the problem — taxpayers have been lied to, government has gotten bigger at our expense, and the resulting programs are environmentally unsound.


  16. Penn & Teller make some hilarious jokes, but I was disappointed in their presentation overall. I wanted more facts and numbers and whatnot. And they made some guesses at greed-motivations that I thought were a stretch. I don’t think anybody ever started an environmental group to make money. I think it’s much more likely that ignorance (fueled by laziness) is to blame — but then, you can’t villify that as much as you can greed.

    I certainly wasn’t sold by anything in their environment episode, but it forced me to open my eyes to the fact that maybe the conventional wisdom is not so wise.

    And would somebody please acknowledge that the problems didn’t just solve themselves? It seems like laws that forced logging companies to reforest were a natural evolution, or that the logging companies would have done the same thing on their own accord. I don’t think that’s true.

    But then, I’m ignorant, and too lazy to do the research.

    1. Because…

      Replanting is a natural response because without replanting, the logging companies would run out of wood to process into paper. Thus, they would run out of business. Unlike what most people think, *most* companies are afraid of running out of some ingredient of their core product. Those companies who are not afraid of running out will die when they do run out, thus causing evolution. The companies know that.

      1. Re: Because…

        Meh — if the company wants to watch out for itself, then sure. But PEOPLE own companies, and the people can live quite well even if their company closes down, assuming they made enough on it in the first place.

        Whalers, for example — they don’t WANT to run out of whales, but they’re gonna keep making money at it as long as they can.

        And if you see the loss of resources as imminent, then you might be even more inclined to avoid replanting, because of the cost it entails. Kill the goose who lays the golden eggs.

        I’m not saying they’re wise, but I think greedy individuals do a lot of damage if they go unchecked, and WE have to be the ones to check them.

        I recommend the incredibly interesting documentary ‘The Corporation’ to anybody intrigued by the topic.

  17. The point about not using old-growth forests for paper isn’t quite factual, I’m afraid.

    Case in point: This court battle in Quebec is exactly about this. Northern Quebec is actually pretty much entirely forest, with hydroelectric installations peppered here and there, and Indians (or Natives, or whatever other term you want to use for the aboriginal people). And it’s “Old” Forest, as in wild, non-farmed forest. The Kruger paper company was actually cutting off the trees from there, on an island way up north, and carting them down to Montreal for processing, rather than use a tree farm.

    It took a bunch of Natives to sue the company and invoque “ancestral rights” so that Kruger would quit razing the forest.

    So, yeah. Do tree farms exist? Of course. Just don’t think everybody‘s using them, ’cause it ain’t true.

  18. I happen to have a sister who is frequently best characterized as unthinking. She’s into recycling. So much so, that when I go to visit her in LA, she sends me back up with bags of plastics and styrofoam which LA’s recycling won’t take, but San Jose will.

    After a little bit of investigation, we found that San Jose actually doesn’t do their own recycling. Rather, they truck it down to LA. So, in short, in order for her take out containers to get recycled, close to 700 miles worth of gasoline need to be burned.

    That, almost certainly, is a wash.

    1. Of greater concern is: why the discrepancy between L.A. collection and L.A.-based recyclers? It’s possible that the recyclers can’t extract any additional subsidy moneys from the city of L.A., but by allowing additional stuff to come in from outside, they can collect money from San Jose.

      (The possibility that the recycler actually makes more money selling the recycled materials than it costs them to recycle those items hasn’t crossed my mind, no.)


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