Innovation

Peter Cochrane's Blog: Recycling is rubbish

Just another misguided fashion we have drifted into...

Written in the lobby of a Vancouver hotel and dispatched to silicon.com via a very low cost public wi-fi connection

I know it sounds crusty and boring but thermodynamics was one of the most useful subjects I ever studied. It turned out to hold the foundation insights to almost all processes and mechanisms we confront in the real and information world spanning physical, biological, chemical and data systems.

A second important subject involved the specification, design, analysis and performance of systems. And, as you might guess, this involved applied logic and rigour - and also relied heavily on thermodynamics. For me, an overriding knowledge of these topics set the scene for a lifetime in science, technology and engineering.

It is this background that makes me sceptical of all decisions and policies made on the fly for political, commercial, social, politically correct and/or fashionable reasons. And almost without exception, every time I see or hear something that appears out of kilter with the basic principles governing our universe (that is thermodynamics and systems theory) it invariably turns out to be wrong!

So this is the background that led me to question the politically correct values surrounding recycling. As far as I can see the only thing worth collecting and recycling is aluminium and even here the economic and energy arguments are marginal. Everything else, including paper, glass, tin and plastic, without exception, wastes more energy and creates more pollution than the extraction of raw materials and the creation of new products.

In the region where I live we have been equipped with high-density plastic bins so we can pre-sort our rubbish for the special collection service. It turns out that I have to dispose of well over 10 years' worth of low-density plastic waste in order to create these bins. And where do I get my plastic waste? From the supermarket of course! The culprits are bottled water from Hawaii, protective covers on pears and all the other containers - in every conceivable size and shape - for cosmetics, cleaning materials and food.

So what is the next step? RFID tags on the bins so the owners can be identified and then be charged by the kilogram for waste disposal. Predictably, where this has already been introduced, fly-tipping has rapidly followed and streets, lanes and fields become dumping grounds for rubbish!

Then of course a police force is required to enforce the law and make people pay. They need vehicles to get around and an organisation to run the operation. I'm sure you get the picture. Is this crazy or what? To say the least, someone has lost the plot. Perhaps worst of all, a population that had been pro-tidy and pro-recycling is immediately turned off and alienated.

Over the past year I have challenged several members of the recycling mafia. They vigorously defend the economics and right-mindedness of recycling but when confronted with the real facts, they always collapse back to the landfill argument: we can't keep digging holes. We are running out of space. Pollution is a problem.

On closer analysis it turns out that none of this is true either. Holes are cheap, we have plenty of space and pollution is relatively easy to control. Even a thousand years of rubbish production involves a minimal disposal problem.

The problem is that the very significant and threatening problems we face are not being addressed because they are too difficult. They defy political and media 'one-liners' and there are no obvious solutions at this time.

So what should we be addressing? How about these really critical issues:

  1. The irreversible conversion and in general, total destruction of non-renewable (in the short and long term) resources such as oil
  2. Over-consumption of renewable resources such as fresh water
  3. Economic creation, storage, distribution and use of energy
  4. The redistribution of waste products and pollution from the first, second and third world under the pretence of being green
  5. A widespread societal inability to identify the critical issues, comprehend the implications and then take adequate steps to minimise or correct the problem

Might it be that our difficulties are due to a lack of education and understanding across the board? Without doubt! In my estimation the problems we now face as a species are well beyond our innate ability to understand. For sure, our very poorly educated politicians are in no position to make sensible guesses, let alone judgments.

A long time ago I discovered there are always very simple solutions to very complex problems. The snag is they are invariably wrong!

If there are solutions to our dilemmas they lie in the direction of better analysis, models and understanding. Such understanding isn't easily come by because these aren't simple problems - they are complex (in the classical sense) and highly non-linear. And this is no place for the fashionable or politically convenient. We have to focus on the truth.

Finally we are going to have to rethink a couple of words: 'value' and 'economic'. The money alone is too crude a measure of value or economic success. We have to take into account the long-term impact on, and contributions to progress, society and the individual.

Right now we don't know how but we had better find out before we drown in a sea of schisms and beliefs that are not only flawed and/or badly wrong, they are likely to be very damaging in the long-term.

In short, we need good models and computer-assisted decision making in order to take into account the many dimensions of our problem sets, and the overall impact on our planet and its life systems.

About Peter Cochrane

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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