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Recycling Reindeer

I have recently done a few posts on recycling and I plan to end the year with a short series on ideas pertaining to “recycling.” These are largely observations of mine based on reading hundreds of papers students have written for me on recycling over the past few years.

Let’s start with the simplest of all ideas. On occasion, I receive e-mails with this as the tagline/signature:

Save paper – Please do not print this e-mail unless you need to!

What do the laws of economics tell us about whether recycling paper, or even not printing paper at all, will necessarily “save” trees? It is not clear at all that recycling or not printing saves trees. Remember the law of supply. Think about why we have so many chickens today as compared to Bison or Bengal Tigers. It is pretty certain that if you found a way to “recycle” chickens the number of chickens in the world would not increase, and is very probably going to decrease. Think about what printing and using lots of paper does. It incentivizes producers to produce more inputs to make paper – in other words, if end users want lots of paper, then paper companies need to figure out ways to supply more wood pulp, and usually they do this by planting more trees than they cut down every year. So, if you are worried about “saving trees” you would do well to ignore the e-mail tagline. Not only that, you might even want to proselytize the opposite. Indeed, others in the blogosphere have offered, with tongue only slightly in cheek, that the best way to save the Bengal Tiger is to start eating them.

A few extra observations.

I recognize that biologists argue that managed/planted forests are not as diverse as “virgin” ones. But this brings up an issue beyond the point of this question for now. My experience with self-professed “E”nvironmentalists is that they really have no interest whatsoever about whether trees remain standing or not. How could they? If they did, they would at least have to have paused once or twice to ask if recycling paper is a good way to achieve their objective, if at all. But they do no such thing. Just remember the religious zeal with which people claim that “recycling is obviously good” to get a sense for the point I am making. It suggests to me a motivation similar to all of the anti-capitalist rhetoric that is out there which uses high minded, moral sounding ideals to shroud an entirely different motivation. In this case, “E”nvironmentalists are imposing their preferences on others, forcing others to become part of the movement by mandating recycling, and perhaps even to use this idea to discredit entrepreneurial commercial society.

I’ve posted this before, but because it is very likely that recycling paper does not save trees, in fact it is probable that it reduces the amount of trees than would otherwise have prevailed, does that mean you should make it your mission to print any and everything you possibly can … and to throw it all into the regular trash? Is that what I am advocating when I question the wisdom of paper recycling programs? Two things will help you reflect on it:

(1) Because I know rent-control is a really bad way to help the poor find housing, does that mean I am advocating for the poor to live in appliance boxes and starve to death?

(2) Do you know why throwing rocks through windows is not good for the local economy?

4 Responses to “Recycling Reindeer”

  1. Harry says:

    Last year Wintercow posted many graphs of commodity prices which were instructive for many reasons, but one inescapable conclusion is that our world has become more prosperous.

    Paper as we know it, sold by the ream, was unknown when Benjamin Franklin published Poor Richard’s Almanac. Today, The Philadelphia Inquirer gets ultimately recycled in my fireplace along with a vastly more informative paper, The Wall Street Journal.

    Those who worry about their e-mails being printed should not worry, unless they fear their comments are so trenchant that thousands will waste paper and printer ink, both of which should be given free along with high-speed Internet access if your adjusted gross income is less than 133% of the federal poverty level or you are a student of anything, including Scientology.

    You go, Wintercow!

  2. Michael says:

    I tend to not print stuff because it costs a bit money to do so (primarily because of the ink, not paper). Although, I tend to print out longer articles that I determine to be worth reading at work, because it is less strssful to my eyes, plus the money doesn’t come straight out of my pockets. But even then I try to keep the printing low because of the cost of clutter.

  3. Rod says:

    Note that plastic milk bottles can help start a fire in your woodstove when you are low on kindling.

    Most newsprint is made of about fifty percent recycled fiber. You need new trees for the rest. They get the ink out of the recycled newspapers with bleach! (Don’t tell the greenies.)

  4. Elizabeth says:

    I have actually made a similar argument about recycling paper and the effect on tree farm supply. However, there are really 3 issues to take into consideration here, land use, pollution, and energy usage. Land use is an important consideration, and more demand for paper would increase tree farm area. Your argument would be sound if most of the pulp came from tree farms. 9% of new paper production comes from old growth, 16% is from tree farms and the rest is from second growth forests. So, only the 16% from tree farms would fall under your assumption that increasing paper demand would actually save trees. The remaining 84% would contribute to permanent deforestation. Nonetheless, it is true that many of these areas may be deforested anyway due to expansion of development or agriculture. But there is no evidence whatsoever that wasting as much paper as possible would result in more tree cover than we have now, in fact, the opposite is very likely.
    The energy savings from recycling is pretty significant, and so is the reduction in pollution. Paper production is a highly polluting industry and recycling causes 35% less water pollution and 74% less air pollution than paper production from tree pulp. Recycling paper uses about half as much energy as producing it from new trees. Recycling one ton of paper saves 4,000KWh of energy, and then multiply that by 43 million tons of paper recycled per year, which means that recycling paper in the United States saves as much energy per year as would be needed to power 16 million homes for a year.
    So, considering that a vast majority of paper production causes deforestation, the fact that significantly less energy is used, and the large reduction in pollution, recycling definitely a better choice, “E”nvironmentally and economically.

    A comment for Rob- All paper production uses bleach, not just the paper from recycled pulp.

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