Ole Keynesian on the Cost of Everyday Environmentalism

This post is by reader Ole Keynesian, expanding on one of his comments. Can anyone answer the questions he raises?


One reason that some environmental problems are so intractable in this globalized world is that we can’t accept the economic cost of fixing them. Even sincere tree huggers will run the numbers on a Prius to calculate the payback, to decide if the environmental benefits are “worth it”.
On the other hand, if you calculate the cost in terms of resources used rather than dollars (a more purely environmental cost/benefit analysis) it gets real complex real fast. If you buy that Prius, you’ll save x number of gallons of gas over the life of the car. But you’re going to trade your ’74 Pinto for the Prius and the dealership is going to pay the junkyard $200 to take it off their hands. If you could have driven your old car for 10 more years (thereby requiring one less Prius to be produced in the next decade), you are wasting more total resources just by buying the Prius than you will make up with reduced gasoline consumption. If this is where the analysis stops, the earth is better off if you keep the Pinto. But the analysis doesn’t have to stop there. We can ask literally hundreds of questions that would suggest one choice or the other (again, assuming that cost isn’t a factor, only what’s best for the environment).
Let’s walk through a scenario that takes cost completely out of the equation. It’s a choice faced by the Everyday Environmentalist all the time: should I recycle that empty peanut butter jar?
The conventional answer is yes, reuse is always better than disposal. But the jar still has bits of peanut butter around the inside. The literature from the county says that the recycler will reject any material with food waste on it – they’ll separate it and ship it to the landfill. So I’ll fill the jar with a quart of hot, soapy water and clean it. The water comes through a natural gas hot water heater which will have to (incrementally) fire up to get the rest of the tank back to its preset temperature. More importantly, in my town the water comes from underground wells and is delivered to the house untreated. In a world where 1 in 5 people do not have access to clean drinking water, this is like champagne flowing out of the tap. After I clean the jar and put this quart of now cloudy water down the drain, it will flow through a couple of pump stations and end up at a treatment plant where it will be scrubbed and chlorinated, then ultimately deposited somewhere, and that somewhere will not be my town’s pristine aquifer. The peanut butter bits will become part of the treatment plant’s “sludge”, which may or may not have a secondary use as fertilizer. I’ll have to run another half gallon of hot water over the label to loosen the glue enough to peel it off. The recycler will reject a jar with a label, too.
At this point I’ve used three quarts of hot water and some phosphorus-laden dish soap on my recyclable jar, which has all gone through the county’s wastewater treatment system. The jar then goes in the recycle bin and gets carted off on garbage day to the recycle station, where it will be inspected, sorted and crushed, using as much energy as that activity takes. Is there a market for recycled crushed glass that day? I hope so, or the recycler will ship it to the landfill and all our effort will be for naught. If there is a market, the material gets carted off to the glass manufacturer, who will remelt and reshape it, using as much energy as that activity takes.
The alternative is to dump the dirty, labeled jar in the trash and let it go directly to the landfill. No water use, no natural gas use, no phosphorous soap use, no wastewater treatment, no electricity for the recycler to inspect, sort and crush the glass. Once in the landfill, the residual peanut butter will naturally degrade. So will the glass jar, over time. So will the paper label. The glue could be a problem, depending on what types of chemicals are used to produce it, but I’m going to put the glue down the drain when I scrape the label off for recycling anyway, so maybe that’s a wash. And there are at least three opportunities for my best recycling efforts to end up in the landfill anyway, if I don’t clean the jar well enough, or forget to steam the label off, or if there is no market for recycled glass today.
Does it take as much energy to remelt and reshape a new jar from recycled material as it did to create the original jar? How would I find that out?
And how much does the equation change if my peanut butter jar is make out of recyclable plastic instead of glass?