OM136 - Anything into oil

Recycling in Seattle (OM136)

Ken recycles so much that he has more recyclable than unrecyclable in his garbage and he recently switched to a smaller garbage can and a bigger recycling bin. It is the ultimate Seattle success story, except that it is all a scam and most of the recycling is for not because China doesn’t want our cardboard anymore. The first time Ken saw a 60 minutes or 48 hours about the inefficiencies of recycling, it really did break his little 7th grade conservationist heart because he really thought he was helping.

The margins on many recycling markets are incredibly thin. A lot of it makes sense: Aluminum makes sense, but a lot of other things are on the bubble. Ken’s house produces a lot of cardboard because they stock their lives in the most efficient way by having Amazon bring them everything one at a time from wherever it comes from.

They should spend an hour discussing how much Ken processes his recycling before he sends it out and if he takes packing tape off of the cardboard boxes. It would be the ultimate Seattle podcast! A pizza-box with even a little bit of grease on it will no longer be recycling and Ken will put it into the compost.

Ken tends to spend about 90 minutes a day playing the ”Is this waxed paper or coated with something biodegradable?” game, which is a ton of fun. If it is plasticy, then it is not biodegradable, but it might be recyclable. If it is wax, then it might be compostable. Ken has the waste management recycling guidelines posted with a magnet in the kitchen, not on the non-magnetic refrigerator, but over on the other magnet board. John also has it handy at all times. Ken probably reads it more than The Bible.

Once you have done the sorting and have taken the lids off certain sized plastic bottles, while other lids are okay, and once you have filtered it through a Pachinko game of different considerations, you are handing it off to teams of people who are going to recycle it efficiently into new products, stronger cardboard boxes, softer playground equipment and those park benches that say they are made out of milk cartons.

If you, the customer, will just do these fun easy steps, there is this whole apparatus in place that makes the Earth good again. You don’t want to think that it is picked up by seven different trucks, but on the other side it is all dumped into a shipping container and thrown into the ocean, which is not true to a greater / lesser degree, but also: Yes.

Recycling isn’t universal either. John had just been on the island of Maui where they are not really pursuing it. You would think if you are on a closed economy on an island you would make it as efficient a system as you could, but they weren’t even looking for compost or recycling at all, but it all went into the garbage can. If you travel from Seattle to anywhere, your first day is all just disappointment over the slip-shot of recycling.

In Seattle they have literally four bins! Ken feels very lucky to have Seattle kitchen privilege, which is that they have re-done their kitchen since the last reordering of recycling and they have built their kitchen for the three different things you need, whereas everybody else who doesn’t have a compost thing in their kitchen wonders if they have to remodel their kitchen or if they have to put it into some smelly little bucket.

For many years or even decades the promise of recycling has tantalized us because there are technologies to recycle a lot of consumer products that would otherwise go into the garbage. It is just a question of how you scale it and how you sort it. In most cases you can not just dump a bucket of unsorted glass, cardboard, plastic and metal into any single machine where that is a useful aggregate, but humans are sorting recycling stuff that all went into a single hopper and they are picking and putting stuff in various piles to be recycled differently.

The economics of recycling (OM136)

The recycling bin has paper, glass, metal, and even if you are extremely diligent about washing out all your tin cans and taking the lids off your water bottles it still has to go somewhere to be sorted and we do not have machines that are big Pachinko games where at the bottom all the metal went over here and all the plastic went over there. At a salvage yard they use magnets to take all the ferro-metals out and recycle them separately.

Aluminum is more valuable, copper is expensive and has all been stolen by junkies, and there are plenty of reasons to sort them apart. Aluminum is not magnetic and there is no magnetic solution to suck out all your cans. People in the metallurgical culture are good at sorting through and finding all this, but a lot of copper wire is encased in plastic and there are always problems in turning this post-consumer garbage into anything.

We know there is valuable stuff like Platinum in electronics and we think we can make a business model out of it, but what is your plan to get that out, prospector? Our desire to recycle still exceeds our ability to recycle and a lot it is just a cost/benefit analysis. In most cases it is cheaper to get raw crude oil out of the ground, ship it to places, process it down into 10.000 different plastics, form that plastic into containers, use it one time and then throw it out the window, than it is to actually sort through the garbage that we produce and recycle it. In the long term it would be much better and more efficient for the planet, but for the companies today the numbers don’t add up. China doesn't want our cardboard anymore, but they would rather cut down a forest because it is a little cheaper.

This is another example of how Economics as a system or as an ideology is incomplete because it doesn’t take all the inputs and all the outputs into consideration. It is only a functioning system if all the natural resources are infinite. We call that "externalities" in Econ 101 and that is where Ken’s Economics knowledge stops and starts. Is John suggesting that capitalism is not perfectly efficient for all parties involved? There is a reason why the Nobel Prize for economics is actually kind of a boobie prize. Economists would like you to believe that they are practicing science, but there are an awful lot of things they don’t take into consideration in order to make their models clean. It is an art as much or more than it is a science.

What makes this all so tantalizing is that we do have the technologies to recycle most of these things. It is possibly to do and it isn’t extremely prohibitively expensive, it is just slightly more expensive than doing it a really awful way. When you think about how the government treats water, butter or cheese: There are subsidies for a lot of different industries like milk to keep prizes up and to sustain certain communities of farmers. They are willing to pour that milk down the drain in order to keep all the components of the economic system working.

The petroleum industry is heavily subsidized by the government in a lot of different ways because, just like the defense department, they really need our help. We try to progress towards more bio-fuels made out of the waste of agriculture, but Ken’s understanding is that a lot of these products are still very inefficient and they only compete through government subsidies. Our desire to achieve energy independence from the global oil cartels has pushed us to look for a lot of solutions to the fact that we don’t generate as much oil and gas within our national borders than we use.

There is little long-term benefit in converting millions of acres of agricultural output into making crap corn to turn into crap animal feed or crap sugar. There is no genetic diversity in corn anymore and putting it into gas tanks is only an improvement over polluting the golf of Mexico with a giant oil spill or giving outsized geopolitical power to a Middle-Eastern or South American evil monarchy.

Garbage dumps (OM136)

We have produced so much waste out of petroleum products and out of mined minerals, there are all the cardboard and the forests, and every time we tear down a house we put the materials that constitute a built house into a dumpster and dump it into the ground. This idea that we were just piling up garbage did weigh on John as a kid. Then there was that garbage barge that couldn’t find a home and kept sailing up and down the Eastern seaboard. For Ken the future was piles of garbage everywhere and the idea of dumping garbage in the ocean and of landfills filling up really weighed on him psychologically.

The city now calls the different bins Recycling, Compost and Landfill to make you aware that every time you throw something into the default bin you are adding to the psychological weight of garbage barges tolling the seas. When you are taking stuff to the dump in Seattle you are taking it to a garbage processing center, a waste intermediary. Ken has only been once to take a mattress, but John goes all the time (see RW80, RL259).

Watching the transfer stations at work is really informative. People drive up in their cars and trucks, throw all their garbage into a pit, there are people with giant front loaders, and little Star Wars scavengers pop out of the pit. They compact the garbage that is made up of Ken Jennings’ mattress and a bunch of old Futons and refrigerators. There is a certain amount of sorting, but a lot of it just gets compacted into a shipping container which is taken via truck to the train to the rail yard and the train takes it to far-off Oregon where there are giant mills of Seattle’s garbage just piled up.

Watching it all happen and understanding it as a system does not make you feel any better. It is an extraordinary system that involves all of us and we think of it the same way we do when we flush the toilet: You think it is gone, but in fact it is on its way to a great adventure and for your garbage this is even more true.

Mining old landfills, Supertrain (OM136)

A lot of these giant landfills have been covered over and turned into public parks as cities grew to encompass what used to be the edge of town and they are now building an elementary school right next to that dump. John always understood the arc of history, the fact that time is a flat circle, and that included the possibility that those would become future mines, that all that garbage that we now think of as not worth recycling because the cost would exceed the benefit won’t always be true. If we are really going to run out of oil reserves one day, if we really have mined out all the precious metals that are close to the surface, we will turn our attention back to these garbage dumps.

On John's first podcast, the internationally acclaimed Roderick on the Line, there is an ongoing theme called Supertrain, which means that there will be train traveling around the country with a giant claw that would reach into old garbage dumps. Each car of the train is another step in the process of recycling the material. It would be in a post-apocalyptic environment, so the train would, like Snowpiercer (John says Snow Pusher), also be a tiered class-society. Supertrain would be laying its own track at the front of the train like in a Wallace and Gromit cartoon.

In recent years all the chemistry and biochemistry that goes into recycling technology and the abilities to manufacture recyclables have been chasing ahead. We are much more able to do this work now than we ever were, which ties into the ”Don’t worry! Technology will save us from Eco Hazard X, you just have to keep one step ahead!” When it comes to CFC and the decimation of our ozone hole technology and activism actually got ahead of it (see RW120). We found substitutes and we understood the nature of the problem, which would not have happened without the science. Also, a lot of the Endangered Species Act has produced great results and many species that were on the verge of extinction have recovered.

DDT had been a necessary chemical in its time for the remediation of disease-bearing insects, but then we found new ways to deal with it. John’s mom hates birds, so she must love the idea that we are killing all the birds by making their egg-shells super-thin, but she also hates insects and scientists. A lot of the time political will can produce technology. The state of California can set an emissions target and suddenly the industry and scientists are scurrying to meet a target and you get the moon shot.

"If Life Gives You Lemons" poster (OM136)

There was an old poster hanging in John’s elementary school lunch room, saying ”If life gives you lemons, make lemonade” It was a picture of a man with a hopper on the top of is head, a bunch of lemons were falling into the hopper, his nose was a spigot, and he was holding a glass under his nose with lemonade dripping out of his nostrils. It was a 1970s drawing that looked like it could be in a New Yorker cartoon (see image here or here).

John took it to mean that your bad thoughts and your bad vibes are like lemons coming into your head through a hopper and that you need to turn those bad vibes into nose lemonade, which, as everyone knows, is the greatest. It set an image in motion in John’s head and any function machine he imagines with an input and an output is now a man with a hopper on his head and the result coming out of his nose.

Ken not being able to give blood because of Mad Cow Disease (OM136)

Europeans are against genetically modified foods in a way that America never really cared that much about. In America it is an environmentalist movement, but in Europe it is more of a mainstream way of thinking.

Ken still can’t give blood in the United States because he was in Europe at some point in the 1990s when there was a Mad Cow case and they have not changed the laws yet. There might also be a blanket ban for a lot of gay people that is left over from the AIDS theory. The gay people and the other victimized group, the ones who took a gap year in Europe.

After the Mad Cow era in Europe laws went in that banned feeding animals animal waste. You can probably make dog food out of those things and feed it to dogs because dogs are disgusting, but you are not going to feed meat to vegetarian animals anymore.

Anything into oil (OM136)

John explains how oil is created by heat and pressure. Industrially creating an environment like the underside of a continental plate is still a problem, but have they not seen John’s kitchen? John describes the origin and the functionality of Catalytic Thermal Depolymerization by Paul Baskis and Herbert R. Appell. There was a famous article in Discover Magazine that got people extremely excited (also follow-up, follow-up and follow-up).

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