Is recycling in the North really a good idea?

I’ve been having trouble with the whole concept of recycling in the North lately. As in: is it really a good idea?

The first two R’s I have no problem seeing the value of: reduce and reuse. Yeah, they just make sense on so many levels.

But recycle? In some ways, it doesn’t seem to fly for the far North. For example, I’m having trouble grasping how the concept of shipping garbage thousands of kilometres to undergo a toxic material retrieval process makes sense. It seems we’re just trading visible garbage (landfill) for invisible garbage (air pollution).

I’ve been doing some research on the subject but have come up largely empty handed. Does anyone know of any research that has been conducted on the subject of long-range recycling and its effects on the environment?

I’m particularly interested in learning just how much pollution is generated through the process of recycling materials in an environment such as Whitehorse. How do we measure the air pollution generated by thousands of people driving their Yukon beaters down to idle for fifteen minutes at Raven once a week, of the heavy machinery used to manage and compact the garbage at Raven, of the trucks that carry the garbage thousands of kilometres to be recycled?

What other negative environmental impacts of recycling in a northern community might exist?

And then how do we compare that to the potential impacts on the local environment if a recycling program weren’t in place?

In other words, how do we measure the total value of a northern recycling program against its environmental impact?

The recycling paradigm seems to be an established fundamental aspect of urban environmental management; but does that paradigm extend to the North?

So many questions…

11 thoughts on “Is recycling in the North really a good idea?

  1. good questions, but have you considered how many truck-loads of stuff we import to the north? all those trucks have to go back south whether they’re empty or have a load of recyclables. so, the air pollution the north adds (for recycling) is only the diference in fuel economy between a loaded truck and an empty one.

    • Okay, that got me thinking.

      Let’s assume that your hypothesis is correct.

      Then we can expand the questioning a little further. It’s well known that the first two Rs supersede the third. The primary goal is reduce consumption.

      If we send recycling down on the trucks that brought up the original products in the first place, then that is a form of cost offsetting for shippers bringing goods into the Yukon.

      In other words, recycling is subsidizing initial consumption. That would mean, in effect, that recycling is biting the tail of reduction by providing price breaks to shippers bringing in goods.

      To what extent that’s occurring is an interesting question.

      If the Yukon stopped recycling and those outbound shipping dollars disappeared, then to what degree might inbound shipping costs increase? To what degree might then product prices increase and consumption decrease?

      It’s another interesting angle to bring into the question, whether recycling defeats the purpose of the first R, reduction.

    • ha ha ha ha ha!…ho ho ho ho!…hee h-…sorry, lost it for a second, there. you seem to forget where we live – not only north america, the consumer of all consumers, but yukon, where we love our 1-ton suvs even when gass is at 1.50/L, and god knows how much we spend at walmart and c-tire every week. while it’s an interesting question, some measly little shipping cost increases are hardly enough to get us to reduce our consumption…

    • But, again, that’s a pretty big assumption that the reduction would be “measly”. With most consumer goods these days there’s more packaging than product so in a perfect world we would be shipping back say 65% to 80% of what gets shipped up as recycling. Assume it’s 50-50 even and one can make the assumption that recycling subsidizes a whopping 50% of a product’s shipping cost to the North. It’s debatable that the shelf price wouldn’t be measly. But the truth is, we’ll never know unless the situation is studied and researched in earnest.

      However, I’ll concede the point. In a government-subsidized artificial economy like the Yukon, it’s unlikely that even a significant price increase would dissuade us from our habit of consumption.

  2. The biggest problem with the entire 3R’s is the fact that when “industry” looked at it, they found major problems. Let’s look at how the environmentalists look at the 3R’s:
    1) Reduce. Stop using so much of the “stuff” as you can.
    2) Reuse. Okay, so you have to use some stuff. But use it more than once to reduce your consumption.
    3) Recylce. Once you’ve worn out by reusing something so much that it can’t be reused, recycle it into something that can be new again.

    About the only thing I can think of off the top of my head that neatly fits that cycle these days are the woven plastic bags that I use for carrying my groceries home in. Reduces my need for disposable plastic bags, they’re reusable, and I’m told they’re a) made of recycled plastic, and b) recyclable into new reusable plastic bags.

    The rest of the industry saw the 3R’s and said “whoa…those first two items are going to kill us economically. Let’s turn the 3R’s around backwards and start with Recycling. It’s “green” and makes us look good while the fact we’re not reducing consumption at all.”

    So we saw focus on recycling first, not last. Therein lies the problem. Stop consuming so much in the first place and recycling starts to become a marginal part of life as opposed to a major part.

    Jon

    • Actually, Jon, you’ve hit on a really important aspect of the issue there: recycling is just as much about recycling guilt as goods. It makes us feel better about our capacity to skip past the first two R’s in terms of our habit of over-consumption. Thanks for pointing that out.

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