Quotulatiousness

November 8, 2017

Debunking the “we’re going to run out of mineral x” hysteria

Filed under: Business, Economics, Technology — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Tim Worstall explains why you need to ignore reports that we’re going to run short of this or that critical metal or other mined resource:

But let’s return to their greater misunderstanding: that there’s some shortage of metals out there. It’s true that there is a limitation, of course it is. There is a number of nickel and or cobalt atoms on the planet and that’s a hard limit to the number we can use. But what we want to know is how close we are to it.

As I point out in that linked (and free!) book: we’re nowhere near any limit that need bother us. We’ve some 800,000 years of nickel left (assuming no recycling) and 34 million of cobalt – enough to be getting along with, given the average lifespan of a species is three million years.

So why the worrying that we are? Mainly, it’s because people misunderstand the technical jargon used in the industry. They talk about mineral reserves and mineral resources without realising that these are not a fair indication of useable resource. No, not even a guide, not an estimation, there simply is no link at all.

A mineral reserve is something that we have drilled, tested, dug up a bit and processed, and we have now proven that we can extract this at current prices, using current technology, and make a profit doing so. This is an economic definition: roughly speaking, the stock at already existing mines.

A mineral resource is where we’re pretty sure all of that is true – we’ve just not proved it yet. And then there’s the stuff we’ve not got around to looking at – which is true of the bulk of the planet and the bulk of all minerals.

It costs millions, sometimes hundreds of millions, to prove a resource into a reserve. It also costs millions to tens of millions to qualify a resource in the first place. So we don’t do this for things which we’re likely to use 30 years hence. Why spend all that money now to then wait for decades?

That’s why, if you go and look at mineral reserves, you’ll find we’re going to run out of everything in 30 – 50 years. And that’s because the best definition of a reserve is what we’ve prepared for us all to use in the next 30 – 50 years. To complain about this is like complaining that the food in the fridge is about to run out – without referring to the supermarkets and food production system which exists to fill up our fridges again.

It’s this mistake which leads to the insistence that we must recycle everything for we’re going to run out. We’re not. That underlying contention is simply wrong.

Just look at that famed Club of Rome report, Limits to Growth. They, entirely correctly, note that mineral reserves are going to last 30 – 50 years. They then, again entirely correctly, note that mineral resources can and will be converted into reserves by the application of time and money. But they then simply assume that resources out there are only 10 times current reserves. Hmm, 10 x 30 – 50 years is 300 to 500, isn’t it? So it’s not all that much of a surprise that they tell us that society is doomed, doomed, in only a couple of centuries when they add a bit of exponential growth in usage. Their prediction comes from their assumption, that wholly incorrect one, that current reserves are an indication of the total amount available to us.

All too many predictions of this sort are based on entirely and totally wrong assumptions. The truth is we simply do not have a shortage of any mineral, over any human timescale, that we might want to use. Any policy based upon the assumption that we do is provably wrong. So we’d better revisit those policies based upon this incorrect assumption pretty sharpish, shouldn’t we?

August 26, 2017

When is an archaeological artifact merely “recyclable”?

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Europe, Government, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

In Sweden, apparently, it’s actually becoming a common practice to discard “excess” metal artifacts for literal recycling:

One of the amulet rings from the Iron Age that archaeologists are recycling. Previously, this type of object was saved, says archaeologist Johan Runer.
(Photo from Svenska Dagbladet, caption from Never Yet Melted)

Rough translation from Swedish language article in Svenska Dagbladet:

    While the debate about burning books is raging in the media, Swedish archaeologists throw away amulet rings and other ancient discoveries. It feels wrong and sad to destroy thousands of years of ritual arts and crafts, and I’m not alone in feeling so.

    “What you do is destroy our history! Says Johan Runer, archaeologist at Stockholm County Museum.

    Amulet rings from the Iron Age, like Viking weights and coins, belong to a category of objects that, as far as Runer knows, were previously always saved.

    He tried to raise the alarm in an article in the journal Popular Archeology (No. 4/2016), describing how arbitrary thinning occurs. Especially in archeological studies before construction and road projects, the focus is on quickly and cheaply removing the heritage so that the machine tools can proceed.

    He works himself in these kinds of excavations. Nobody working in field archeology wants to get a reputation as an uncooperative “find-fanatic” but now he cannot be quiet any longer.

    “It’s quite crazy, but this field operates in the marketplace. We are doing business,” says Runer.

    Often, especially in the case of minor excavations, there is a standing order from the county administrative boards that as few discoveries as possible should be taken.

    If you think it seems unlikely, I recommend reading the National Archives Office’s open archive, such as report 2016: 38. An archaeological preamble of settlement of bronze and iron age before reconstruction by Flädie on the E6 outside Lund.

    In the finds catalog, coins, knives, a tin ornament, a ring and a weight from the Viking Age or early Middle Ages have been placed in the column “Weeded Out”.

December 7, 2016

QotD: Turning ordinary recycling into a vast revenue enhancement tool

Filed under: Economics, Government, Quotations, Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

… we know that ubiquitous RFID tags are coming to consumer products. They’ve been coming for years, now, and the applications are endless. More to the point they can be integrated with plastic products and packaging, and printed cheaply enough that they’re on course to replace bar codes.

Embedded microcontrollers are also getting dirt cheap; you can buy them in bulk for under US $0.49 each. Cheap enough to embed in recycling bins, perhaps? Along with a photovoltaic cell for power and a short-range radio transceiver for data. I’ve trampled all over this ground already; the point is, if it’s cheap enough to embed in paving stones, it’s certainly cheap enough to embed in bins, along with a short-range RFID reader and maybe a biosensor that can tell what sort of DNA is contaminating the items dumped in the bins.

The evil business plan of evil (and misery) posits the existence of smart municipality-provided household recycling bins. There’s an inductance device around it (probably a coil) to sense ferrous metals, a DNA sniffer to identify plant or animal biomass and SmartWater tagged items, and an RFID reader to scan any packaging. The bin has a PV powered microcontroller that can talk to a base station in the nearest wifi-enabled street lamp, and thence to the city government’s waste department. The householder sorts their waste into the various recycling bins, and when the bins are full they’re added to a pickup list for the waste truck on the nearest routing — so that rather than being collected at a set interval, they’re only collected when they’re full.

But that’s not all.

Householders are lazy or otherwise noncompliant and sometimes dump stuff in the wrong bin, just as drivers sometimes disobey the speed limit.

The overt value proposition for the municipality (who we are selling these bins and their support infrastructure to) is that the bins can sense the presence of the wrong kind of waste. This increases management costs by requiring hand-sorting, so the individual homeowner can be surcharged (or fined). More reasonably, households can be charged a high annual waste recycling and sorting fee, and given a discount for pre-sorting everything properly, before collection — which they forefeit if they screw up too often.

The covert value proposition … local town governments are under increasing pressure to cut their operating budgets. But by implementing increasingly elaborate waste-sorting requirements and imposing direct fines on households for non-compliance, they can turn the smart recycling bins into a new revenue enhancement channel, much like the speed cameras in Waldo. Churn the recycling criteria just a little bit and rely on tired and over-engaged citizens to accidentally toss a piece of plastic in the metal bin, or some food waste in the packaging bin: it’ll make a fine contribution to your city’s revenue!

Charles Stross, “The Evil Business Plan of Evil (and misery for all)”, Charlie’s Diary, 2015-05-21.

June 28, 2016

QotD: The real locavore’s dilemma

Filed under: Economics, Environment, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Today’s typical environmentalist and locavore fancies that he or she possesses more and better knowledge than is contained in market prices. He or she is mistaken in his or her arrogance. The environmentalist who moralizes in favor of recycling cardboard containers and the locavore who boasts that he helps the environment by paying a few cents more for locally grown cabbages and cantaloupes focus on a small handful of visible aspects of production and distribution – such as the wood-pulp contents of the cardboard container or the fuel used to transport agricultural produces over long distances – and leaps without warrant to the conclusion that sticking that used cardboard containers into recycling bins, or reducing the amount of fuel burned to transport produce, generates net benefits for the environment. But there is simply no way that the recycling champion or the locavore can really know what he thinks he knows.

How much energy is used to recycle cardboard containers compared to the amount of energy used to produce new cardboard containers? What is the environmental impact of the chemicals used to cleanse used cardboard of the residue from its earlier uses so that that cardboard can be recycled for another use? How much fertilizer and energy – and what sorts – does your local small-scale farmer use to grow kale and cucumbers compared to the amounts and sorts used by the more-distant, larger-scale farmer? What is the full environmental impact of using land in suburbs such as Fairfax, VA, and Dobbs Ferry, NY, to grow vegetables for sale a local farmers’ markets compared to the impact of using that land differently?

The above are only a tiny fraction of all the relevant questions that must be asked and answered with reasonable accuracy before anyone can possess enough knowledge to be confident that recycling or ‘buying local’ are in fact good for the environment.

Don Boudreaux, “Quotation of the Day…”, Café Hayek, 2016-06-16.

October 5, 2015

Much of the recycling you do is sheer wasted effort – or even worse

Filed under: Economics, Environment, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Everyone is in favour of recycling, right? It’s good for the earth, it’s good for the economy, it’s good for everyone! Except, as John Tierney points out, that’s pretty much all nonsense:

If you live in the United States, you probably do some form of recycling. It’s likely that you separate paper from plastic and glass and metal. You rinse the bottles and cans, and you might put food scraps in a container destined for a composting facility. As you sort everything into the right bins, you probably assume that recycling is helping your community and protecting the environment. But is it? Are you in fact wasting your time?

In 1996, I wrote a long article for The New York Times Magazine arguing that the recycling process as we carried it out was wasteful. I presented plenty of evidence that recycling was costly and ineffectual, but its defenders said that it was unfair to rush to judgment. Noting that the modern recycling movement had really just begun just a few years earlier, they predicted it would flourish as the industry matured and the public learned how to recycle properly.

So, what’s happened since then? While it’s true that the recycling message has reached more people than ever, when it comes to the bottom line, both economically and environmentally, not much has changed at all.

Despite decades of exhortations and mandates, it’s still typically more expensive for municipalities to recycle household waste than to send it to a landfill. Prices for recyclable materials have plummeted because of lower oil prices and reduced demand for them overseas. The slump has forced some recycling companies to shut plants and cancel plans for new technologies. The mood is so gloomy that one industry veteran tried to cheer up her colleagues this summer with an article in a trade journal titled, “Recycling Is Not Dead!

[…]

The future for recycling looks even worse. As cities move beyond recycling paper and metals, and into glass, food scraps and assorted plastics, the costs rise sharply while the environmental benefits decline and sometimes vanish. “If you believe recycling is good for the planet and that we need to do more of it, then there’s a crisis to confront,” says David P. Steiner, the chief executive officer of Waste Management, the largest recycler of household trash in the United States. “Trying to turn garbage into gold costs a lot more than expected. We need to ask ourselves: What is the goal here?”

June 24, 2015

The precarious economics of recycling today

Filed under: Business, Economics, Environment, USA — Tags: — Nicholas @ 03:00

The recycling industry is having economic problems, which means many municipalities are being forced to share those problems:

Once a profitable business for cities and private employers alike, recycling in recent years has become a money-sucking enterprise. The District, Baltimore and many counties in between are contributing millions annually to prop up one of the nation’s busiest facilities here in Elkridge, Md. — but it is still losing money. In fact, almost every facility like it in the country is running in the red. And Waste Management and other recyclers say that more than 2,000 municipalities are paying to dispose of their recyclables instead of the other way around.

In short, the business of American recycling has stalled. And industry leaders warn that the situation is worse than it appears.

“If people feel that recycling is important — and I think they do, increasingly — then we are talking about a nationwide crisis,” said David Steiner, chief executive of Waste Management, the nation’s largest recycler that owns the Elkridge plant and 50 others.

[…]

The problems of recycling in America are both global and local. A storm of falling oil prices, a strong dollar and a weakened economy in China have sent prices for American recyclables plummeting worldwide.

Environmentalists and other die-hard conservation advocates question if the industry is overstating a cyclical slump.

“If you look at the long-term trends, there is no doubt that the markets for most recyclables have matured and that the economics of recycling, although it varies, has generally been moving in the right direction,” said Eric A. Goldstein, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council who tracks solid waste and recycling in New York.

April 3, 2015

Updating the old saying “where there’s muck, there’s money”

Filed under: Economics, Science, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

According to this story in the Guardian, a typical city of one million people poops out $13 million in (potentially recoverable) precious metals every year:

Sewage sludge contains traces of gold, silver and platinum at levels that would be seen as commercially viable by traditional prospectors. “The gold we found was at the level of a minimal mineral deposit,” said Kathleen Smith, of the US Geological Survey.

Smith and her colleagues argue that extracting metals from waste could also help limit the release of harmful metals, such as lead, into the environment in fertilisers and reduce the amount of toxic sewage that has to be buried or burnt.

“If you can get rid of some of the nuisance metals that currently limit how much of these biosolids we can use on fields and forests, and at the same time recover valuable metals and other elements, that’s a win-win,” she said.

A previous study, by Arizona State University, estimated that a city of 1 million inhabitants flushed about $13m (£8.7m) worth of precious metals down toilets and sewer drains each year.

The task of sifting sewage for microscopic quantities of gold may sound grim, but it could have a variety of unexpected benefits over traditional gold mining. The use of powerful chemicals, called leachates, used by the industry to pull metals out of rock is controversial, because these chemicals can be devastating to ecosystems when they leak into the environment. In the controlled setting of a sewage plant, the chemicals could be used liberally without the ecological risks.

August 31, 2013

Enabling the “nudgers”

Filed under: Government, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 09:44

Coyote Blog links to a Daily Mail article on the woman who wants to run your life (and Obama wants to help her):

I am a bit late on this, but like most libertarians I was horrified by this article in the Mail Online about Obama Administration efforts to nudge us all into “good” behavior. This is the person, Maya Shankar, who wants to substitute her decision-making priorities for your own […]

If the notion — that a 20-something person who has apparently never held a job in the productive economy is telling you she knows better what is good for you — is not absurd on its face, here are a few other reasons to distrust this plan.

  • Proponents first, second, and third argument for doing this kind of thing is that it is all based on “science”. But a lot of the so-called science is total crap. Medical literature is filled with false panics that are eventually retracted. And most social science findings are frankly garbage. If you have some behavior you want to nudge, and you give a university a nice grant, I can guarantee you that you can get a study supporting whatever behavior you want to foster or curtail. Just look at the number of public universities in corn-growing states that manage to find justifications for ethanol subsidies. Recycling is a great example, mentioned several times in the article. Research supports the sensibility of recycling aluminum and steel, but says that recycling glass and plastic and paper are either worthless or cost more in resources than they save. But nudgers never-the-less push for recycling of all this stuff. Nudging quickly starts looking more like religion than science.
  • The 300 million people in this country have 300 million different sets of priorities and personal circumstances. It is the worst hubris to think that one can make one decision that is correct for everyone. Name any supposedly short-sighted behavior — say, not getting health insurance when one is young — and I can name numerous circumstances where this is a perfectly valid choice and risk to take.

June 10, 2013

When recycling makes sense – and when it doesn’t

Filed under: Economics, Environment, Government — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 11:14

Michael Munger examines two of the most common myths about recycling:

Almost everything that’s said about recycling is wrong. At the very least, none of the conventional wisdom is completely true. Let me start with two of the most common claims, each quite false:

  1. Everything that can be recycled should be recycled. So that should be the goal of regulation: zero waste.
  2. If recycling made economic sense, the market system would take care of it. So no regulation is necessary, and in fact state action is harmful.

If either of those two claims were true, then the debate would be over. The truth is more complicated than almost anyone admits.

There are two general kinds of arguments in favor of recycling. The first is that “this stuff is too valuable to throw away!” In almost all cases, this argument is false, and when it is correct recycling will be voluntary; very little state action is necessary. The second is that recycling is cheaper than landfilling the waste. This argument may well be correct, but it is difficult to judge because officials need keep landfill prices artificially low to discourage illegal dumping and burning. Empirically, recycling is almost always substantially more expensive than disposing in the landfill.

Since we can’t use the price system, authorities resort to moralistic claims, trying to persuade people that recycling is just something that good citizens do. But if recycling is a moral imperative, and the goal is zero waste, not optimal waste, the result can be a net waste of the very resources that recycling was implemented to conserve. In what follows, I will illustrate the problems with each of the two central fallacies of mandatory and pure-market recycling, and then will turn to the problem of moral imperatives.

October 31, 2012

The economic problem with recycling is that it’s the inverse of retail value

Filed under: Economics, Environment, Technology — Tags: — Nicholas @ 00:01

Tim Worstall at Forbes:

We all understand how pricing in the retail chain goes. Each unit of something in a shipload of them is worth less than each unit when there’s only a container of them, and so it goes on. As we get closer to the retail point each unit rises in value. As we break down the shipment from tens of thousands of units, to a truckload, then a pallet load, finally to the one single item sitting on the store shelf. If you agree to purchase 5,000 iPads you’ll expect to pay less for each one than if you tried to buy just one.

We get that: the thing about recycling is that pricing works entirely the other way around. To a reasonable approximation the value of one unit of anything for recycling is worth nothing. The value of each of 1,000 units in the same place is higher than that solitary one. One scrap car in the middle of a field isn’t worth much if anything. 1,000 cars in a scrap yard might be worth $300 a tonne for the steel content (don’t take these numbers too seriously by the way, they’re examples only). Precious metals refining, scrap metal, recycling: they all share this same economic point. The more of something you have then the more each unit of that something is worth.

[. . .]

… the way we tend to look at the economics of recycling. We hear a great deal about how recycling plastics, or cooking oil, metals, electronics, you name it we hear the same thing, “saves resources”. Sometimes this is absolutely true. Other times however what we get shown is the value of the actual recycling being done. And we’re not told about the costs of collecting what is to be recycled. And as above it’s those costs of collection that are really the key to the whole enterprise.

Just as an example there’s value in 1,000 tonnes of used plastic bags. Among other things you can burn them in a power station and get some energy. Great: but what is the cost of collecting enough used plastic bags to make 1,000 tonnes? That’s the part that seems not to get into the calculations that our green friends present to us.

Cash4Gold seems to have gone under because the collection costs of the materials were higher than the value of recycling those materials. What’s really rather worrying about the larger recycling movement is that this can be/is often true of other materials. But because we don’t properly account for the collection costs we don’t see this as clearly as we do in the accounts of a (failed) for profit company (OK, would be for profit company).

October 7, 2012

Recycle, re-use, re- … oops.

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Europe, Health — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 11:48

The EU is being its traditional bureaucratic self again, this time in the home-made jams and jellies department:

It’s a fairly usual part of modern government to try to increase the rate at which people recycle used items. Sometimes it’s a very sensible practice indeed (we’ve been recycling gold for millennia precisely because it is so valuable) and sometimes it’s really rather silly (no trees are saved by paper recycling as we make paper from trees that we grow specifically to make paper). But more recycling is generally seen as a good thing. Which is what makes this latest piece of tomfoolery from the European Union so strange:

    But the thousands who regularly sell their home-made jam, marmalade or chutney in re-used jars may have to abandon their traditions after a warning that they are breaching European health and safety regulations.

    Legal advisers to Britain’s Churches have sent out a circular saying that while people can use jars for jam at home or to give to family and friends, they cannot sell them or even give them away as raffle prizes at a public event.

No, it’s not a spoof. It really is true that those tasked with running an entire continent, the bureaucrats in Brussels, think that putting home made jam (jelly to you perhaps) in used jam jars should be and is a crime. With serious penalties too:

    The agency said it was up to local authority environmental health officers to enforce the regulations, and penalties can reach a maximum of a £5,000 fine, six months’ imprisonment, or both.

June 1, 2011

When is plastic better for the environment than paper?

Filed under: Environment, Technology — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 12:29

The answer: when the product gets dumped in a landfill.

Stateside boffins say that, contrary to popular perception, it would often be better for the planet if people avoided using biodegradable products compliant with the recommended US government guidelines.

This is because biodegradable wastes — for instance cardboard cups, “eco friendly” disposable nappies, various kinds of shopping and rubbish bags etc — often wind up in landfill, where they will degrade and emit methane. Methane is, of course, a vastly more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2, so it is seen as important to prevent it getting into the atmosphere.

[. . .]

The answer, according to Barlaz, is to get away from the idea that rapid decomposition is always a good idea — especially on things which won’t be recycled much but will probably wind up in landfill, for instance disposable nappies, fast-food packaging etc.

“If we want to maximize the environmental benefit of biodegradable products in landfills,” Barlaz says, “we need to both expand methane collection at landfills and design these products to degrade more slowly — in contrast to FTC guidance.”

December 29, 2010

Recycling: it’s not economics, it’s control

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Economics, Environment, Government, Politics — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:03

Gregg Easterbrook points out the stupidities of many municipal recycling programs:

Freeze! Drop That Discarded Dishwasher or I’ll Shoot! The New York Times recently reported that unwanted appliances — old washing machines and so on — placed on the curb for disposal in New York City have been “disappearing.” With scrap metal prices strong, what the article calls “thieves” have been driving along streets scheduled for used-appliance pickups — in New York City, this happens by published schedule — and taking away the unwanted junk before the city’s officially approved recycler arrives. The “thieves” then sell the unwanted junk as scrap metal.

Set aside whether it’s theft to take an unwanted item that has been discarded in a public place. New York City bureaucrats think so; they’ve instructed police to ticket anyone engaged in recycling without government sanction. Twenty years ago, New York City bureaucrats were demanding that citizens recycle whether they wished to or not, and imposing fines for failure to comply. Now if the average person is caught recycling, it’s a police matter.

This issue is not the cleanliness of streets or the environmental benefits of recycling — it’s control of money. The New York City Sanitation Department pays a company called Sims Municipal Recycling about $65 million annually to pick up and recycle metal, glass and aluminum. Notice what’s happening here? Recycling is supposed to make economic sense. If it did, then the recycling company would be paying the city. Instead the city is paying the company. Montgomery County, Maryland, my home county, imposed recycling rules saying they made economic sense. Now the county charges homeowners $210 annually as a recycling tax. If recycling made economic sense, government would pay homeowners for the privilege of picking up their valuable materials. Instead New York City, Montgomery County and many other government bodies charge citizens for something they claim makes economic sense.

Recycling of aluminum makes good economic sense, given the energy cost of aluminum and the high quality of recycled aluminum. Depending on where you are in the country, recycling of newspapers may make sense. Recycling of steel and copper usually makes sense. But recycling of glass, most plastics and coated paper is a net waste of energy. Often the goal of government-imposed recycling program is to use lack of understanding of economics to reach into citizens’ pockets and forcibly extract money that bureaucrats can control.

Notice what else is happening here — New York City pays a company millions of dollars to do something “thieves” will do for free. The “thieves” harm no one, and could save New York City taxpayers considerable money. But then bureaucrats wouldn’t be in control. And surely no-show jobs and kickbacks have nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with New York City sanitation contracts.

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