Most people believe that material recycling is the true recycling and thermal recycling is a fake. But the conventional material recycling is actually downcycling, whereas thermal recycling by the gasification system can realize more radical recycling. That is to say, what was thought to be the genuine recycling is deceptive, whereas what was thought to be the deceptive recycling is genuine. This recognition leads to a reconsideration of the role that the government must play to promote recycling.
1. The essence of recycling
Why should we recycle? You might answer, “To save energy" or “To cherish matter." As recycling seems to save energy, repeatedly using the same matter, this sort of explanation is easy to accept intuitively, but physically wrong. Energy does not decrease, as the first law of thermodynamics tells. Nor does the mass of materials, unless nuclear reactions cause a mass defect. What recycling is attempting to economize on is neither energy nor matter, but the resource value, that the lowness of entropy.
We increase entropy inevitably as far as we continue living. Physical entropy has the entropy of heat and the entropy of material dissipation. Unlike the former, the latter cannot easily be thrown away into space. If we continue throwing away more waste than nature can dispose of, the entropy of material dissipation increases so that the earth becomes hard to live. Therefore we must reduce the entropy of material dissipation on the earth, increasing the entropy of heat and throwing it away into space. This attempt to keep the entropy of material dissipation low is the essence of recycling.
Some of the recycling promoters, however, do not understand this essence of recycling. They, naively presuming that recycling consists in the repetitious use of the same materials, assume that the material recycling is the genuine one while the thermal recycling is a fake. For example, Recyclingexpert.co.uk insists that this name is unfair because thermal recycling is not recycling.
One of the main criticisms aimed at the whole idea of thermal recycling is that it is simply incineration by another name – a shameless attempt by its supporters to make it sound a little more acceptable and eco-friendly. […] it certainly isn’t recycling in the traditional sense; the material has gone forever and it won’t be coming back as a ‘new’ something else, like recycled paper or glass does. All that remains is the heat, and a relatively small volume of ash for disposal – and this potentially contains a concentrated brew of contaminants, depending on exactly what the incinerator has been burning.
This is why “waste-to-energy" or more widely “energy recovery" is adopted as its name instead of “thermal recycling" so as to be placed as a less desirable way of waste disposal. For example, the following figure ranks (material) recycling above energy recovery in the hierarchy of priority.
It is based on this hierarchy of value that most of the countries in the world oblige their people to recycle by law or subsidize recycling business. But, does the material recycling deserve such a government intervention? The next section examines the problems of the current material recycling.
2. Material recycling
The material recycling is an antonym of the thermal recycling. If you refuse the name of “thermal recycling", the adjective “material" is unnecessary. While Europeans classify material recycling into mechanical recycling and feedstock recycling, Japanese call the former material recycling and the latter chemical recycling.
Feedstock recycling or chemical recycling introduces the chemical processes such as depolymerization, polymerization, heating, oxidation, and hydrogenation, while mechanical recycling introduces the mechanical processes such as grinding, rinsing, separating and drying. Here, I would like to give importance to the purpose rather than the technique of recycling. So, I will classify the recycling as thermal that aims to produce low-entropy energy and the recycling as material that aims to produce low-entropy materials.
It is the matter in dispute whether material recycling really saves on resources. It requires us to rinse waste, carry it to a fabrication plant, remove alien substances, process it and carry it back to consumers, all of which consume resources. The recycling infrastructure such as buildings, machinery, appliance equipment and vehicles deteriorate to become garbage. The question is whether it can reduce more entropy of material dissipation than it enlarges.
“Recycling aluminum saves 90-95 percent of the energy needed to make aluminum from bauxite ore." It is a profit-making business in the black and everyone agrees that it actually saves on resources. But there is a controversy on whether the deficit business such as recycling plastic really saves on resources. In Japan, some claim that recycling is useless because it consumes the energy equivalent to 140-gram oil to recycle a PET bottle, whereas making a new PET bottle from virgin resin needs energy equivalent to only 80-gram oil, to which others reply that the former requires only 1/6 energy of the latter . In the US as well, there is a controversy on whether “recycling is garbage" or “recycling is not garbage“.
If recycling of plastics really economizes on resources, if “recycling 13 PET bottles economizes on 1 litter oil“, why the business of recycling plastics goes in the red? Generally speaking, most of the material recycling business including that of plastics is unprofitable, though it needs fewer natural resources than the production utilizing virgin materials.
Some proponents of material recycling retort that an economic cost is not the same as the environmental impact. Certainly, a price of a product is based not only on physical entropy but also on information entropy, and if the latter factor is large, the price is no longer the index that indicates the value of physical resources consumed in its production. For instance, compare 1 million dollar steel with 1 million dollar painting. They have the same price, but quite a different impact on the environment.
The difference, however, comes from partial comparison. In order to create a painting worth 1 million dollar, it is necessary to create a lot of candidates for painters and discard a lot of failed ones so that the total costs are not so small. On the other hand, anyone can produce steel of the same quality. The perfect competition of the market reduces the price of such a commodity near to its natural cost. Therefore, the price is expected to be proportional to the value of physical resources consumed in its production.
The recycling business is a commodity industry in the sense of Warren Buffett (1930 – ). The brand of this industry has no premium value. You do not need to put garbage on the first-class seat for transportation. No academic background is required of workers to collect garbage. The reward for collecting empty cans that the homeless obtain is as little as to maintain their lives physically. Thus, materials, transportation, workers and other production factors in the recycling industry have no premium value. In such a commodity industry, we can safely assume that the price is a measure of environmental impact.
Proponents of material recycling insist that as the environmental problem is a matter of external diseconomies we should promote recycling even if it is unprofitable. I agree with it, but now that we can calculate the external diseconomies in terms of an economic loss, it does not follow that we can ignore the economic measurement. We must, taking external economics and diseconomies into consideration, decide which of possible treatment methods is the most inexpensive. Therefore, we cannot neglect the economic cost of recycling.
Now why material recycling that should economize on resources can be in the red? There are two reasons. First, the quality of recycled products is usually lower than that of a new one produced from virgin materials. Second, recycling relies on manual labor and personnel expenses cost high.
Currently some chemical or mechanical recycling produces PET bottles of identical quality (the same Intrinsic Viscosity) to new ones that are from petroleum-derived materials, but these are exceptional cases. About 90 percent of used PET bottles were recycled to low-quality materials such as egg boxes and trays for food. We can recycle virgin pulp only 3 – 5 times because recycling paper shortens its fiber. Nor can we recycle aluminum beverage cans endlessly because the lid and the body of an aluminum beverage can are made of different alloys. Because material recycling processes trash by a halfway method, the reduction in entropy of material dissipation becomes incomplete
Since it converts a waste product into a new one of lesser quality, material recycling is actually “downcycling" rather than recycling, located somewhere between reuse and complete recycling. Naturally, the recycled product of lesser quality does not sell as well as a completely new one and recycling business can be in deficit, even if recycling needs fewer resources than the production using virgin materials.
The decrease in quality not only negatively affects the profit but also increases the possibility to do damage to consumers’ health. Recycled or reused products tend to be unsanitary or dangerous. Think of recycling or reusing cotton goods. Bacteria or viruses often remain in the used cotton goods. Since cotton has the nature similar to bacteria, it is very difficult to disinfect them without destroying cotton. Moreover recycling cannot remove chemical poison that soaks into the used materials, so that repeated recycling accumulates poison in the materials. If you liquefy or gasify the materials, you can easily detect the poison and remove it, but even the cutting edge technology has difficulty detecting poison in solid materials. Sampling inspection is unavailable because the quality of the used materials is not homogeneous.
The problem of safety is concerned with entropy. Although poison harms living things and thus increases material entropy, it is harmless, so long as it is gathered at a place and kept away from us. If it is scattered and its existence becomes more uncertain, it gets dangerous for us. Recycling is dangerous because its circulation increases the information entropy of poison. In this respect, the circulation of recycling is contrary to the liquid circulation in a body, although the recycling industries are often called “venous industries" in contrast with “arterial industries" in East Asia. The circulation of recycling tries to make resources from waste and scatters poison, whereas the liquid circulation in a body concentrates it and excretes it out of the body. The former increases the entropy of our systems, whereas the latter decreases it. Needless to say, what we need in our society is the latter circulation.
Another reason recycling industries do not make both ends meet is personnel expenses. In spite of partial automation, material recycling still relies on human labor for garbage-sorting, which is beset by labor costs. The government gives recycling favorable treatment by means of a subsidy or regulation if it is highly evaluated in terms of LCA (Life Cycle Assessment). “LCA is a technique to assess the environmental aspects and potential impacts associated with a product, process or service by (1) compiling an inventory of relevant energy, material inputs and environmental releases, (2) evaluating the potential environmental impacts associated with identified inputs and releases and (3) interpreting the results to help you make a more informed decision." However, this technique has a blind spot. LCA neglects personnel expenses. So, even if LCA is in the black, recycling business can be in the red without a government subsidy and regulation.
Why does LCA neglect the dependence of recycling on human labor, though it obviously consumes resources and has an immense impact on the environment? According to Itaru Yasui, vice-president of the LCA Society of Japan, it is because we cannot murder people to reduce the environmental impact and, even if we can reduce manpower in recycling industries, we must anyway give them employment opportunities to guarantee their survival. If material recycling can be justified with this logic, then we can also demonstrate with the same logic that material recycling is nonsense: we cannot throw away the natural resources to reduce the consumption once we have processed them and, even if we can reduce the consumption of natural resources in recycling industries, we must anyway consume them for other purposes; that is to say, recycling does not reduce the consumption.
Recycling might increase the consumption rather than decrease it. This is named “Jevons paradox" after William Stanley Jevons, who, observing the progress in the energy efficiency of steam engines and the increase in coal consumption in 19th century Britain, said, “It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to a diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth ."
As the figure below shows, an increase in the resource efficiency causes a decrease in the price of the resource, which in turn will increase the quantity demanded and promote the consumption of the resource. Similarly, automation might cause the oversupply of human resources and drop wage, which in turn will increase the quantity demanded and promote the consumption of the resource.
To prevent Jevons paradox, we must raise the production cost, imposing a tax on the production of both natural and human resources, which should reduce the supply. Generally speaking, this sort of internalization of external diseconomies is more desirable than internalization of the external economy, for example, a subsidy for recycling business to solve the sustainability problems. Remember the waste hierarchy put a higher priority on minimization over reuse and recycling.
Yasui says that we cannot murder people to reduce the environmental impact. That’s true, but we can reduce the population by lowering the birth rate. This is just like we cannot destruct useful products once we have made it, but can reduce the production by lowering new mining of natural resources. The internalization of external diseconomies and the resulting rise in resource prices not only reduce the consumption but also afford an economic incentive to make an efficient use of resources.
We can find parallelism between material and human resources, but we must recognize that human resources are not only an element of production like natural resources but also the ultimate purpose of production. In this sense, the reduction in population deserves higher priority over the reduction in consumption. Jevons paradox was the phenomenon in Britain when the population increased explosively. It is difficult to reduce the total consumption, even if we use resources effectively so long as population continues increasing.
It is politically hard to accept to reduce the total consumption while the population is increasing because it lowers individual affluence. On the other hand, it is politically easier to accept to reduce the population, because it maintains or heightens individual affluence. Fortunately, the birth rate is declining in developed countries. The advancement of technology and automation decreases the demand for unskilled labor, and the role of humans is getting confined to the engagement in professional work. The high demand for the requisite qualification increases the production cost of humans so that the supply of them decreases without the proposed tax. We must extend this trend to developing countries. As for the disposal of waste, however, we find the reverse trend. Against the general trend of service, it becomes more troublesome and more dependent on unskilled labor. I will take up this problem again.
3. Thermal recycling
Thermal recycling is a less labor-intensive way of waste management. Manual garbage-sorting is undesirable rather than unnecessary for this method. Waste does not burn without mixture of the combustible such as plastics and paper.
Thermal recycling has a long history. Soon after the first incinerator was built in Nottingham, England, in 1874, a high-pressure steam was first generated at Darwen, Lancashire, England, in September 1899, leading to councils generating electricity.
Thermal recycling has two advantages over material recycling. First, the troublesome classification of waste is unnecessary. Second, the average distance from consumers to incinerators can be shorter than that to recycling facilities. The more special a recycled product is, the less its recycling facilities are and the longer the average distance to them, which increases transportation cost. The waste for thermal recycling is so general that incinerators can gather enough waste from neighbors. Cogeneration (Combined Heat and Power) is possible thanks to the proximity to consumers.
I defined recycling as the process to reduce the entropy of material dissipation on the earth, increasing the entropy of heat, throwing it away into space and thus keeping the entropy of material dissipation low. It is obvious that this definition can be applied to material recycling, but thermal recycling seems to be opposite to material recycling in this respect: it reduces the entropy of heat by increasing the entropy of material dissipation.
When burned, the garbage breaks up, that is to say, the entropy of material dissipation increases; whereas combustion widens the temperature difference from the outside, that is to say, the entropy of heat is reduced. The bigger the temperature difference, the better the efficiency of a heat engine becomes and the more electricity it generates. Thermal recycling that decreases the entropy of heat by increasing the entropy of material dissipation is apparently opposed to material recycling that reduces the entropy of material dissipation by increasing the entropy of heat.
Still, thermal recycling is recycling, and that it can perform recycling more thoroughly than material recycling. Combustion breaks down more elements the higher the temperature becomes. The temporary increase in the entropy of material dissipation results in a more thorough reduction in the entropy of material dissipation than material recycling that tries to avoid it. It is just like the creative destruction in the sense of Joseph Schumpeter (1883–1950) can finally reduce social entropy more thoroughly than a temporary remedy to try to maintain an anachronistic social system. Free market economies increase more social entropy than controlled economies, because the freedom promotes innovation and improves productivity, thus reducing more entropy.
Organic garbage cannot be easily recycled but downcycled unless garbage is depolymerized to monomers. If burned, however, they decompose into water and carbon dioxide. The photosynthesis of plants, a reaction reverse to the combustion, re-creates organic matter and oxygen from water and carbon dioxide. This is a complete way of recycling because we can re-create organic products of the original quality. Recyclingexpert.co.uk said “the material has gone forever and it won’t be coming back as a ‘new’ something else, like recycled paper" , but it is a superficial observation on thermal recycling.
Material recycling of an organism is not restricted to the production of food or wood. We can make bioplastics such as PLA (polylactic acid) from biomass. Because of its biodegradability, bioplastics are now used for medical implants, agricultural mulch films, compostable packaging materials, and so on. Meanwhile, non-biodegradable bioplastics are also developed. You can also ferment organic waste and now the catalysis technology enables us to dehydroaromatize methane to benzene and naphthalene, materials to produce various plastics, plus hydrogen, fuel for electricity. Oil and coal are also renewable resources so long as our consumption is limited.
Methane fermentation is an old biotechnology capable of converting polymeric materials to methane and carbon dioxide under anaerobic conditions. Fermentation is the same oxidation as combustion, and it can be regarded as a kind of thermal recycle. Today a two-stage hydrogen/methane fermentation process is demonstrated working more successfully than the conventional methane fermentation. A fuel cell can generate electricity from hydrogen and methane and we can use the fermentation dregs rich in phosphorus and other inorganic elements as a fertilizer. The two-stage process should be applied to dispose of watery organic waste such as food waste, agriculture waste, raw sewage and so on.
While combustion and fermentation can completely recycle organic products, nature cannot recycle metal waste so quickly. Conventional combustion does not vaporize metal waste except those with a lower boiling point, discharging a mixture of various metals as slag. It is a problem of the thermal recycling how to separate them by artificial means and utilize them as resources.
How is thermal recycling implemented? The following figure is a process diagram of a Waste-To-Energy plant that ecomaine.org designed. Trash collected by municipalities is unloaded into the trash storage bunker and a large indoor crane then continuously feeds that trash into boilers. The plant burns about 175,000 tons of trash a year and its heat generates enough steam to create about 100,000 to 110,000 megawatt-hours of electricity annually. Vaporized trash is collected as fly ash and pollutants in it are controlled. The remainder is collected as bottom ash.
People are concerned that Waste-To-Energy plants might let dioxins and dioxin-like compounds (PCDD/F) be emitted into the air and have negative impacts on human health and the environment. WHO warns “Dioxins are highly toxic and can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer." How can Waste-To-Energy plants restrain the emission of dioxins and dioxin-like compounds?
First, incinerators must burn trash completely at the temperature higher than 800 ℃. Second, “de novo synthesis" of PCDD/Fs must be hindered. According to an experiment, the maximum de novo synthesis of PCDD/Fs on the sinter fly ash is observed around 325 °C and around 400 °C after 30 minutes. To hinder de novo synthesis of PCDD/Fs, fly ash should be cooled below 300 ℃ in less than 30 minutes. Boilers depriving evaporation heat of flue gases are necessary not only for generation but also for prevention of de novo synthesis.
Burning trash completely over 800 ℃ and cooling flue gases below 300 ℃ in a boiler tube has another merit. When the temperature of the boiler tube exceeds 320 ℃, hydrogen chloride (HCl) deriving from plastics reacts with the iron of the boiler tube to form ferric chloride (FeCl3) and corrodes the boiler tube. But the corrosion can be prevented, if the boiler keeps its surface temperature between 150 ~ 320 ℃, regulating the quantity of water supply to the boiler.
Organic chlorides such as plastics have been classified as incombustible trash or resources for material recycling. They have been separated from others for fear that mixing it to combustible trash would damage incinerators, but the current Waste-to-energy plants have overcome this problem and it does not justify material recycling of plastics any longer. It is now desirable not to sort out the incombustible from the combustible.
As keeping the temperature of the boiler tube below 300 ℃ lowers the generation efficiency, some are developing new corrosion resistant alloy, e.g. SUS310 (aluminized low carbon steel). As it could trigger the de novo synthesis of PCDD/Fs, this solution is not a desirable one. To improve the generation efficiency, combined cycle gas turbine (CCGT) would be a better option. The combination improves the efficiency up to 30% and generates more electricity than the separate operation. As I noted, cogeneration also contributes to the improvement.
Complete combustion at the temperature higher than 800 ℃ vaporizes various materials, including harmful heavy metals such as mercury, arsenic, cadmium, lead, and tin. The boiling points under a standard atmosphere of these elements are respectively 357 ℃, 613 ℃, 767 ℃, 1750 ℃ and 2603 ℃. It means that mercury, arsenic, and cadmium are vaporized as fly ash, while lead and tin remain as bottom ash. The boiling points under a standard atmosphere of iron, aluminum, and copper, which account for the majority of metal included in the trash, are respectively 2862 °C, 2519 °C, and 2562 °C. So, most of these major metals remain in bottom ash.
The toxic metals in fly ash are removed, cemented and buried in a landfill so as to prevent their elution, whereas bottom ash whose composition is near a rock is relatively safe and can be utilized as roadbed materials, concrete aggregate and so on. As they still include toxic metal elements and the demand for bottom ash is limited, the conventional thermal recycling still has problems to solve: safety from toxic metals and sustainability of metal resources. It must make progress to solve this problem.
4. Hybrid Recycling
The current cutting-edge technology of thermal recycling put to practical use is gasification. Gasification is the conversion of pyrolizing carbonaceous feedstock into syngas with a controlled amount of oxygen and steam. After syngas reduces metal, melting furnace burns the remaining completely with the syngas, whose heat generates power. The gasifier and melting furnace was first developed in the 1970s, when the oil crisis prompted engineers to recycle waste, and became widespread since 2000.
Thermal recycling, whether its method is combustion or fermentation, oxidizes waste. The gasifier, on the other hand, reduces waste, before melting furnace oxidizes it. Metal elements in compounds are in the state of positive ions and reduction gives them electrons, so that metal waste can become valuable commodities. The gasifier/melting furnace system implements not only thermal recycling but also material recycling. Therefore, we can name it hybrid recycling. Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives calls gasifier “Incinerators in Disguise " , but the chemical reaction in the gasifier is the reverse of that in an incinerator.
Waste plastics have been used as a reducing agent to manufacture iron in a blast furnace. Unlike this kind of chemical recycling or feedstock recycling, hybrid recycling needs no separation of plastics from trash. Waste plastics can be used to reduce the metal waste mixed in the same trash. This is a less labor-intensive way of recycling.
There are several types of gasification systems: shaft furnace type, rotary kiln type, and fluidized bed type. The shaft furnace type requires external fuel such as coke, and it does not recover metal resources but discharges molten metal as a slag constituent, whose usage is limited. The technology of the rotary kiln type is yet to be mature for practical use. Unlike the shaft furnace type, the fluidized bed type requires no external fuel and recycles metal. The fluidized bed type is more reliable than the rotary kiln type, because its technological components, fluidized bed waste incinerator and swirl flow melting furnace have long been operated. This is why the fluidized bed type has fewer accidents than the rotary kiln type.
It does not follow it causes no accidents. Any technology development will experience accidents in its early stage, but this does not prevent gasification systems from being introduced. In the conventional material recycling, workers sort trash manually, so they often have their hands wounded with sharp materials included in the trash. Anyway, there is no completely safe method for recycling waste.
At present, the fluidized bed type seems the best. How does it work? Look at the figure below that illustrates the process flow of the fluidized-bed gasification and melting facility of Kobelco Eco-Solutions. Waste collected by truck is dumped into a pit and then fed into a gasifier, where the waste pyrolytically decomposes and metal waste is recycled. In the melting furnace, the remaining materials are completely burnt, reaching temperatures over 1200 °C. The high-temperature exhaust gas generated in the melting furnace is used as heat for power generation. The exhaust gas in the waste heat boiler goes through a process of treatment in a cooling tower, bag filter, and catalysis tower, and then is emitted from the smokestack.
The following figure shows the flow of substances and energy in the process of Ebara’s fluidized bed gasification and ash melting system.
In the fluidized-bed gasifier, air is blown into a layer of sand to fluidize it, dispersing the waste. Part of the waste is combusted at the temperature of 600 ～ 800 °C and the combustion heat pyrolyzes waste into syngas, mainly carbon monoxide and hydrogen, char, incombustible materials, and ash. The syngas, mainly carbon monoxide and hydrogen, is produced via the following reaction with carbon and steam.
C + H2O → H2 + CO
The syngas reduces metals contained in the incombustible materials, such as iron, copper, and aluminum, which sink in the sand owing to the difference of specific weights, so as to be extracted from the bottom of the gasifier, polished by the sand.
Gasification is good for recycling major metals such as iron, aluminum, and copper because they sell better in a simple substance. In contrast, minor metals often sell better in a compound or an alloy, because of their specific usage. For example, cobalt is used mainly in the form of the compound, lithium cobalt oxide (LiCoO2), and neodymium is used mainly in the form of the alloy, neodymium magnet (NdFeB). That is why suppliers collect them and reuse them voluntarily. Therefore, the introduction of the gasification system does not make the reuse or the conventional material recycling completely useless.
The syngas and the remaining waste are transferred to the melting furnace in the tangential direction, causing a swirl-flow inside it. Air is supplied for combustion in the melting furnace, where the syngas is completely combusted over 1200 °C. The waste melts at this temperature, and the centrifugal force generated by the swirling casts the molten slag onto the inner wall. The molten slag, while coating the wall, flows down on the wall to be discharged from the bottom. The coating contributes to reinforcing the wall. This is also a kind of material recycling. The slag mixed with asphalt substitutes for various building materials.
Chlorine, the cause of the corrosion of boilers and the component of PCDD/Fs, is fixed to the char in the gasifier. This dechlorination in the gasifier restrains dioxins and dioxin-like compounds in the melting furnace. Even if they are composed in the melting furnace, they quickly decompose over 1200 °C. In addition, most of copper and cobalt, the catalyst for the de novo synthesis, are removed as the reduced metal from the gasifier or as the molten slag from the melting furnace. The dechlorination also prevents the corrosion of boilers. Because high-temperature steam can be provided for boilers made of conventional inexpensive materials, the efficiency of generation can be easily improved.
Fly ash from the melting furnace includes various substances. Some of them, for example, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, lead, tin, and antimony, are toxic. Though these toxic metals have been used as resources, the industry is now developing alternative materials to decrease the risk of damage to human health. So, these toxic metals should not be recycled but detoxified and separated from us. Some elements in fly ash, for example, zinc are not toxic but useful. Because the boiling point of zinc (907 °C) is low enough to be vaporized, fly ash is rich in zinc. Moreover, zinc is expected to dry up in the near future (about 2050). It is a metal worth recycling. Many methods to process fly ash into resources is now being studied and developed.
Let me sum up hybrid recycling. Organic constituents in waste are first used as a reducing agent, then as a fuel to be decomposed into water and carbon dioxide, from which plants compose organisms. Metallic constituents in waste are reduced in the gasifier to be recycled. Even some metals in fly ash can be recycled in the future. The main constituents in molten slag are SiO2, Al2O3, CaO and so on. Its composition is near that of rock and we can utilize it as building materials.
This new form of thermal recycling can refute RecyclingExpert’s criticism I quoted. The conventional material recycling is actually downcycling, whereas thermal recycling by the gasification system can realize more radical material recycling. That is to say, what was thought to be true recycling is deceptive recycling, whereas what was thought to be deceptive recycling is true recycling.
Recyclingexpert.co.uk pointed out that the ash for disposal might contain a concentrated brew of contaminants, but note that concentration means a decrease in entropy. If toxic substances are concentrated, it is easier to dispose of them. On the other hand, reuse or incomplete material recycling can spread contaminants soaked in materials. This increase in entropy is more dangerous.
5. The role of the government
In most of the developed countries, the government promotes recycling business by means of regulation or subsidies on the premise that free market out of the government control wastes resources. It is now widely believed that not the affirmation but the negation of the greed for profit contributes to protecting resources. Therefore, when it comes to recycling, people will assume the air of stoicism and support a government intervention in a free market.
However, is it really not the affirmation but the negation of the desire for profit that prompts people to recycle waste? In reality, recycling has been put into practice long before people got “awakened to the environment". In pre-modern societies, people reused and recycled waste products more thoroughly and earnestly than in modern societies. It was not because they were embracing a morally noble ideal but because the productivity was low and resources were difficult to obtain in those days that people devised various ways to save on resources. In short, those engaged in recycling at that time were motivated not by the moral obligation to negate the desire but by the desire to consume more resources. The consumption, however, was restrained owing to the limit of production.
Then the Industrial Revolution increased the productivity drastically and the epoch of mass production, mass consumption, and mass disposal has come. But the oil crisis and the pollution problems that occurred in the 1970s triggered grass-roots movements to save on resources and protect the environment. People who thought the government must oblige corporations to engage in unprofitable recycling by means of regulation and subsidies based on the anti-capitalistic and anti-market ideology appealed to liberal politicians and realized their ideal. The modern recycling is different from the pre-modern recycling in that people no longer attempt to take the profit out of recycling.
However, it is not appropriate to regard the market economy chasing a profit as hostile to the environmental movement, because the economic cost is correlative to the environmental impact and the effort of private enterprises to maximize profits contributes to economizing on resources. On the other hand, government-led unprofitable enterprises to promote recycling enhance the risk of keeping recycling that does not actually save on resources. What I think of as the most problematic is that the government while eager to save natural resources is unconcerned about the waste of human resources. On the contrary, the government boasts that the promotion of recycling has increased the employment.
For companies in pursuit of profits, human resources, as well as natural resources, are the costs that they must minimize. In addition, they must satisfy their customers to compete with other companies. As a result, they have developed goods and service that minimize the costs of human resources and maximize the customer satisfaction, whereas the government-led recycling industries have advanced in the opposite direction. The government can increase personnel expenses for the cause of enlarging employment and use inhabitants’ labor free of charge by legislation. Thus the government has encouraged labor-intensive industries and has put the inhabitants to inconvenience.
Before the government began to promote recycling, waste disposal was not so troublesome a job for inhabitants. The following is a photograph of trash cans for the curbside collection called “Dust Box" which some Japanese municipalities used to install to collect trash.
The citizens were able to discard trash in this iron container anytime. When a mobile crane came to collect trash, it put its claw on the hook fixed on the center of Dust Box’s roof, lifted it and opened its bottom to dump trash into the dustbin lorry, when a worker pulled the lever on the bottom. The Dust Box gave off no bad smell nor could wild cats or crows hunt for garbage in it.
Promoters of recycling censured this convenient trash can for offering an illegal dump, because the inside of the box is invisible. Thus Dust Box was abolished and most of the municipalities now order inhabitants to put garbage in designated transparent plastic bags so as to prevent illegal dumping and charge part of recycling costs for designated plastic bags. This photo shows trash bags for curbside collection in today’s Japan.
The orange net is covered over trash bags for fear that cats or crows should hunt for garbage, though the covering is insufficient. Trash bags are allowed to be thrown away only at the prescribed time because otherwise it might emit a bad smell in the neighborhood. Cleaning the dump as well as sorting, rinsing and packing trash has become the duty of local inhabitants.
The work became troublesome for collecting workers, too. They must grab trash bags by hand and must throw it into the dustbin lorry. Many workers are needed and they often have their hands wounded with sharp materials included in the trash bags. The current way is obviously more primitive than before.
You might think that we should promote recycling, however troublesome it may be. But now that gasification system automates the separation of waste, we no longer have to sort and rinse trash manually, packing it into designated plastic bags and bringing it to the dump at the prescribed time. Now we can revive the convenient Dust Box.
Of course, there are some sorts of waste that the gasification system cannot accept, for example, radioactive waste and other highly toxic substances. Since the highly toxic substances are now being excluded from production, the sorting for the gasification system will be unnecessary in the future. Fermentation would dispose of watery organic waste, such as raw sewage and agriculture waste, better than the gasification system. This sort of garbage requires no troublesome sorting because of specific sources. The gasification system can cope with most of the waste from an urban area, whether it is from a house or an office, a factory or a hospital.
I do not intend to deny all the conventional material recycling, but the government should stop protecting it by means of regulation or subsidies to screen the recycling that does not actually save on resources. If material recycling really saves on resources, they should be able to reward the supplier of the resource for recycling with a deposit refund. In fact, before the government came to intervene in the market, the deposit-refund system had worked well for recycling glass bottles, newspapers and so on. The recycling industry that can make ends meet without any government support is a sound one.
Generally speaking, the role of a government is to conduct surveillance of economic activities and it should not engage in economic activities by itself. A government should do only what the market economy cannot do while entrusting others to the market economy. Therefore, it should entrust profitable reuse and recycling to the market economy and undertake only the final disposal of waste. The excessive government intervention will prevent people from thinking how to economize on resources by themselves and instead induce them to think how to obtain subsidies. In short, it does not make the most of the power of the people.
What a government should do to promote reuse or recycling is neither the direct intervention in the market nor the enlightenment with such a slogan as “Save the Earth" or “Future for children" to invoke altruism and abandonment of chasing a profit, but internalize the external diseconomies, namely, pass the cost of the final disposal of waste on to the price of commodities. The taxation does not increase the burden on taxpayers because abolishment of subsidies can lead to decrease in another tax. The rise in prices of resources prompts people to think how to economize on them by themselves. This is the best way to make the most of the power of the people.
Of course, we must also make the most of the power of the people to reduce the cost of the final disposal of waste. I introduced hybrid recycling by means of the fluidized bed gasification and ash melting system as the best cutting-edge technology in practical use, but it is not the definitive solution leaving much to be improved. To accelerate innovation, municipalities should adopt PFI（Private Finance Initiative）so that private enterprises can take the initiative.
To make the most of the power of the people, it is necessary to convert the selfish pursuit of profit into the public benefit. As the selfish pursuit of profit is human nature, unnatural systems against it, however morally beautiful they appear, do not last long. Not many are willing to listen to a sermon, “Restrain your desire for the sustainability of civilization." Everyone is busy chasing an immediate profit. If that is a reality, why not affirm it and make the most it? A system that affirms human nature can last long. Human desire cannot realize the sustainability without realizing the sustainability of the desire itself.
The conventional administration, preferring “Reduce" to “Reuse" and “Recycle", has attempted to minimize waste by making it hard to throw away trash. But the government’s imposing a burden, such as establishing troublesome rules and charging a fee for garbage collection, has brought about not minimization of waste but illegal dumping, which requires extra monitoring costs to prevent or punish. Anyway, no matter how much the government encourages reuse and recycling, mass production inevitably results in mass dumping. To reduce waste, we should raise the threshold of the entrance to production instead of that of the exit from consumption.
Why has the conventional administration raised the threshold of the exit from consumption, lowering that of the entrance to production? Politicians will try to restrain prices, worrying that the rise in prices may torment people, diminish consumption and trigger a recession. In fact, in most of the countries, the government injects public funds into keeping a steady supply of the energy and provides a subsidy for recycling industries, thus lowering prices. Politicians and environmental activists rarely point out this fact that a fall in prices encourages extravagance. On the other hand, politicians who raise the threshold of the exit from consumption are appreciated as eco-friendly, without bearing the brunt of criticism. This is why politicians have raised only the threshold of the exit from consumption, lowering that of the entrance to production.
Were people altruistic enough to respect public benefits, they would economize on commodities to prevent them from drying up, no matter how cheap they might be, and they would never dump waste illegally free of charge, no matter how high legal dumping might cost. But this is not the case. Recognizing this fact, we should choose such a politician as to enact a realistic law.
The threshold of the entrance to production that we should raise is not confined to natural resources but human resources. Although the birth rate in advancing countries is declining, the population is still increasing in developing countries. To restrain the increase in population, it is desirable to charge the public expenses for bringing up and educating children before the marriage. That is to say, if developing countries introduce a mandatory insurance system that charges a premium for marriage and birth so as to guarantee the future of born children, it will help to restrain the increase in population and also raise the educational level of children. The OECD should make it a condition for aiding developing countries.
In the United States, the income gap in the educational qualifications is widening and this tendency will sooner or later spread through the whole world. Automation and computerization have decreased the demand for unskilled labor, while the demand for professional workers is getting high. A prudent strategy for producing human resources is to give birth to fewer children and concentrate educational resources on them. This strategy decreases population but increases the productivity per capita. Instead of the conventional sterile choice between environment and wealth, we can aim at the most desirable option, enriching personal lives and protecting the environment at once.
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