More Environmental Epic Fail

Does it seem like most environmental policies backfire to some extent, or just 95 percent of them? I lately returned to the 2012 National Bureau of Economic Research paper on how electric cars are actually more polluting in some states, depending on the electricity source, e.g. if you live in Indiana, every Tesla should come with a bumper sticker that says “How Do You Like My Coal-Powered Car?”  Heh.

Earlier this week the Washington Post ran a good feature on why recycling is in mess.

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. . .

Trying to encourage conservation, progressive lawmakers and environmentalists have made matters worse. By pushing to increase recycling rates with bigger and bigger bins — while demanding almost no sorting by consumers — the recycling stream has become increasingly polluted and less valuable, imperiling the economics of the whole system.

“We kind of got everyone thinking that recycling was free,” said Bill Moore, a leading industry consultant on paper recycling who is based in Atlanta. “It’s never really been free, and in fact, it’s getting more expensive.”

Bottom line: A lot of material sent to recycling in your blue curbside bin ends up in the landfill like your regular trash. But with an extra truck trip and addition fuel and emissions thrown in as a bonus. I think the story errs in suggesting that MRFs (“murfs” in the trade, for “Materials Recovery Facilities”) are part of the problem, when I think it is more likely that future MRFs into which we process the entire waste stream instead of sorting our trash would be more efficient and recover more recyclables. But then you’d idle a lot of recycling trucks and employees, not to mention municipal government recycling managers, who have a vested interest in perpetuating a backwards system.

But wait—there’s more!

A new study published recently in Energy Policy by some of my old mates at the University of Colorado at Boulder concludes that the EPA’s “Clean Power Plan” to fight global warming will actually increase CO2 emissions from coal-fired power plants. (The full study, “The paradoxical effects of thermal efficiency on U.S. power plants’ CO2 emissions,”is behind the journal’s paywall unfortunately, but you can read the University’s press release about it here.)

It looks at the proposal to force coal plants to increase their “heat rate” by 6 percent and concludes that “our results suggest that enhancing plants’ thermal efficiency may ironically cause more absolute damage to the climate.” If coal-plants get more efficient in their combustion, some plants will like run longer, just as consumers who buy higher mileage autos often drive them further because their fuel costs stay flat. It’s another example of the well-known “rebound effect” in energy efficiency, about which fundamentalist environmentalists (a redundant phrase, yes) are in . . . denial. Heh again.