Friday, August 28, 2015

Recycling and Embodied energy: Part II

One of my high school friends works for Dart Container.  After reading my earlier blog on recycling, he suggested that I visit the Dart Manufacturing/Environment website.

I borrowed the video displayed above from their website.

Back story

I used to work in an automotive plant that was two blocks upwind of my parent's home.  Rather than park in the parking lot, I parked in front of Mom and Dad's house.  We could keep an eye on each other and pass notes, presents, visits to each other.  It worked well for all of us.

One of the major tensions between the plant and the neighborhood was paint solvent smells.  Whenever complaints would come in, the plant would send a crew of workers running around the plant and ensure that all doors between the paint shop and the outside were closed.  They rarely found anything.

One of the anomalies was the concentration of the complaints.  Based on the size of the plant, the location of the paint shop, the clocking of wind direction and normal turbulence etc. one would expect complaints from  a fuzzy ellipse of about 8 blocks in size.  Incredibly, the complaints seemed to be a very tight and narrow plume of about 5 houses....owned by extremely vocal folks at the corners of Memphis St and West Shiawassee.

These folks had the plant, city council, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the United States EPA on speed dial.

One day I saw a 65 year old woman in her driveway sloshing liquid out of a one gallon, rectangular, metal can onto her driveway as I was walking home.

I asked her what she was doing in a making-small-talk kind of voice.

She told me that she was cleaning up the oil stains that her no-good, piece-of-junk car left on the concrete.  She said that the stuff in the metal can was the only thing that would remove those black blotches.

The metal can was labeled "Lacquer Thinner". 

That woman's home was immediately upwind of the five residents who complained the most stridently about "the damned, polluting industrial plant."


Back to my high school friend

"Salience" is a fancy word for "that which stands up".  Most difficult issues will have multiple causes.  That is why they are tough to solve.  Invariably, the cause that is most vivid or in-your-face will be the one that is blamed.  Even if it is actually a relatively minor player.

This was not "my" auto factory, but it gives you a sense of their hulking presence.
That automotive plant was an easy target. It was a shear cliff, three stories tall and four blocks long. The neighbor who scrubbed her driveway with lacquer thinner...not so much.

The same phenomena happens with water pollution.  It is much easier to blame, and regulate, point sources like waste water treatment plants and livestock farms.  But nobody wants to address the 72 square miles of lawn and 90,000 home owners in the Lansing metropolitan area, many who are over-fertilizing and over applying herbicides.

Foam cups

So it is with foam cups.  Expanded polystyrene cups have become an icon for throw-away thinking. The problem with tossing around icons is that many people mistake the shuffling of icons and rearrangement of  biases for actual thinking.

Running the numbers

The plastics industry is ideal for accurate accounting.  You cannot home-brew plastics.  It is a centralized technology that cannot be farmed out to fly-by-knight operators, just like automotive plants.  The folks producing the polystyrene pellets can tell you to within 1000 square feet of natural gas they used in the last year and to the kilowatt-hour.  They can tell you to the pound the amount of product they shipped in the last twelve months.  Collecting the numbers is a snap.  The math is trivial.

The wood products industry is much more amenable to decentralization.  That is, they are more amenable to externalizing costs.  Cutting pulp logs is contracted out.  Much of the environmental damage is in the woods, out of sight.  Nobody keeps "book" on the fuel used by gypsy truckers.

Nearly every cost that is "externalized" in the decentralized "contracter" model has "embodied" energy as a component.  Nobody is keeping book on the rapid depreciation of the contractor's equipment.  Nobody knows how to account for the aspen tops left on the forest floor; should some portion of their energy be added to the embodied energy of the paper product?  Nobody considers the fact that hauling logs out of the woods creates a nutrient debit just as surely as taking eight tons of hay off of a pasture.  How do you tally up the energy required to replace that potassium and phosphorous?   Nobody does because it is a cost that has been fully externalized.

While the embodied energy values for plastics are very defensible, the embodied energy values reported for paper products are....well....spongy.  Consequently, it is valid to compare embodied energy values within a family of materials (plastics to plastics) but comparing across families is a case of comparing apples and orangutans.

A true accounting of products as used by the customer shows a much closer horse-race than the published MJ/kg numbers suggest.  In many cases, it shows the plastic products winning the race quite handily.


  1. Sooo... One has to ask, was anything done/said to the woman who was causing the problem?

    1. No. Our plant was already scheduled to close and be demolished.

      The DEQ/EPA pulled our grandfather waiver due, in part, to community feedback. The cost of bringing the plant into compliance was more expensive than building new in a different location. The architecture of the building did not allow easy retrofit of the ducting to create progressive, negative pressure. Nor was theer sufficient steelwork to support a vapor burn chamber for the exhaust air.

      I spent 3 months commuting 70 miles (one way) to a swing shift job in Flint and another 20 months or so commuting 94 miles (one way) to a job in Pontiac.

      Nobody would have believed me anyway.

  2. Are plastics reusable as raw material in a non industrial environment? As in being re-melted and recast or similar?


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