A word that often crops up in conversations about recycling and waste management is ‘efficiency‘. Is commingling materials more efficient than source separating them? Is manufacturing glass from cullet more efficient than from virgin silica, or a mix? Is recycling more efficient than incinerating plastic for energy recovery?
In order to answer these questions we feel compelled to perform very elaborate life-cycle analyses of the different materials and usually feel overwhelmed by the variables involved. Before we get to such overwhelming analyses, I want to point out a few things about how we use the word ‘efficiency’.
When we use the word in daily life, we rarely have so simple a definition as in physics. Most of the time, when you or I talk about efficiency in some aspect of our lives, we mean efficiency towards a specific end.
If our goal is simply disposal, meaning getting garbage out of our way, we would find it most efficient to simply dump our trash in open dumps outside the city limits. In daily life, efficiency must be matched with our goals; with disposal, one of our goals is that we not create hazardous conditions for ourselves. Therefore, we dispose of things in a somewhat less efficient manner – ie, in sanitary landfills.
I’ll provide a more tangible example. I wash out my containers before recycling them. This is horribly inefficient. I imagine the most efficient course would to be only remove those large chunks of food that create problems for the machinery. But, the various times I have visited a MRF, I’ve been struck by the awful smell. As a courtesy to the workers, I try to reduce that rotting milk odor however I can. Courtesy is rarely efficient.
While there are a great many people yammering about the inefficiency of our disposal habits, we find only a rare hermit or two who dares to notice the inefficiency of our consumption habits: on demand avocados, mangoes, and pork tenderloin, 24-hour fast food, clothes dryers, simultaneously running refrigerators and heaters, vacations, flushing the toilet every time you use it, and almost anything disposable.
As much as we might like to dispose of things efficiently, nobody wants to live a truly efficient life. Such a life usually makes us think of George Orwell, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and The Matrix: everyone receives their daily nutrients in the form of a pill and their entertainment in the form of electricity (or chemicals), and produces only what is required.
So, the next time you hear someone talking about the inefficiency of reuse or recycling, perhaps we should remember that this isn’t textbook physics, but real life. Our habits of convenience and consumption are far more wasteful than our feeble attempts at good-deedism in recycling.
[All illustrations for this post are by Rube Goldberg, that expert illustrator of efficiency. You can find more information about him at www.rubegoldberg.com.]