Should We Recycle? by Eric

Reduce reuse recycle — words every American is familiar with.  For the past several decades, America has been obsessed with recycling.  Yet for the most part, recycling goes unquestioned; it’s assumed to be an environmental, social, and economic benefit.  But is recycling really that helpful?  Does the stuff we throw in the blue bin just end up in the same pile as the stuff in the green bin?  We are going to take a look at why we recycle so much today, and the whether or not we actually should.

It all started with the Mobro 4000…

The “recycling boom” started as a result of the Mobro 4000, a  barge carrying over 3100 tons of garbage out New York City and down to North Carolina.  The Mobro was owned by mobster Salvatore Avellino, who was planning to ship the garbage down to North Carolina, and then eventually Louisiana, for methane production, a newfound technology at the time.

Methane is a poisonous gas naturally produced by bacteria in landfills through anaerobic digestion, but harnessing it for electricity poses huge economic and energetic profits.  A single landfill in New York makes the city $12 million per year.   And according to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, the 605 landfill projects across the U.S. produce about 15 billion kWh of electricity every year.  For comparison, the average American household uses 11,000 kWh of electricity per year.  By these numbers, current landfill projects in America can power over 1.3 million American households per year.

The problem for Avellino was that his partner, Lowell Harrelson, never got a written agreement for the barge to port anywhere, and therefore were not guaranteed to be able to dump their garbage.  Avellino’s reputation as an organized crime boss preceded him, and North Carolina’s government did not allow the barge to port because of suspicions of hazardous medical waste being aboard the ship.  The Mobro 4000 ended up traveling up and down the east coast, all the way down to Belize, before returning to New York two months later with no one willing to take their waste.  People did not realize that there was available space for the garbage, and Americans who watched the Mobro sail up and down the Atlantic thought there was a crisis.

The Mobro 4000's path
                            The Mobro 4000’s path

In reality, the shortage of landfills was caused by what this New York Times article from 1987 describes as the “Not in my backyard” syndrome, a phenomenon observed even today.  The phenomenon can be described as when people are happy to support beneficial measures, as long as their area is not affected (for example, supporters of nuclear energy most likely would not vote to have a nuclear reactor in their town).  People did not want landfills anywhere near them, and that’s why New York voted to close all Long Island landfills by 1990, sparking the Mobro 4000 crisis, and the road to recycling.

The backlash at the recycling movement…

With the ability to view the results of the Mobro 4000 and the new recycling movement, an antagonizing New York Times article from 1996 titled “Recycling is Garbage” points out the futileness of the recycling boom that swept America.  Here’s a quote from James DeLong, a Washington scholar, from the article:

“I don’t understand why anyone thinks New York City has a garbage crisis because it can’t handle all its own waste… With that kind of logic, you’d have to conclude that New York City has a food crisis because it can’t grow all the vegetables its people need within the city limits”

According to DeLong, if all the trash produced by New York City came from materials that were shipped into the city, then why should the city be responsible for holding that trash?  New York understands this sentiment today, as it ships 23,000 tons of garbage out of the city per day.  That’s the equivalent of seven Mobros, or almost 8 million tons of garbage per year.

That sounds like a lot of trash.  But we don’t see landfills overtaking cities, and it’s not like we do, or can, recycle all of that garbage.  Can landfills actually hold that much garbage?  The answer is yes, they can.  And according to A. Clark Wiseman, if Americans generate the same out of trash as they do now (it was 1996 when Wiseman said this) for the next thousand years, they could fit all of the trash in a 1225 square mile landfill… small compared to the 150,000 square miles of parkland in the U.S.

A comparison of landfills versus recycling…

According to the EPA, in 2012 the U.S. generated 251 million tons of municipal solid waste (trash).  About 54% of this went to landfills, with another 34% recycled.


Just as Salvatore Avellino saw in the 80’s, methane production from landfill gasses is extremely profitable because of its energy yields.  As mentioned earlier, landfill projects currently yield 15 billion kWh of electricity according to the EESI, or even 16 billion kWh according to the EPA, enough to power 1.3 million American homes.  The basic steps of how landfills produce the necessary gasses for energy creation is as follows:

First, aerobic bacteria, which consume oxygen, begin to break down the organic materials in the landfill, producing carbon dioxide in the process.

After all the oxygen has been consumed, anaerobic bacteria, which do not require oxygen to live, break down the compounds created by the aerobic bacteria into acids and alcohols.  This process creates hydrogen and carbon dioxide.

Other anaerobic bacteria will consume the acids created in the second step and produce acetate.  The landfill becomes less acidic during this process.  This gives way to methane-producing bacteria which consume carbon dioxide and acetate.

In the last phase of the process, the landfill stabilizes.  For the next 20 to 30 years, the landfill will produce landfill gas, which is about half methane and half carbon dioxide.

                             Gaseous byproducts of landfills


In order to convert the landfill gas into energy, first the landfill needs to capture the gas.  They start by closing off part of the landfill to additional waste – these are known as “cells.”  They then set up extraction wells, which penetrate through layers of ground, soil, and gravel covering the trash.

The gas then goes through a moisture separator.  The gas is very warm when it is extracted from the ground, but cools as it travels through the collection system.  This causes condensate to form.  If the condensate is not removed, it could disrupt the entire system.  Attached are the blowers, which pull the gas from the wells into the rest of the system.  The gas will then either continue through the system to be converted to energy, or it will go to a flare.  Flares burn any excess landfill gas that is above the capacity of the energy conversion system, or during renovations, as to prevent any methane from being released into the atmosphere.  Here’s a look at what the typical system looks like:

About 3/4 of current landfill projects are focused on electricity generation.  Most of these use internal combustion engines, which are capable of running on projects designed for anywhere from 800 kW to 3 MW (megawatts).  Gas turbines are usually used for large projects handling over 5 MW of electricity.  Microturbines are for smaller projects, as each unit is capable of handling about 250 kW at most.  The rest of the landfill projects are for direct use, which heat local buildings and facilities, usually within 5 miles of the landfill.  The Puente Hills landfill, the largest landfill gas to electricity program in America, is currently producing 50 MW of electricity annually, which could provide power to about 50,000 homes.  For a look at current landfill projects and potential future ones, check out this EPA page.

Not only do landfill gas to electricity projects pose energetic benefits, they also pose huge environmental benefits.  The carbon dioxide released is not considered to add to climate change, because it was from recently living biomass, and the carbon dioxide would have been released anyway from decomposition.  Landfill projects capture from 60% to 90% (for more efficient recently designed projects) of the methane produced by the landfills.  With a 90% collection rate, there is barely any gas being released into the atmosphere.  In addition, using electricity from landfills displaces the energy that would come from burning fossil fuels, which is arguably the largest contributing factor to climate change.  In 2014, landfill gas projects reduced approximately 127 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, equivalent to carbon dioxide emissions of over 14 billion gallons of gasoline.  If landfills are so viable, is recycling just a waste, or is it still better than landfills?


In 2013, America recycled 34%, or 87 million tons, of its waste, over double the 16% recycled in 1990 .  Here’s a quick look at what materials we recycle, and how much of each:

Lead-Acid batteries are toxic and highly processed, so it makes sense that we tend to recycle them almost 100% of the time.  Newspapers and paper are recycled extremely heavily at the industrial level, which is why the rate is so high.  Typical items like bottles and glass are recycled about a third of the time, and aluminum cans come out to be recycled just over half the time.  Here’s a look at what kind of waste we are producing:

Total Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) Generation (by material), 2013 254 Million Tons (before recycling)

And here’s how much we are recycling (data from 2011, check this EPA fact sheet for more current data):


The comparison…

The EPA’s WARM (Waste Reduction Model) was created to help organizations track their energy usage and greenhouse gas emissions, and help compare them to different waste management strategies.  You insert the tons of each product that you recycle or toss in a landfill.  You are then able to choose what kind of landfill you would be using (I chose one with gas-to-electricity capabilities).  It then produces data on the difference in metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (basically just the amount of greenhouse gas emissions) and in Btu, which measures the energy cost.  I used WARM to compare two different scenarios:

One scenario uses the 2013 EPA data on municipal solid waste.  In the other scenario, I reversed the numbers.  How many tons of a material that we currently landfill, were entered as being recycled, and vice-versa.  Obviously, we recycled a lot more in the second scenario, 64% of the total MSW was recycled and 34% was put in landfills.

According to the data, recycling is leaps and bounds better than landfills.  The second scenario (recycling more) resulted in a reduction of 11,717,984 metric tons of carbon dioxide being emitted.  1,137,729,915,000 Btu were saved by recycling as much as we put waste in landfills now.  These numbers are the equivalent of fulfilling 10,119,583 households’ annual energy consumption, conserving 195,822,705 barrels of oil, or 9,101,839,318 gallons of gasoline.

While this data shows that recycling is positive and better than landfilling, we still need to support landfill gas to energy projects.  A lot of materials and products cannot be recycled, so landfills are going to be an important aspect of America’s waste management for the foreseeable future.  Additionally, landfill projects create energy even after landfills are out of commission, which is almost like free energy.  They also prevent almost all of the methane being produced from landfills from reaching the atmosphere.  So even though the New York Times was wrong in 1996 that recycling is pointless, landfill projects are still increasingly important.  That being said, we need to continue striving to recycle as much as possible, and to keep recycling awareness in the public’s mind.

The Keystone XL Pipeline by Eric

“Isn’t the Keystone XL a huge pipeline they’re building through America?!”

The Keystone XL pipeline is not a brand new, ginormous pipeline being built from Canada to Texas.  In fact, the Keystone Pipeline already exists.  Commissioned in 2010 and built by the company TransCanada, the pipeline has been transporting oil from Canada to the U.S. for several years now.  Originally, the Keystone stretched from Alberta, Canada to Steele City, Kansas, and then to a refinery in Wood River, Illinois, and an oil tank farm in Patoka, Illinois.  In 2011, an extension was built from Steele City, to Cushing, Oklahoma, the site of a large oil tank farm.  For those who are unaware, oil tank farms are storage and distribution facilities for oil.  Cushing, Oklahoma happens to have the largest in the country, representing 12.5% of the country’s stock-up (for those who wish to learn more about Cushing’s grip on America’s oil, check out  After the addition of the Steele City to Cushing extension, an additional 485 miles was added in 2014 from Cushing to refineries in Port Arthur, Texas.  Work on a pipeline from Port Arthur to Houston, Texas is set to be completed by 2016.

“So what’s the difference between the Keystone XL and the Keystone?

The Keystone XL is another pipeline running from Alberta to Steele City, designed to increase barrel production from 700,000 barrels per day, to up to 830,000 barrels per day, a 16% increase.   For a more visual representation of the Keystone and Keystone XL, check out this map from The Washington Post:

keystone map

As you can see, the Keystone XL almost looks like a “shortcut” in a huge pipeline.  The only reason it has not been built yet is because it crosses the Canadian/U.S. border, and because this is an international border, it requires a special presidential permit.  Obama has been hesitant to give permission to TransCanada to build the Keystone XL for political reasons.  Many democrats oppose the plan because the left’s constituencies tend to be more environmentally focused, and therefore they need to vote against what many people see as being a detriment to the environment.  There have also been legal battles with landowners, especially in Texas, as eminent domain has been used to obtain access to their land.  One of the most notable cases, a restraining order filed by Texas farmer Julia Trigg Crawford, officially ended in March of 2014 when the Texas Supreme Court denied to hear her case.  Another issue that has delayed the president’s response came from Nebraska.  Nebraskans wanted to prevent the Keystone XL’s pathway through their state, however in 2013 Nebraska Governor Dave Heinman approved a different path through Nebraska that ended this issue.  All in all, most of the opposition comes in on the environmental front.

“So how does this affect the environment exactly?”

A significant portion of the opposition to the Keystone XL Pipeline is because of the environmental concerns.  Several groups, such as the National Defense Resources Council and the Friends of the Earth, place most of their worry in the environmental detriments of oil-sands, or tar-sands, the type of oil that is being taken from Alberta.  Oil-sands are not actually made of tar, they are made of a mixture of sand, water, and bitumen.  Only recently have they been thought of as usable oil, because oil-sands are an unconventional type of petroleum, meaning that they are produced using methods other than the conventional well-method.  Here’s a quick video from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers explaining oil-sands and bitumen:

There are several reasons why oil-sands negatively impacts the environment, one being greenhouse gas emissions.  A study from Stanford University found that the oil produced from oil-sands are 22% more carbon intensive than conventional oils in the U.S. in wells-to-wheels.  Wells-to-wheels measures the emission of carbon dioxide from the beginning of oil production, all the way through combustion in automobiles.  What this basically means is that the fuel you get from oil-sands causes 22% more pollution than conventional oil.  This number is heavily debated however, as some sources such as the Canadian Association for Petroleum Producers, the sources for the previous videos, says that oil-sands are only 9% more intensive than the U.S. average supply. According to activist organization Greenpeace, oil-sands account for 40 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year, which makes them the largest contributing factor to emission growth in Canada.  The majority of these emissions come from extracting the oil from the ground.  There are two main ways to do this, through open pit mining, and through in situ drilling.  Mining recovers the oil-sands that are close to the surface, accounting for about 20% of oil-sand extraction processes.  This process is closely related to coal-mining operations; chunks of earth containing oil-sands are put onto truck that take the chunks to crushers to break down the earth, then water is used to thin out the thick mixture, then the mixture is transported to a plant where the bitumen is separated from the other products and turned into usable fuel.  Here is another video explaining the process from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers:

In situ drilling gets to oil-sands that are deep under the ground, using a steam technology called steam-assisted gravity drainage.  Steam is pumped underground to liquefy the viscous bitumen, and then pumped back up.  These drilling sites are able to “directional drill”, meaning multiple wells can be created from a single site.  Here’s a quick video, again from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers:

Both of these processes emit huge amounts of carbon dioxide, as they require far more energy than using wells for conventional oil.  Yet, there are still more environmental detriments caused by oil-sands.  The process of separating bitumen from the unnecessary products like clay and sand uses large quantities of water, in fact, three barrels of water are used for extraction for every one barrel of oil produced.  As one can imagine, this water becomes extremely polluted.  95% of this water, or 2.4 million barrels per day, becomes so polluted that it must be stored in tailing ponds (  If 2.4 million barrels doesn’t mean much to you, imagine over 100 million gallon jugs of water becoming too polluted to use every day.  These ponds are basically just pools of toxins, and there is the potential for some of these toxins to leak in to nearby water supplies.

Another more local concern regards the Alberta boreal forests.  Home to the largest land ecosystem on earth, they are incredibly important to many species.  However, they lay right on top of the oil-sand deposits.  Mining and in situ drilling sites require the clearing out of trees, and in situ drilling’s horizontal drilling can go under forests and disturb them greatly.  Some of these environmental effects seem to not rattle people though.  People have been hearing about greenhouse gasses for decades, and toxic water and forests up in Canada don’t affect American citizens.  But what does scare most Americans, are the spills.

Since it has been in operation in 2010, the Keystone Pipeline has had 14 spills, and has the possibility to spill 2.8 million gallons of bitumen in just a 1.7 mile area, according to the State Department.  That means that over 2.5 thousand gallons of extremely toxic sludge will pour out into every acre for over 1000 acres. Depending on the location of the spill, this could have a major impact on the U.S., as the proposed Keystone XL will pass through the Missouri River, Yellowstone, Red Rivers, and the Ogallala Aquifer.  For those who are not aware, the Ogallala Aquifer provides water to over one fourth of America’ irrigated land, and is responsible for two million citizen’s drinking water, according to Friends of the Earth.  Here’s a quick map of how much area is covered by the Ogallala Aquifer from the Water Encyclopedia, and check out their website for any more information:

The Ogallala Aquifer (shaded area) is in a state of overdraft owing to the current rate of water use. If withdrawals continue unabated, the aquifer could be depleted in only a few decades.

Clearly the Keystone XL has its issues, ranging from legal battles to sincere environmental concerns.  But with all these negative aspects…

“Will the Keystone XL even be helpful?”

There is the potential for job creation.  According to TransCanada, they see 20,000 jobs being created.  However, Obama released a statement in 2013 saying:               The most realistic estimates are this might create maybe 2,000 jobs                           during the construction of the pipeline, which might take a year or two,                   and then after that we’re talking about somewhere between 50 and 100                   jobs in an economy of 150 million working people.”

If TransCanada is correct in their assumption that the  Keystone XL will provide 20,000 jobs, that would be a .0001% increase in employment.  So compared to the entire U.S. economy, even using the most optimistic numbers, the jobs gain is not significantly large.  So let’s see how much energy the Keystone XL Pipeline would actually provide…

Well, according to the State Department’s report, the Keystone XL won’t really affect oil-sand production.  There are alternatives to the Keystone XL Pipeline, such as using combinations of tankers, rail-lines, and existing pipelines, that will all fulfill the same oil transportation amounts as the Keystone XL will, an additional 130,000 barrels per day.  Additionally, the alternatives are less prone to pipeline spills, so may actually be better from an environmental stand point.  In the report, the State Department also concludes that if the Pipeline is not approved, then an alternative will be used, and there will be no way of stopping it.  So either way, it looks like oil-sands are going to increase in production.  What are environmentalists supposed to do with this?  It seems like a lose-lose situation for them.  However, one way they may be able to win the battle is through economic reasoning.  Let’s take a look at this graph from Rystad Energy:

First, we’ll figure out what all these numbers mean.  On the left (the y-axis), we have U.S. dollars per barrel being measured.  A barrel is a barrel of crude oil, which contains 42 gallons of oil.  On the bottom (x-axis), total oil production in millions of barrel of oil equivalents per day is being measured.  Barrel of oil equivalent (boe) is just the amount of energy that can come from one barrel of oil, which is 1,700 kWh.  Boe per day (boe/d), is simply just the amount of barrels per day being produced.  So, as we take a look at the graph, we can see that oil-sands account for less than 5% of the world’s boe/d, almost the lowest amount compared to the rest of the sources.  Not only is it a tiny amount, but oil-sands are also the most expensive source of crude oil, coming in at an average of $88 per barrel, the next highest being North American shale (fracking), at $62.  Oil-sands may just not make economic sense, unless a new production technique can be devised to make it cheaper.  Some may argue in favor of oil-sands because we can get them from Canada, a much more stable source than the Middle East, but fracking in the United States account for more than double the oil production of oil-sands, and at a 30% cheaper price.

So overall, the Keystone XL is kind of a moot point.  The oil-sands will be produced either way, and the environmental concerns will still be there.  What America should focus on is moving away from oil-sands completely.  If we shift the argument against the Keystone XL to oil-sands in general, environmentalists may be able to win.  Most people will not be in favor of using the dirtiest oil around if they found out it was the most expensive oil as well.  Conservatives who are anti- climate change do not care about the environment, so if the environmentalists and people who oppose the use of oil-sands show them the concrete evidence that oil-sands production is a poor economic choice, then we may be able to win in stopping the Keystone XL, and the production of oil-sands all together.