Props To Europe: Norwegian Edition

Trash piled nine yards high is converted to heat and electricity at a waste-to-energy incinerator in Oslo. (Brian Cliff Olguin for The New York Times)

Is it possible to recycle too much? Apparently so. Or at least recycling too much can cause problems for other energy saving strategies. That is a good good dilemma, and I am having a hard time imagining Americans having the same problem:

Oslo, a recycling-friendly place where roughly half the city and most of its schools are heated by burning garbage — household trash, industrial waste, even toxic and dangerous waste from hospitals and drug arrests — has a problem: it has literally run out of garbage to burn.

The problem is not unique to Oslo, a city of 1.4 million people. Across Northern Europe, where the practice of burning garbage to generate heat and electricity has exploded in recent decades, demand for trash far outstrips supply. “Northern Europe has a huge generating capacity,” said Mr. Mikkelsen, 50, a mechanical engineer who for the last year has been the managing director of Oslo’s waste-to-energy agency.

Yet the fastidious population of Northern Europe produces only about 150 million tons of waste a year, he said, far too little to supply incinerating plants that can handle more than 700 million tons. “And the Swedes continue to build” more plants, he said, a look of exasperation on his face, “as do Austria and Germany.”

But it is easy to imagine Americans helping solve this problem, since we are very good at generating garbage, to the tune of 161 million tons a year (or 3 pounds per person, per day).


Getting Trashed: The Electronics Pile-Up

We love flat screens. We buy flat screens. We throw away the old stuff.

But what happens with all that old stuff, which has lots of toxic components? It piles up, and pollutes, making mountains of our hyper-consumer addictions.

Here’s the New York Times:

As recently as a few years ago, broken monitors and televisions like those piled in the warehouse were being recycled profitably. The big, glassy funnels inside these machines — known as cathode ray tubes, or CRTs — were melted down and turned into new ones.

But flat-screen technology has made those monitors and televisions obsolete, decimating the demand for the recycled tube glass used in them and creating what industry experts call a “glass tsunami” as stockpiles of the useless material accumulate across the country…

…In 2004, recyclers were paid more than $200 a ton to provide glass from these monitors for use in new cathode ray tubes. The same companies now have to pay more than $200 a ton to get anyone to take the glass off their hands.

So instead of recycling the waste, many recyclers have been storing millions of the monitors in warehouses, according to industry officials and experts. The practice is sometimes illegal since there are federal limits on how long a company can house the tubes, which are environmentally dangerous. Each one can include up to eight pounds of lead.

The scrap metal industry estimates that the amount of electronic waste has more than doubled in the past five years.

A little over a decade ago, there were at least 12 plants in the United States and 13 more worldwide that were taking these old televisions and monitors and using the cathode ray tube glass to produce new tubes. But now, there are only two plants in India doing this work.

This is just another reminder of how a failure to price the environmental impact of goods into the sales price (instead of the production cost alone) leads to manufacturing and consumption habits that trash the planet. Add in the carbon lifecycle cost, the environmental impact cost, and the recycling cost to a television, and manufacturers will make different, more durable, and less harmful TVs. And consumers will not be so quick to throw the old one away when they suddenly want to upgrade.

The failure to use this sort of pricing is, to me, the single biggest failure of capitalism and the free market approach. Externalities matter. A lot.

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