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Recycling is B.S.? B.S.!

Gopal Aggarwal at Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons license.)Magicians Penn and Teller are whizzes when it comes to performing offbeat, weird, funny and gross sleights of hand and other tricks. But they’re neither scientists nor fair and objective journalists (not that many of today’s so-called “mainstream” journalists are either). So it pays to view their scam- and myth-debunking efforts with a healthy dose of critical thinking.

Case in point: their Showtime channel program, “Bullshit!” I’ve watched most of the early episodes, and they’re highly entertaining, because that’s what Penn and Teller are: entertainers. But their fact-checking and analyses can leave much to be desired, as when — for example — they “debunk” global warming with the help of libertarian think tanks like the Cato Institute ,.. without turning to real scientific sources like say, oh, NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Their 2004 episode slamming recycling has been garnering big Internet traffic and lots of social networking hits … presumably because a lot of people take glee in seeing enviro-minded hippies put in their place. There are a few problems with the episode, though:

Recycling is B.S. … Except When It’s Not

After spending about 15 minutes making the case against recycling — it’s unnecessary, we’re not running out of resources, it costs more than it’s worth, it creates pollution — Penn and Teller acknowledge, yeah, it makes sense to recycle aluminum cans and other metals. So recycling isn’t entirely B.S., even in their eyes.

(The photo accompanying this post, by the way, is of cow dung cakes drying in the sun. In places like Punjab, India, where this picture was taken, even B.S., apparently, is not B.S. but a valuable source of fuel and fertilizer.)

Everything is Relative

At one point in the recycling episode, Penn and Teller rail on about the pointlessness of recycling plastics, which they say will make sense only when “there’ll be money for street people in picking up plastic.” You know what? There is … in the poorest slums of India, Bangladesh and other developing countries. It’s not that there’s no money in recyclables … it’s that a couple of pennies doesn’t make much difference to the average U.S. resident, which that amount could mean the difference between eating or not for a seven-year-old rag-picker in Mumbai.

The Times, They Are a’Changing

To bolster their arguments, Penn and Teller cite a 2004 study on recycling myths by Clemson University economist Daniel K. Benjamin. Benjamin identifies myth number five as this: “We squander irreplaceable resources when we don’t recycle.” And then, he continues, “What about non-renewable resources such as fossil fuel? Here, too, there is no reason to fear that we will run out. Despite repeated forecasts by the federal government and others that we shall soon run out of oil, it hasn’t happened. Indeed, as we continue to use more oil, the standard measures of proven oil reserves get larger, not smaller.”

Reading that today, in mid-2008, does any part of that paragraph strike you as, um, a bit off? (Hint: $147 a barrel crude.)

So maybe oil’s the exception, right? Except, maybe not. Also making the news for their increasing scarcity are gallium, indium, hafnium, platinum, helium, zinc, copper and, oh, water.

Recycling is Just One Piece of the Puzzle

Finally, I’ll grant the magical duo this: “recycling” alone isn’t the answer to our environmental and resource challenges. “Reduce” and “reuse” are also critical. By making plastic bottles that are thinner and lighter, for example, beverage companies could use 30 percent less resin and save about $1.5 billion on year on raw materials. And if the U.S. could start imitating some parts of Europe, we wouldn’t need to recycle … we could simply refill.

Of course, there will still always be some people who think refilling, reducing and reusing are B.S. too. Sigh.




7 comments
  1. green bean

    Recycling is incredibly important, today more than before. It makes me happy to discover resources such as this on the net today offering free information for the public. I really wish there were more individuals making such positive contributions to the net. Thanks for the article.

  2. Edward

    Oil is flat-priced (or there abouts) in real terms. The problem is the Dollar, not its scarcity, even though it ultimately is scarce.

  3. Dad4theFuture

    Of course the saddest part is that way too many people believe the last paragraph, and all the junk that gets spewed by those who only care about themselves and the present.

  4. Kendra Holliday

    My friends were just in Las Vegas and met Penn & Teller. Penn was in a bad mood. Maybe he read this post. 🙂

  5. Mat

    I think they had a very good point when it came to paper, it’s a renewable resource that is really easy for us to break down and return to the ecosystem. The majority of our paper is harvested from trees grown for that specific purpose.

    There are a lot of grey areas, like plastics, which isn’t economical to be recycled now, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we are digging it out of the dumps in a few years.

    Metals make a ton of sense to recycle, they are fairly easy to melt down and turn into other things.

    Either way they set out to make a show which argues a point, and they generally do it in a way that is entertaining. I appreciate the view that is not commonly held, and I appreciate that someone takes it.

    Their latest episode on NASA is really good and I think you should take a look at it.

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