Can we do better than recycling?

Well, I forgot to bring my little laptop back to the house with me yesterday, so I’m writing this blog post on Google Docs via Google Drive on my phone.  It’s very handy, obviously, but it’s not as good a word processor as MS Word, though it has its own relative advantages.  Also, it’s just easier to write using a full, true keyboard than with the simulated keyboard on a smartphone.

It’s not a good sign that I’ve forgotten my laptop.  It’s been years since I forgot it prior to recent weeks, but now I’ve forgotten it twice within about a month.  I am mentally quite foggy, it seems.  You all can probably tell that already, but it’s harder to recognize one’s own deterioration from within, since that with which one does the recognizing is that which is deteriorating.

How troublesome.

Despite not being at my best, I did have a somewhat interesting idea, yesterday‒not for the first time, though it’s become a bit more coherent with each iteration, as such thoughts seem to tend to do.  I was bringing some boxes out to the big dumpster that is reserved solely for cardboard, when it occurred to me‒again, not for the first time‒that we should not be recycling cardboard or paper.  Neither should we be sending it to landfills.  In landfills, of course, paper decays and decomposes, thereby releasing methane and carbon dioxide, so that’s not good.  But the process of recycling is wasteful and inefficient, producing pollution and releasing “greenhouse gases” gasses in its own right.

New paper and cardboard is made from trees grown on tree farms, or such is my understanding.  In other words, old growth forests don’t get cut down to make paper*, but rather, new trees are planted and grown, capturing CO2 from the atmosphere as they grow, though that process is slow and rather inefficient.  But paper and other such things can probably be made from other, faster-growing and even more robust alternatives.

One frequently hears of hemp being touted as a fast-growing source of cellulose and the like, and though I suspect that some of its touted miraculous attributes may be exaggerated, this one seems fairly straightforward.  It’s a rapidly growing plant, the fiber of which has been known to be useful for centuries.  It shouldn’t be too hard to use it for paper and cardboard, and in the meantime, fast-ish growing trees can continue to be planted and take some of the CO2 from the air.

Okay, so, if we don’t recycle it, what do we do with the paper and the cardboard?  We do what some carbon capture technologies are already doing with the carbon they remove from the air: we bury it deep in the earth, preferably in a way that prevents it from decomposing and releasing its carbon back into the atmosphere.  There are ways to do this, in principle, that should be rather cheap.  I would imagine that vacuum packing before deep burying might do the trick.

The ideal place to dispose of it‒indeed it would be a good way of disposing of much of our carbonaceous wastes, including our own bodies, when we die‒would be near a deep ocean subduction zone, where it would eventually be carried back into the mantle of the Earth to remain sequestered and redistributed for millions of years.  Of course, one would probably have to do such deep ocean “burials” on large scales to avoid it being a net detriment, carbon-wise.

Cremation certainly doesn’t make sense when it comes to atmospheric carbon, though it may be better for space considerations. It’s probably worse than burial for the overall environment.  But humans are superstitious about their bodies and the bodies of their relatives and whatnot, so convincing them to do something sensible with them might be a serious uphill battle.

Even plastic should probably not be recycled, except where that can be done in a way that produces something more cheaply and efficiently and in a less atmospherically costly way than making new plastic for particular uses, without subsidizing the process.  Better to do the deep burial thing with that as well.  Plastic can be an excellent carbon sink, and instead of recycling it, we can put more effort into producing neo-plastics from plants rather than petroleum, again removing carbon from the atmosphere.

It’s interesting how feel-good ideas of the past (and the present) can sometimes turn out to be more detrimental than beneficial.  But that’s why one must always assess and reassess every situation as it goes along, testing all knowledge against the unforgiving surface of reality, and not being afraid to rethink things.  At the very least, it can be fun.

I used to think it would be a great idea to breed and/or engineer bacteria or fungi that can digest plastics, but now I realize that this would release a vast quantity of new carbon dioxide and methane and the like into the atmosphere.  Better to have algae that trap carbon and then are converted into plastics, or fuel, or something similar.  At least for now.

Because solving one problem, assuming that even happens, will always lead to new, unforeseeable problems and questions that must be addressed.  But each new question faced and each new problem solved makes the knowledge and capacity of civilization greater.  There is no upper limit on how much can be known‒or if there is, it’s so far beyond what we do know that we cannot even contemplate it sensibly.  There is, however, a definite lower limit of knowledge (not counting “anti-knowledge” or stupidity, which is another point of exploration entirely), and that is zero‒a return to a state with no life, no mind, no information.

Some of us find that state enticing for ourselves, but when I’m feeling unusually generous, I think it would be a shame for civilization to come to naught.  There’s nothing in the laws of nature preventing it from happening, though, anymore than there’s anything preventing a reckless teenage driver from being killed in a car accident, no matter how immortal he feels.  It’s never too early to try to learn discipline and responsibility, to become more self aware and aware of the universe…but it can be too late.

Anyway, that’s enough for the day.  I hope I didn’t bore you.  Have a good day.

*More often, it seems, this is done to create new farmland, which is a separate issue.