National / International News
“I’ve Always Wondered” has been inundated with questions about recycling. Recycling apparently both fascinates and haunts many of you, with its suspicious and menacing claim that it’s both “good for the environment” and “makes sense.” Well, fear not, gentle listener. Marketplace is here with answers.
What if you are a bad recycler and don't wash out your plastic chocolate cheesecake container?
I’m not gonna lie. It’s not pretty.
Every few days, the vast recycling machinery at the Sims Municipal Recycling plant in Brooklyn is shut down and cleaned. In part, this is because of all the vile, putrid sludge that accumulates from flakes of dried yogurt and banana peels and whatever else we put into our recycling bins because we are either lazy or overly optimistic about the power of recycling.
Perhaps more an issue is all the nonrecyclable stuff that gets put into a recycling bin (see below for a list of things recyclers have found). Worse than any chocolate cheesecake are things like plastic bags or shredded paper — they wreak havoc on recycling separation machines (normal paper is OK if the plant is designed to handle paper; and not all are).
The dirtier or more contaminated recyclable material is with nonrecyclables, the more likely the recycling plant will just throw all of it into a landfill. Nonrecyclable stuff also reduces the efficiency of the separation, which makes recycling less profitable.
In single-stream recycling, where all the recyclables are placed in the same bin, are the bags of mixed stuff sorted by people or machine?
Mostly by machine, with some human help.
At the ReCommunity Recycling plant in Beacon, New York, actual human beings scan conveyor belts loaded with recyclables before they go through various sorting machines. The humans are on the lookout for things that can damage the recycling machines or things that they would prefer to not recycle. The gems they find include:
- A 6-foot section of telephone pole
- A bowling ball
- A bale of marijuana
- A grenade
- Syringes with needles
- Shredded paper
- A wedding ring
- Wedding gifts
There are also a number of ingenious machines used at most recycling plants to separate items from one another. The Sims Municipal Reycling plant has 2 miles of conveyor belt moving 1,000 tons of recyclables every day from machine to machine.
A disc screen — rotating metal discs move recyclables along and smash glass bottles as it goes. The shards fall down through the machine into a waiting conveyor belt.
A ballistic separator — recyclables of different densities and shapes fall in different ways. Kind of like if you were to play with a beach ball in the rain. The rain falls to the ground, but you’re able to keep the ball in the air because it’s light and puffy. This machine plays beach ball with everything, jumbling it around. Flat things like paper and film go one way, and bulky things like containers go another.
Giant magnets – pick up magnetic metal things.
Optical sorter — As plastic moves along a conveyor belt, it moves through a strong light. A computer is photographing the moving bits and pieces, and identifies them based on the spectrum of light they absorb or reflect. Within fractions of a second, the computer tells air jets to puff certain plastics off the conveyor belt and into their own bin. Humans do some basic separation by hand as well.
Eddy current separator — A lot of people don’t realize this, but metals like aluminum and copper can interact with magnets. An incredibly powerful rare earth magnet spun at 2,900 revolutions per minute will repel them. Here’s an explanation and a video on how copper and aluminum interact with strong magnets when moving.
Does recycling make economic and environmental sense when you add everything up? Has recycling reduced the number of landfills?
It usually makes economic sense, and just about always makes environmental sense.
Environmentally it’s a no-brainer. Why dig aluminum ore out of the ground, transport it around the globe, chemically digest it and electrolyze it in furnaces, when you could just melt down some old cans? Energy savings for aluminum recycling over producing aluminum from scratch are around 95 percent. According to the EPA, recycling reduces solid waste by 49 percent, reduces net greenhouse gas emissions by 70 percent and reduces air pollutant emissions by 90 percent.
Economically, it usually makes sense. But not in every case.
Recyclables are valuable. That’s why, for example, people steal them. A lot. Aluminum, in the past, has gone for $2,000 per ton. Copper has gone for $9,000 a ton. Even paper can go for hundreds of dollars per ton. The fact that recyclables can be sold to manufacturers of bottles, clothing, carpet and cans is why recycling makes economic sense.
Recycling doesn’t cover the cost of collection for a city like New York, but it is certainly less expensive than not recycling. It costs money to send trash to a landfill or incinerator. New York pays 20 percent less for recycling than for dealing with its trash. The difference is not as large in certain areas of the Midwest, however, where landfill fees can be cheap. In those instances, the savings to a city may only come from revenue sharing from the sale of the raw materials (like compacted aluminum cans, etc).
Recycling doesn’t always make economic sense, however. Or, at least, sometimes it doesn’t make enough economic sense.
There is a reason, for example, why we don’t often recycle plastic foam. It’s perfectly recyclable, and there are manufacturers who will buy condensed, melted down plastic foam to make lawn chairs. In fact, industrial recycling does happen, but in the consumer world, the cost of collecting, cleaning and consolidating plastic foam doesn’t make it worth it. So it’s rarely done.
Glass is increasingly falling into the same category as plastic foam. The money recycling plants get from selling their crushed glass (known as cullet) is significantly lower than what they can get for aluminum or plastic. The city of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, recently decided it wasn’t worth it to recycle glass, and to focus on more valuable recyclables like aluminum or plastics.
Commodity prices have been falling steeply in the past year, which affects the prices recyclers can sell their metals and plastics for. In many cases they’ve come down by half, putting many recyclers in a difficult situation, and in some cases, contributing to bankruptcies and plant closures.
How much does it cost to recycle glass? How much energy and water does it take to turn a glass bottle back into a glass bottle? Is it worth it?
It takes 30 percent less energy and creates 50 percent less pollution to use recycled glass to make new glass than does making new glass from scratch.
Owens-Illinois, for example, is a massive glass producer. It melted 12.3 million tons of glass last year and created 40 billion containers (you can see how here). Thirty-eight percent of that was from recycled glass, and the company is trying to increase that number to 60 percent. The reason is that recycled glass melts at a lower temperature than the mixture of sand, lime and other ingredients often used to create new glass, so it takes significantly less energy.
But the president also warned that the campaign against the group that controls large parts of Syria and Iraq "will not be quick."
Blue Shield of California was stripped of its nonprofit tax-exempt status by the California Franchise Tax Board in 2014. Now, the Los Angeles Times has reported on an audit of the huge California health insurer that was used in part as the basis for denying nonprofit status. Blue Shield is contesting the decision; having to pay state taxes back to 2009 could cost the company more than $100 million.
In a June 2014 letter to the company, tax board officials wrote that “Blue Shield is not operating exclusively for the promotion of civic betterment or social welfare,” according to the Times. And part of the reason was Blue Shield’s massive cash reserves, which had swollen to more than $4 billion by last year. Consumer advocates have criticized the company, saying it should use those amassed profits to provide more free or reduced-cost health care to needy Californians. The company says it already caps profits and provides abundant charity to Californians, and that some of the accumulated cash is earmarked for a major acquisition to expand its business into the Medicaid area.
Michael Sparer, chair of health policy and management at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, explains the characterizes nonprofit health insurers: “They’re mission-driven, they’re going to be reinvesting any surplus they have. They’re not going to be sharing surpluses with shareholders or looking to make a large profit.”
Back in the Depression, when these statewide nonprofit health insurance plans were starting up, they achieved their social welfare mission in part by the practice of "community rating," that is, setting the same health insurance premiums for everyone in a given geographical area, regardless of health status or other demographic characteristics, like age or gender.
But Tom Baker, of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, says being nonprofit didn’t mean being a charity and operating solely for the benefit of insured policyholders.
“They’ve never been that kind of warm and friendly, small mutual-type health insurance,” Baker says. “They were set up as nonprofits as a way of justifying their monopoly power, making doctors more comfortable with the idea that they might be deciding whether to pay for things or not.”
In the current health insurance environment, nonprofits, for-profits and mutual insurers (owned by the policyholders) face financial volatility, public policy uncertainty and rapid change in business conditions. A wave of corporate consolidation is afoot, says Steve Zaharuk, senior vice president at Moody’s Investors Service, as insurers try to increase profits while reducing administrative and provider costs. He says nonprofits like Blue Shield of California may have to merge and acquire as well to increase and broaden their footprint, compete for more contracts with doctors and hospitals, and streamline operations.
“It could become more difficult for the local Blue Cross Blue Shield plans and the local regional companies to compete with these national companies,” Zaharuk says .
Jill Horwitz at UCLA School of Law says nonprofits like Blue Shield of California seem to be hoarding cash for business reasons that don’t necessarily violate their nonprofit mission.
“I would have been more concerned if we saw a lot of spending on atriums and big bonuses and offices and things like that,” she says. “But what we’re seeing is cash in the bank being held, and that doesn’t strike me, on its face, as such a bad thing.”
Those cash surpluses might be used to buy other health care companies, keep premiums on an even keel and have reserves for a rainy day.
The roller coaster that is the Shanghai stock market bounced back up a bit today, after a 25 percent plunge over the last two weeks. The government suspended initial public offerings to cap the supply of stocks for investors. And it persuaded 21 brokerage firms to pledge to buy stocks.
“All the large brokerages are directly controlled by the Communist Party,” says Andy Rothman, Matthews Asia investment strategist. “So when the party says ‘We’d like you to take the following steps to try and put a floor under the market,’ the brokers say, ‘Yes sir.’ ”
Which suggests China’s market reflects Beijing helicopter-parenting much more than the actual economy. One is not the other.
“Over the last six years,” Rothman says, “China’s had the best-performing economy in the world and one of the weakest stock markets in the world.”
A market that might make investors nervous about contagion. But mainland stocks are like a hospital room with plastic curtains to contain germs.
“There’s certainly not enough foreigners that have investments in the equity market there,” says Tim Mulholland of the advisory firm China-American Capital. “It’s a closed-type market. A Chinese stock market selloff isn’t going to really mean anything in the global scheme.”
Still, one long-term concern is that the state will continue to manipulate the stock market up and down, which could have negative consequences for broader economic growth.
“Volatility in the financial markets creates uncertainty,” says Yukon Huang, former China country director for the World Bank, now of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Uncertainty has a very negative impact upon investment. And investment is essentially the longer-term determinant of how rapidly a country or economy like China can grow.”
Greece's voters returned a shocking 61 percent no in a historic referendum, rejecting a bailout proposal from the country's international lenders on Sunday. European leaders are now waiting to see if Greece will leave the eurozone.
The BBC’s Theo Leggett is on the field in Frankfurt, Germany, where reactions have varied.
Leggett says people in Frankfurt express a fair amount of sympathy for the people of Greece, but not for the Greek politicians.
"They know it cannot be pleasant to be limited to withdrawing about thirty bucks a day, not being able to buy important items," Leggett says. "But nevertheless most of the people I’ve been speaking to are pretty firm that 'enough is enough,' that German taxpayers should not be having to pay for the mistakes Greek governments have made in the past."
Click on the media player above to hear more.
The fallout from Greece's vote on Sunday has continued into Monday morning, with Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis stepping down from his position. Here's an update on the situation in Greece:
- On Sunday, Greeks took to the polls to vote on a bailout deal, deciding against European austerity. As the New York Times reports, although the results may mean an even tougher road ahead for negotiations, it certainly solidifies Greeks' confidence in Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.
- Monday morning, Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis announced his resignation, citing reports that the Eurogroup had expressed they would prefer not to negotiate with him any longer. As the Wall Street Journal reports, Varoufakis became known for a confrontational style that did not win him many allies in negotiations.
- Banks in Greece remain closed Monday. "The banks are the first fire that has to be put out. They're absolutely depleted of cash. They do not have a source of liquidity," says reporter John Psaropoulos of The New Athenian.
- The BBC reports that eurozone leaders have called an emergency meeting for Tuesday.
- TL;DR: Is Greece solvent yet? Nope.
Click the media player above to hear reporter John Psaropoulos' update on the situation in Greece from Athens.
How does a promising young cop go from town hero to drug trafficker? A former rogue officer details what lead him to the dark side in a region known for corruption.
The state's Senate will need to approve the bill one more time before it can go on to the House. Monday's tally was 37-3; a final vote will be held Tuesday.
From the Marketplace desk of "Nobody Checked With Me," here's the latest Oreo news. Oreos, yes, Oreos — those twistable, dunkable cookies that come in regular, double-stuffed and mega-stuffed varieties.
Nabisco has now decided, it seems, that less is somehow more.
Oreo Thins are coming to the market.
They are, apparently, 5 millimeters thinner than the originals.
Which prompts this: they're cookies, you guys, not iPhones.