Weighing up Waste Recycling – Impact on future generations

Tim Worstall’s article on waste got me thinking, manically.


The cry goes that we should not leave our rubbish, or more broadly our environmental problems, for future generations. However, this is only part of the issue. Future generations will benefit from better technology to deal will environmental problems. Further, with economic growth, they will have better resources to deal with this. This is not a trivial point. In real terms western countries are over 30 times richer per capita than 250 years ago. Looking at the UK, with GDP of £1200bn (USD2100bn), with a steady growth rate of 2%, would mean that the economy will be 7.24 times greater in one hundred years and 52.48 times richer in two hundred years. Reducing average output growth  by just 0.1% means that they will be 6.57 times richer in 100 years and 43.14 times richer in 200 years. If the future generations have to clean up our mess, in 100 years they will have £810bn (USD1420) extra to do it with (67% of current output), whereas in 200 years they will have £11,219bn (USD 19,633bn) extra to clean up with (935% of current output).


There is always a problem of running out of landfill, but this if a political rather than a physical problem. There is also a problem of containing the waste and containing the chemical run-off. The methane can be tapped and used as a fuel.


The limit to waste creation


If the waste is to be contained, the problem becomes one of a trade-off between re-processing or recycling now and generating sufficient capability of future generations to recycle later. There is a risk that the problem will become a runaway one, growing faster than the increased capacity to produce later. However, with proper assessment this then becomes a small risk. as the technological advances will mean the real cost of dealing with the issue reduces over time. It is the flip side of the growth equation. The best method of improving this is for small, but long-term incentives. In particular directing research along disparate avenues, like venture capitalists putting small amounts of money in various ventures. It is probably something for philanthropists, rather than governments, as it is necessary to be eclectic, but also cut funding should avenues not be fruitful.  


As a final point, what is most important is developing a framework for our thinking, not to provide solutions. One that goes beyond just listing the advantages and disadvantages, but relating them to one another. It is finding the best answer, not justifying our particular views with pseudo-facts.

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