Brendan I. Koerner discusses greenhouse gases and other environmental concerns.

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
Nov. 29 2007 5:09 PM

Gassed Up

Environmental columnist Brendan I. Koerner takes readers' questions on greenhouse pollutants and other concerns.

Brendan I. Koerner, Slate's Green Lantern columnist, was online at Washingtpost.com on Thursday, Nov. 29, to discuss the harm of the " other greenhouse gases" plus whatever environmental questions readers had. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.

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Brendan Koerner: Two great questions. On the first, while what you say makes sense, there does seem to be a viable market for recycled paper goods. When it comes to recycling, it's really up to the private sector to decide what they want and what they don't. Here in NYC, for example, the city doesn't recycle plastic takeout containers because there's simply no market for it. But perhaps that will change as technology improves.

On your second question, there's no doubt that the world economy will have to make a radical adjustment in the coming decades. Perhaps oil prices will temporarily retreat from their current levels, but I think it's pretty clear we're facing a long-term upwards trend. The easy answer to your concerns is, "Well, let's start shifting over to alternative fuels now." But that's tough—we've built so much infrastructure to support an oil-dependent economy. That doesn't mean, however, that we should just give up. The time to start planning for a post-oil future is now; otherwise, the economic shocks you fear will be much more severe down the line.

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Anse (The Fray): I say it's "stupid" but I'm pretty sure most of us would like to know ... how do you measure atmospheric conditions in arctic ice? Is it simply precipitation in the arctic and the general water cycle that gets these compounds from our factories and cars to the arctic? Perhaps this would be a good Explainer column in the future.

Brendan Koerner: Thanks for the great question, Anse. I actually touched on this topic in this week's column. Scientists measure atmospheric conditions by analyzing air bubble trapped within the ice. This is how they've been able to calculate the increase in global CO2 and methane levels since 1750—they just bore down way deep down into the ice, where air bubble have been trapped since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Then they compare the contents of those bubbles to ones close to the top.

Believe it or not, I actually visited one of those research sites several years back, out on the Greenland ice. The scientists who man those camps are some of environmentalism's unsung heroes—I, for one, don't have what it takes to spend six months on the ice.

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Alexandria, Va.: I feel that even though small actions on everyone's part to live a greener life may not make an immediate visible change, it's more about the habit to live greener that is being developed. When I read articles about the environment, they often are belittling to those trying to make a difference, and I would like to point out that young children getting in the habit of living greener now will be the ones in the decision-making role in the future, and that these small actions really are huge.

Brendan Koerner: Agreed, and especially relevant to my own situation since I have my first kid en route. I think it's pretty obvious that the environmental situation is bound to get worse before it gets better—we're just barreling ahead so quickly, for better and for worse. But to bury our heads in the sand simply because results are hard to come by doesn't make sense. I'd like to think our species is in the game for the long haul, which means looking down the road instead of always focusing on the present. It's a tough thing for us to do, given that each human being has such a short time here. But it's critical.

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Fredericksburg, Va.: I love your idea on going through landfills for recyclables. You're going to have to bear with me here or you will think this is idiotic: I read how skyline drive was constructed—a govenrment program for people who needed help in the depression, who went and worked and got paid and did great things. Why not have those on welfare now participate in this program?

Brendan Koerner: Believe it or not, I actually got several e-mails proposing exactly this plan after that column came out. (One correspondent also recommended assigning this work to prison inmates on furlough.) A couple of problems, though. First, it's not a lack of manpower that makes landfill mining a lackluster business; it's the fact that the recovered materials are often of poor quality, and that it's difficult to locate and separate them in the first place. Also, keep in mind that companies who've attempted this are private enterprises. So while they're free to hire Welfare recipients if they'd like, it would be tough to force them to.

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New York: What about batteries?

Brendan Koerner: Excellent question. Some cities/counties have established voluntary battery recycling programs, but as I understand it they're not great revenue generators, i.e. there isn't a big post-use market for the materials. I think we've all heard the stories of mountains of used batteries languishing the Chinese hinterlands, and tragically poisoning local water supplies. I think there's a good opportunity here for a public-private partnership to hammer out a way of making battery recycling both a) easier for consumers (i.e. some kind of home pick-up option) and b) profitable for investors.

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feline74 (The Fray): What if you "mined" a landfill by putting the contents in a good compost heap, with linings to catch toxic chemicals and vents to catch methane? Once methane production subsides, use the remaining sludge (stripped of many of the toxic chemicals via runoff) as fertilizer for plants to make paper.

Brendan Koerner: Interesting idea. The methane capture industry is always looking for ways to improve its bottom line, and something like this could increase their revenue streams. As I understand methane capture technology at present, however, it's more based on oil-well tech than anything else. So the solution you propose would be a pretty radical departure.

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ASlyJD (The Fray): I'm no expert here, but could there be a way to process the garbage into small pieces? Then one could use centrifuges and the like to separate the valuable plastics, glasses, metals while allowing oxygen and bacteria to decompose the organic and paper materials much faster.

Brendan Koerner: There actually is some interesting movement toward one-stream recycling—that is, no longer asking consumers to separate glass/metal from paper/cardboard, but rather having everything in one bin and then using optical sensors to sort at the end. Could we someday see no-sort recycling at the consumer level? It's going to be a challenge, because at present organic matter (esp. food) taints paper/cardboard beyond use. (This is a big reason why landfill mining isn't economically viable.) But I'm an optimist when it comes to mankind's penchant for technological innovation.

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New York: Hi Brendan. Energy is the most critical issue facing civilization, yet none of the presidential candidates have any profound knowledge or insight on the subject—only very generic answers: "clean coal" and "more ethanol." They tout caps on car emissions, but fail to understand the net-energy concept as a whole. How can we get them to stop with the meaningless rhetoric and answer some in-depth questions?

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