Liberty Vittert is rather the public face of a certain sort of science these days. Statistical science, and she was on the judging panel of the Royal Statistical Society for what was to be called the International Statistic of the Year. Obviously enough this would be something about the environment, for what international meeting of the Great and the Good isn’t these days? The number they came up with is that 90.5% of all plastics have not been recycled.
OK, interesting enough number even if clearly rather politically influenced. It’s what happens next that worries for we’ve a proof of Feynman’s Contention here, that off their own subject of expertise scientists are just as dumb as the rest of us. Or, in this case, considerably dumber, even more stupid.
For Ms. Vittert goes on to make this claim:
If you recycled all the plastic garbage in the world, you could buy the NFL, Apple and Microsoft
Just as a note, The Conversation is a place where the writer of the piece also does the headline. That really is a claim from Ms. Vittert:
In fact, if you could monetize all of the plastic trash clogging up our environment – including the 12 percent that is incinerated– you could buy some of the world’s biggest businesses. Assuming it costs 3.25 cents to produce a plastic bottle, we can estimate that a grocery bag contains about US$1 of plastic material production. (I took a grocery bag and filled it with 31 bottles.) So 7.2 trillion grocery bags is the equivalent of a cool $7.2 trillion. What can you buy with that? Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Walmart, Exxon, GM, AT&T, Facebook, Bank of America, Visa, Intel, Home Depot, HSBC, Boeing, Citigroup, Anheuser-Busch, all the NFL teams, all the MLB teams and all the Premier League Football teams. In other words, if someone could collect and recycle all the unrecycled plastic on earth, this person would be richer than any individual on the planet. One of the most difficult aspects of statistics is putting the numbers into a context that we can wrap our heads around, into a format that means something to us. Whatever it is that speaks to you, all I can say is that this speaks to me. It’s clearly time to clean up our act.
The claim is that plastic scrap and waste has a value that can be captured by recycling. This isn’t so. Recall all those stories about plastic piling up at the recycling centres because China won’t take them any more? About how recycling is a more expensive waste management method than landfill or incineration?
Or even consider that basic human desire for gilt and pelf – we’re really very sure indeed that people will devote time and capital to pursuing profit. So, if there’s this opportunity to become the richest xe in the world then why isn’t someone taking it? Obviously enough, because the opportunity isn’t there.
Plastics for recycling have a negative value attached to them, a negative price. We’ve got to pay people to haul them away. That is, recycling loses, not makes, money. Therefore recycling all the plastic in the world will make you the poorest, not richest, person. Which is why no one is doing it.
We can even use more basic logic. We all know that where there’s muck there’s brass. This also being true – 99% of all the gold ever produced or used has been recycled because there’s money in doing so. This isn’t true of plastics, this being our very problem, which is why they’re not recycled. Or even, why aren’t they being recycled? Because there’s no brass in that muck.
We could just be polite here and say this is a proof of Feynman’s Contention. Statisticians talking about making money – or economics – are just as dumb as the rest of us. Or we could, perhaps a little more unkindly, hope for some less stupid statisticians. For note that other mistake there. That the production cost of a plastic bottle is a useful method of measuring the scrap value of it. Whut? The production of my toilet visits has a significant cost, that of my diet. It’s not a useful guide to what people will pay for what disappears around the u-bend, is it?