recycling finite resources

Many of the resources that we use to underpin out economy are finite resources.  There is a limited, fixed quantity of finite resources, and they don't regenerate once they are used.  Finite resources will eventually run out, and the people of the future won't have those resources or the functions that they give to us.


Many of these finite resources are critical to our economy.  If they become unobtainable, or even if the cost of them rises significantly, our economy will be constrained, causing an economic recession.  Because our economy has evolved so that it must grow to function, this may have disastrous consequences.  Many of the products of our economy that we consider to be essential, and that underpin the comfort and security of our lives, may no longer be available to us.


If a finite resource that's obtained from the Earth is used-up to the point where it can no longer be obtained economically, then the resource material that's already in use is effectively all there is for us to use in our economy.  This resource material must be endlessly recycled if we are to have ongoing use of it into the future; that is, if we are to use it sustainably.  It has been argued that it is possible to endlessly recycle a finite resource, so that we can have use of it forever, as long as there is sufficient energy available, but there are great difficulties with this.  These difficulties include:

  • limited energy
  • unrecyclable finite resources
  • the effects of market forces
  • the effects of economic growth.

limited energy

While it may (or may not) be true that it is possible to endlessly recycle a finite resource as long as we have sufficient energy available, this can't happen in the foreseeable future because we just don’t have unlimited energy available. 

unrecyclable finite resources

Many finite resources cannot be recycled at all, because they are essentially destroyed as they are used.  Such resources include materials that have complex molecules that get broken down when used and that cannot be easily recreated; or materials that, when used, become tightly bound into new molecules that require a large amount of energy to break.  Examples include crude oil, limestone, and coal. 

the effects of market forces

Finite resources that can be recycled include materials that contain valuable elements such as copper and aluminium, or materials composed of complex molecules that don't need to undergo chemical reactions when they are reused, such as plastic, paper, and glass. 


For each resources that can be recycled the used waste that contains it must be collected and stored to avoid the resource dissipating into the general environment, and the appropriate recycling technology must be developed.  These processes are expensive.


Because our economic system operates on the principle of the efficiency of market forces, recycling doesn't happen until the process of obtaining new resources from the Earth becomes more difficult, and therefore more expensive, than recycling the resources from our waste.


For many of the material that we use, such as copper, steel, paper, and plastic, the cost of obtaining new resource from the Earth is already greater than the cost of recycling at least the most easily recycled material from our waste; so some recycling of these resources does occur.


Even when recycling does happen, resource material that's at a low concentration in our waste is not collected because it is not economical to do so, and so it dissipates into the environment and is lost.  As this resource material repeatedly goes through the cycle of use, collection, and reuse, a little more will be unavoidably lost in each cycle.


By the time circumstances occur that make full recycling economically worthwhile, the resource will already be partially dissipated into the general environment; a proportion of it will be permanently lost, as it will be uneconomic to recover it.  As the resource material is repeatedly recycled a little more will be unavoidably lost with each cycle, so that eventually nearly all of it must be lost this way, and we, and our economy, will no longer have use of that resource.

the effects of economic growth

If we were to rise above the economic imperative of market forces, and collect and recycle more of these finite resource materials from our waste, we could recover a much higher proportion of them. However, even if we were able to successfully collect and recycle all of a finite resource that we use, we would still have to get more of that resource material from the Earth to allow our economy to grow.  This is because the amount of resources that we need is directly proportional to the amount of economic activity that we have.


Once we have obtained all that we can of a finite resource from the Earth, we will have to keep all of that resource recycling in the economy just to keep a steady rate of economic activity. No more of the resource will be available from the Earth to add to the economy and be available for further growth, so no more growth will be possible.


For some finite resources the reserves are so huge, that is seems that we may be able to use recycling to relieve the limitations of finite resource use, allowing economic growth to continue far beyond the foreseeable future.  However, this is not possible because our use of these finite resources must always grow as our economy grows, and as our economy grows exponentially our use of those resources will always grow to be much greater than we expect. 


Growth is unavoidable, because growth is a fundamental, structural part of the way modern economies work.  If our economy is unable to grow because of the limitations of finite resource availability then it will collapse, causing an economic recession and even social collapse.


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