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“If you don’t recycle, Santa Monica will look like the inside of this truck,” read the signs on the garbage trucks that rumble through the city’s streets. Santa Monica California, is the kind of city that paints its garbage trucks sea blue, instead of the usual grunge-hiding dark green. And it’s the kind of city that started a recycling program in 1981, a decade before it was fashionable. Recycling costs the city about one-and-a-half times as much as ordinary garbage collection and landfilling. “These guys drive an awful lot of miles sometimes to pick up very little,” says Thomas Dever, Santa Monica’s solid-waste manager. After nearly a decade of practice Santa Monicans recycle about 12 percent of their garbage—through a curbside recycling program, a buyback center, and various small recycling companies.
Dever’s job is to push that recycling rate up—way up. The state of California has decreed that all cities must cut the amount of trash going into landfills or incinerators by 25 percent by 1995,50 percent by 2000.
Dever is a can-do guy, and he says he can get Santa Monica to 25 percent recycling by ’95. Of course, hitting that target will mean more expense—for a plant to sort and process recyclables and an expanded recycling program. Two-thirds of the city’s refuse is commercial, and about 40 percent of that, mostly corrugated cardboard, can be recycled. If the city’s many small businesses will turn in their cardboard and office paper, and if a combination of economic incentives and jawboning can raise residential recycling rates from the current 4 percent (“tokenism,” says Dever) to around 7 percent, the city can make the 25-percent quota.
But 50 percent—that’s a different story. To meet that target, he says, will depend on “source reduction.” There’s only so much you can recycle, even when cost is no object.
Although it can just mean using less material—say, cutting the weight of a plastic milk jug from 95 grams to 60 grams, as manufacturers did over the last 20 years—“source reduction” as a policy goal often leads to product bans. North Carolina will outlaw polystyrene foam (such as Styrofoam) food packaging after October 1, 1993, if it isn’t being recycled at a 25-percent rate. Several cities, such as Portland, Oregon, and Newark, New Jersey, have already effectively banned the stuff. A bill in California would prohibit the sale of compact-disc “longboxes.” In 1989 Maine banned aseptic packaging—the small, rectangular beverage boxes especially popular with children. (The ban exempted Maine apple juice.) Other cities and states have proposed bans on disposable diapers. Indeed, one proposed law in Oregon would make possession of disposable diapers a criminal offense.
Such bans usually have little to do with actual solid-waste problems, much less overall environmental impact. An aseptic drink box, for instance, is among the most “source-reduced” containers on the market, tipping the scales at a mere 10.3 grams. By contrast, the traditional gable-top drink carton, which requires refrigeration and takes up more room in transit, weighs 90 percent more, or 19.6 grams, and holds slightly less juice, 8 ounces versus 8.45 ounces. Similarly, the much maligned polystyrene foam is one of the lightest container materials around. In both cases, the materials can theoretically be recycled, but accumulating enough stuff to make recycling economical is quite difficult. By the same token, these lightweight, low-volume materials take up very little landfill space: 0.02 percent for drink boxes, only 0.002 percent for polystyrene food containers.
Solid-waste policy used to be left to calm problem solvers like Tom Dever. But the chance to pick and choose which products people should use—and dispose of—brings out emotional paternalists like California state Sen. Daniel Boatwright.
It’s a Wednesday afternoon in early May. The state Senate committee on which Boatwright sits has been hearing testimony on a proposal to levy an excise tax on disposable diapers. The hearing has been perfunctory, with only two witnesses allowed to speak on each side. Another 10 or so have gone on record against the bill, many submitting written materials. To show how the tax would hurt poor mothers, for instance, Gloria Torres has given the Senate committee a breakdown couple of family budgets. Each family spends $84 a month on disposable diapers.
It’s Sen. Boatwright’s turn to speak. The quiet committee room explodes with his anger. “These are AFDC mothers, they have other clothes to wash, and if they’re spending that much money, I would certainly urge those people to go to cloth diapers to save $84 a month.” Boatwright gets madder, his voice more contemptuous. He points to committee members. “He, he, he, she, we raised our kids with cloth diapers. And you know, it didn’t kill ’em at all. It didn’t kill ’em. Got your hands a little dirty, maybe, but it didn’t kill ’em. It’s a hell of a lot more convenient to use disposable diapers, but you know what—you save a lot of money when you use cloth diapers.”
Boatwright is a liberal Democrat, not especially prone to frugality. He doesn’t begrudge the mothers the money they get from the state. He just doesn’t approve of the diapers. Like Grumpy Old Man on “Saturday Night Live,” he remembers the old days, when life was lousy “and we liked it that way.” Despite Boatwright’s outburst, the bill dies, failing to get a motion in its favor.
The diaper bill, and the outburst, are minor but indicative. Disposable diapers account for less than 2 percent of the nation’s solid-waste stream. But they make great symbols. Mankind—or, more accurately, womankind—managed to do without them until about 1970. They’re highly artificial, engineered of plastic and synthetics and paper. You use a diaper once, then discard it. Disposable diapers seem self-indulgent, the kind of silly convenience that puts the waste in solid waste. On similar grounds, Greenpeace has attacked facial tissues, and Hannah Holmes, an assistant editor of Garbage magazine, has denounced tampons.
In the water-short West, of course, it’s easy to counter that cloth diapers consume a resource far more precious than landfill space. And much public debate has focused on whether, in fact, disposable diapers really are “worse” for the environment than their predecessors. Several life-cycle assessments—studies that try to look at all of a product’s environmental impact from manufacture to disposal—have examined disposable diapers, each with somewhat different results. One assessment gave disposables a better environmental report card than cloth diapers; others showed the opposite. And so the debate goes on.
But arguments over cradle-to-grave studies miss the point. The study shows the cost of various options, the trade-offs between water use and energy needs and air pollution and solid waste. They don’t show the benefits. They don’t consider why consumers buy disposable diapers or why juice makers use aseptic packaging. Pampers or Huggies or, for that matter, Kleenex tissues may fill up landfills faster than cloth diapers or handkerchiefs. But the people who buy them care about other values, too—convenience, or health, or comfort. When it switched from polystyrene to paper wrappings, McDonald’s improved the environmental impact of its packaging. But it now risks losing customers who want to keep their hamburgers hot on the way back from the drive-through or whose kids like the old Happy Meal box better than the new paper sack. While McDonald’s presumably weighed these trade-offs, legislative proposals to ban or regulate disposable products seek to replace such weighing and balancing with political diktats. They seek to tell McDonald’s competitors that they must also switch, even if they value their takeout business—and the polystyrene containers that keep it hot—more than they fear environmentalists’ attacks.
Production regulations also treat similar products as though they serve identical needs, differing only in their environmental impacts. This may be true of some products—it’s hard to see any substantive difference between bleached and unbleached coffee filters—but it isn’t true of most. Both kinds of diapers cover Baby’s bottom, but each offers a distinct bundle of other qualities. Cloth diapers are less expensive and, if changed promptly, may be more comfortable.
Disposables, on the other hand, appear to prevent diaper rash, leak less, and are much more sanitary and convenient for use in day-care centers. Indeed, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Public Health Association’s day-care program performance standards state “that to protect the public’s health, cloth diapers should not be used in day-care centers.” Most state day-care regulations forbid caregivers to rinse cloth diapers, so that not using disposables means sticking dirty diapers in plastic bags or diaper pails and sending the whole package home with Junior. Needless to say, day-care providers have been vocal opponents of bans or taxes on disposables.