Talking Trash

There's a solution to America's garbage problem, but it isn't what you think.

(Page 3 of 6)

Or go back to Gloria Torres’s welfare mother. She has four kids, no washer, no dryer, and no car. Once a week, she does three loads of clothes at a laundry; each load costs $1.25 to wash and dry. Her kids go through 288 disposable diapers a month, about 10 a day. Since disposable diapers are more absorbent than cloth diapers, we can assume she’d need at least a dozen cloth diapers each day—and would probably wind up going to the laundry daily. (This is a conservative estimate; it often takes two cloth diapers to replace a single disposable.)

This mother already pays $100 a month for people to take her places. Dragging a heavy pail of dirty diapers to the laundry every day or two would mean more rides. It’s true cloth diapers would probably still save at least some money, perhaps as much as $50 a month. Nevertheless, it’s hardly surprising that poor mothers choose to sacrifice other purchases to buy disposables. Time and trouble, even a welfare mother’s time and trouble, are also limited resources.

Products don’t exist in isolation. The economy is a complicated web of interactions. Disposable diapers are substitutes for laundry facilities. They are complements to day care, as are drink boxes that let even tiny kids brown-bag it. On the manufacturer’s level, packaging can substitute for warehouse space or factories. The exotic layering of metals and plastics that keeps Keebler cookies fresh for as long as nine months after they leave the oven lets the company distribute them throughout the United States without having a plant in every city. Combined with new recipes, the packaging lets you buy cookies that are still soft months after they’re made.

And packaging often reduces waste. When William Rathje, of the University of Arizona, took his garbage-archaeology team to Mexico City, they found that the average household in Mexico City “discards 40 percent more refuse each day than the average USA household.” Rathje writes, “This difference—1.6 pounds per household per day—is food debris, the skins, rinds, peels, tops, and other inedible parts discarded in food preparation.”

For instance, in Mexico City, most consumers squeeze fresh oranges to make orange juice. The peels are then thrown away. Americans, by contrast, tend to buy packaged frozen concentrate. As a result, the typical Mexican household tosses out 10.5 ounces of orange peel each week; the typical American household throws out 2 ounces of cardboard or aluminum. Meanwhile, back at the orange juice factory, the peels are collected and sold to make animal feed and other products. If all the orange juice drinkers in New York City individually tossed away their orange peels, one day’s haul would weigh as much as two ocean liners.

This isn’t to say that people shouldn’t drink fresh orange juice. Certainly, it tastes better than processed juice. But the notion that “no packaging is the best packaging” fails even the dumpster test.

 The economy’s complex interactions can produce surprising results. Consider a study by the research group GVM that examined what would happen if all plastic packaging were eliminated in the Federal Republic of Germany. The report found that materials usage by weight would increase fourfold, as substitutes replaced plastic. Packaging costs would more than double. Energy consumption would almost double. And garbage would increase by 256 percent. The report comments, “all of the cost-intensive endeavors, over many years, to reduce the use of material through more suitable packaging and ‘slimming down’ individual packaging materials would be [reversed] with one stroke.”

Richard Pence isn’t at all happy with Ohio’s new requirement that 25 percent of all garbage be recycled by 1994. His family business, Pence Refuse Service, has been hauling trash since 1958. Now the state says they have to get into the recycling business: “They want you to get started right away. There’s not much chance to gear up for it.” What’s more, the company is required to weigh the trash it collects at each stop—not in order to charge customers by the pound but to see whether they’re meeting the 25-percent target. “The bookkeeping is unreal,” says Pence.

The nine-employee company is struggling to adapt. It is separating and baling cardboard, milk jugs, and such, despite the lousy economics. Baling 900 pounds of corrugated cardboard costs $25, not including collection and sorting, but buyers will only pay $20 to $30 a ton for it. Recycling, says Pence, “takes a lot of money to operate, and there’s no money in it. It’s rough on a little company.”

The work is hard and, Pence fears, dangerous. A few years ago, he suggests, the government probably wouldn’t have even let you do it: “You handle all these pop cans, all these food cans.” Using a new can baler, “I got cut twice yesterday. That has to be a health hazard.” He’s afraid for the family members who work with him. Some of his fears aren’t well grounded—nobody ever got AIDS from a used soda can—but it doesn’t seem crazy to wonder what evils might lurk in a used milk jug or the rim of a tin can after they’ve sat around in the good old summertime.

So far, Pence Refuse has managed with its regular trucks and small building. But Dick Pence expects he’ll need to invest in more-specialized trucks and add a $200,000 building to use as a processing center. The costs, he figures, will be passed on to the businesses whose trash the company hauls away. Contrary to The Recycler’s Handbook (from the folks who brought you 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth), it is not true that “recycling saves towns and consumers money.”

In fact, the move to recycle rather than dump or bum trash can cost plenty. A survey of Rhode Island communities found that the total cost of recycling—including pickup and processing, minus revenue from the sale of recycled materials often runs more than $180 a ton, compared to the $120 to $160 a ton for ordinary waste collection and disposal. The outlay is especially high in cities with many multifamily dwellings. In Chicago, for instance, curbside recycling costs from $625 a ton to more than $1,100 a ton, depending on the area of the city; from that fee, the city can deduct about $110 a ton in sales and the $38 a ton it would have paid the landfill.

Generally speaking, landfill “tipping fees,” the price of depositing debris, have to be more than $50 a ton—compared to a national average of $30 and a median of around $15—to make recycling economically competitive for most materials. There are, however, notable exceptions. More steel is recycled in the United States than any other material. Scrap metal dealers and steel minimills, not government mandates, drive this profitable recycling.

Aluminum cans fetch $900 a ton on the open market, and more than half of empty cans are recycled; the first major aluminum recycling plants opened in 1904. The reason is simple: It takes only 5 percent as much electricity to produce aluminum from old beverage cans as it does from bauxite ore. And electricity is the major cost in making aluminum. “Aluminum recycling exists today as a viable industry not because the aluminum industry is interested in saving landfill space, but because it has had a variety of economic motivations to recycle aluminum,” write Jennifer Gitlitz and Paul Relis in a report summarizing a 1988 California recycling conference.

Once states make people recycle materials for which the cost of recycling is greater than the recovered value, officials have to figure out who will pay for the difference. Certainly, Dick Pence doesn’t plan to absorb the total cost of complying with Ohio’s mandate. If he had to, he’d go out of business. Improving the economics of recycling, to would-be materials planners, requires more new laws and more regulations.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • MiloMinderbinder||

    I am reminded of the ad from Liberty Magazine:

    "Tired of articles explaining how government-run trash collection is inferior to free-market trash collection?"

  • Live Free or Diet||

    No, not really.

  • CE||

    Oh, the good old days, when all libertarians had to worry about was garbage and roadz privatization debates, and not rampant war, spying, indefinite detentions, torture, socialist healthcare, and imminent federal bankruptcy.

  • ||

    If they publish a Postrel article do we drink or am I supposed to not drink at work the rest of the day?

  • Anomalous||

    When in doubt, drink.

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