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Mrugula understands what the materials czars and a lot of city managers miss: Recycling is simply another way to get rid of trash. To make it work, you have to make it easy on the customer and treat it as part of regular garbage pickup. Efficiency, not suffering, not a war on consumption, is the name of the game.
Looking through a nation’s garbage, you can tell much about its people—how much they read, whether they’re too poor to own refrigerators or rich enough to buy microwave ovens, whether they prefer gardening or fixing their cars. You can figure out how much their time is worth and whether they have a lot of kids. But it’s hard, very hard, to see how everything fits together—how a Uneeda cracker box, resealable and lined with wax paper, could lead to national brands and mass marketing, how disposable diapers could make small-scale day care more feasible, how floppy disks could produce more paper waste.
Facing a solid-waste crisis, we have a choice. We can manage our garbage, getting rid of the barriers that keep people from seeing what their habits cost. Or we can assume omniscience and, thinking we know everything about the intricate connections between people and materials, we can try to manipulate both. If we choose the latter course, we will run into the old planner’s problem. We just won’t know enough to do the job. Garbage in, garbage out.
Virginia I. Postrel is editor of REASON. Lynn Scarlett is Vice President for research of the Reason Foundation and the author of several studies on solid-waste issues.