Talking Trash

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

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You expect it from Jeremy Rifkin. He calls himself a "time rebel," at war with modernity, and denounces "our profligate way of life." He writes, "We boast that we are the first consumer society in history and even tout a consumer movement, apparently unaware of the irony implicit in the word. The term 'consumer' dates back to the fourteenth century and, in both its English and French form, has meant 'to devour,' 'to lay waste,' 'to destroy,' and 'to exhaust.'" When Jeremy Rifkin tells shoppers, "Remember, if it's disposable and convenient, it probably contributes to the greenhouse effect," you can figure he has more on his mind than the atmospheric impact of Bic razors.

But what about Thrifty drugstores? These no-so-green purveyors of bubble-wrapped  jars of makeup, single-serving candy bars, disposable diapers, and lead-acid batteries are handing our green-and-white leaflets (printed on recycled paper) that urge shoppers to "Reduce-Reuse-Recycle." The environmentalist mantra has gone commercial.

It has also gone political. And translated into political language, Thrifty's homily becomes an economic agenda that extends central planning backwards from the trash can to the kitchen shelf to the supermarket to the wholesaler to the manufacturer. Under the guise of managing our solid waste, we are adopting bit by bit, a national materials policy based on the ideal of consuming no materials at all.

As the Source Reduction Council of the very-establishment Coalition of Northeastern Governors puts it, "the basic objective…is to eliminate, to the maximum extent possible, packaging as a waste product." CONEG's "preferred packaging guidelines" put "no packaging" at the top, followed by "minimal packaging," "returnable, reusable, refillable," and "recycled content, recyclable."

David Morris, director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a radical but widely cited prorecycling group, writes, "We must keep our eyes on the prize: a drastic reduction in our per capita consumption of materials.

The agenda enunciated by Morris and the CONEG Reduction Council is founded not merely on anticonsumption zealotry (with a dollop of corporate opportunism thrown in). It is based on widely held misconceptions about Americans and their garbage. The United States does have some real solid waste problems, but they are amenable to fairly simple solutions that require less, not more, government planning.

Perhaps it all started with Mobro, the Islip, Long Island, garbage barge. Back in 1987 the barge wandered from port to port, searching for some place that would accept the garbage it carried. After six states and three countries rejected its load, Mobro returned to New York. A Brooklyn incinerator burned the trash, and the waste ash went home to a landfill in Islip.

The Northeastern landfill shortage became a national story. Newspapers and TV shows told tales of the nation's impending garbage crisis. Landfills were closing. Waste was mounting. Soon every city in the land would have a garbage-filled barge roaming the seas.

The reports scared people. Politicians who had been content to leave garbage management to specialists decided something had to be done. So they passed laws. In the early '80s, only 140 American cities had curbside recycling programs. Today, however, more than 2,700 communities nationwide pick up residents' cans, bottles, and newspapers for recycling. In most of these places, recycling is mandatory for at least some residents.

More important, 28 states enacted recycling or waste-reduction quotas—Florida, for instance, will require 30-percent recycling by 1994, a demand that has solid-waste managers there in a near panic. Another five states have set nonmandatory goals. (The Environmental Protection Agency recommends a 25-percent diversion of the solid-waste stream by 1992, 50 percent by 1997.) Once enacted, these increasingly common laws drive all solid-waste management decisions in their states. They shift the policy emphasis from safe and efficient waste disposal to reducing consumption.

Although its targets are only recommendations, the EPA has played a major role in that shift. In 1989 the agency issued a report, The Solid Waste Dilemma: An Agenda for Action, in which it identified four means of managing solid waste: 1) source reduction; 2) recycling; 3) incineration; and 4) landfilling. These are, in one form or another, the options people have had since the Stone Age. But the EPA didn't just list the options. It ranked them. It created a waste-management hierarchy, with source reduction at the pinnacle, flanked by reuse and recycling. Incinerators and landfills were left groveling in the dust, grateful that they were allowed to exist at all. Although it acknowledged that sound solid-waste management would involve all four options, the EPA made it clear that in all situations source reduction and recycling are preferable to burning or burying trash. "Reduce-Reuse-Recycle" became the national standard.

The EPA hierarchy diverts government policy from "integrated waste management," the technocratic way of mixing the four options in whichever combination best fits local needs. Instead, it has prompted—and given political support to—a mania for aggressive recycling and source-reduction efforts, regardless of cost, overall resource use, or local conditions. The EPA has lent respectability, even urgency, to calls like David Morris's to "demand an immediate halt to policies that promote materials destruction. That would include not only stopping incinerators, but ending the promotion of degradable plastics whose destination is not the recycler but the landfill."

In the wake of the EPA's report, members of Congress have Proposed amendments to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and Solid Waste Disposal Act (SWDA) that would, among other things:

  • Require that nonrecyclable materials be biodegradable and prohibit, after five years, any material that is neither biodegradable nor recyclable.
  • Create a National Packaging Institute to establish national packaging standards.
  • Mandate a return deposit on plastic and glass containers.
  • Ban in interstate commerce any plastic container that isn't marked with a code indicating its composition to recyclers.

RCRA, better known for its hazardous waste provisions, is up for reauthorization this year, so Congress will soon be seriously considering amendments. (See "A Hazardous Waste," November 1989.) So far, however, most of the action to move the country toward a national materials policy has occurred on a piecemeal basis, at the state level.

"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 of a 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.

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 burn 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.

In some cases, the laws seek to create bigger markets for all the near-worthless stuff collected. Old newspapers—which make up about 7 percent of a typical city's solid-waste stream—are a particular problem. They would be cheaper to dump. But to build a resale market, California, Connecticut, Maryland, Missouri, and Wisconsin have passed laws requiring publishers to increase their use of recycled newsprint. Similar laws have been proposed in Illinois, New Jersey, and New York.

Beginning January 1, 1994, the District of Columbia will require anyone who distributes within the district a publication with a circulation of more than 30,000 or who sells more than 500 tons or $100,000 of paper a year to use only recycled paper. Only if the company can prove that using recycled paper would increase its paper costs more than 10 percent over virgin stock can it apply for an exemption. In deeming a 10-percent higher price "competitive" with virgin paper, "They don't understand that huge newspaper deals are made on the basis of a fraction of a percent," says Jack Schafer, editor of the weekly City Paper; which has a circulation of 89,000. The penalty for law breaking: a 15-percent "recycling surcharge" over the price of the illegal paper.

The law also specifies just how much recycled material different kinds of paper must contain: 50 percent for high-grade printing and writing paper; 40 percent for newsprint; 5 percent for facial tissues; 20 percent for toilet paper; 30 percent for paper napkins; 40 percent for paper towels; even 40 percent for doilies. In many cases, the recycled material must be "post-consumer," meaning that reusing factory scrap doesn't count.

The ordinance's content requirements "will stifle rather than encourage recycling," says Carol Melamed, director of government affairs and associate counsel for The Washington Post. The reason lies in the technical and economic limits of paper making. The mills that can produce recycled paper with 40-percent old newspaper stock are mills that were built originally to make recycled paper. But more and more virgin-paper mills want to get into the recycled-paper business. Rather than build an entirely new plant, at a cost of some $400 million, they add a deinking line, which costs $30 million to $50 million; this retrofitting lets them make paper with between 15 percent and 25 percent recycled content. That may not meet D.C.'s lofty goals, but its impact on the waste stream is significant.

Before the law passed, the Bear Island mill in Virginia which produces paper for the Post, The Washington Times, and other local newspapers—had plans to add a deinking line that would have absorbed 60,000 tons of old newsprint a year. But the recycled paper produced at Bear Island would have contained only 20 percent recycled content. Since the D.C. ordinance would wipe out the market for its recycled paper, the mill has indefinitely postponed adding the new capacity.

Both content mandates and product bans can become vehicles for favoring some corporations or industries over others. Diaper services have lobbied heavily for bans on disposables. And paper interests have had some notable successes in their decades-long struggle to beat out plastic—McDonald's switch, for instance, and a Maine law requiring retailers to use paper bags unless the customer requests a plastic bag. "Within a week of passage of that law, virtually all the orders for retail-store plastic bags were canceled if they were active, and if they were under consideration, they were rejected," says George A. Makrauer, president and chief executive of Amko Plastics Inc., a bag manufacturer.

Oddly enough, one way for plastics makers to fight back is to support content requirements like D.C.'s. With their emphasis on "post-consumer" content, such requirements raise paper costs. They also strip the "recycled" label from paper that contains factory scrap. Like orange-juice makers selling peels, both paper and plastic makers reuse their wastes—usually by putting them back through the production process. Paper manufacturers have long touted such paper as "recycled," while plastic makers haven't capitalized on the label.

Even within a single industry, bans and mandates get tangled up with corporate opportunism. Conservatree Paper Co., a distributor of post-consumer recycled paper, is a prominent lobbyist for laws that would mandate recycled content and forbid using the term "recycled" to describe paper made with factory scrap. Laws like D.C.'s increase the market for the paper Conservatree distributes. Mandates that lead paper manufacturers to invest in more recycling capacity should increase Conservatree's supplies—and the competition for its business—and lower its costs.

Although the company maintains its innocence—"once the E.P.A. or Congress adopts our proposal, we will no longer have a corner on the market of selling honest-to-goodness recycled paper"—it's hard to believe that it doesn't recognize the advantages of having already established a beachhead in the market. None of this is to say that Conservatree's managers aren't motivated by a zeal for recycling, only that they also stand to gain financially by seeing their ideas made law.

Similarly, paper companies that invest in deinking plants and other recycling facilities develop a vested interest in recycled paper. Despite a virgin-paper glut, Champion International, for instance, is pouring some $80 million into new plant capacity—to make recycled paper. Behind this curious investment: the company's expectation of more laws mandating recycled paper content and recycled-paper use. If it guesses right, Champion will have a jump on the competition. If the mandate mania fades, we may find Champion lobbying for new laws to protect its investment.

The most grandiose plans to regulate materials involve something called "advance disposal fees." Although these fees would require central planning on a scale unknown in this country since World War II, their proponents speak the language of markets, and some of them probably believe their own rhetoric.

The idea behind ADFs is that garbage represents a market failure. Manufacturers don't consider the costs of disposal when they make products. In theory, then, the government could charge manufacturers ADFs that would take into account such factors as: the actual collection and disposal costs of each product type or material; the actual collection and disposal costs in each different jurisdiction where a product is thrown away; current recycling rates; the actual length of product use per household; the actual consumption and disposal path of each product by household; recycling and other behavior in response to new charges, which would change the cost picture over time. One ADF scheme envisions using bar-coded information on each product to create a national database that would be used to regulate charges.

So far, such an elaborate system has yet to become a bill, much less a law. But more-stylized ADFs have been enacted. In late 1992, Florida will begin imposing fees on packaging materials that aren't recycled at a 50-percent rate. Rhode Island has introduced ADFs on items, such as tires and motor oil, that are difficult to dispose of. And in New Jersey, the governor's Solid Waste Task Force has recommended a pre-disposal fee to be assessed on manufacturers when they use virgin materials.

California Assemblyman Byron Sher has introduced a bill to tax materials used for packaging and nondurable goods unless their scrap values cover recycling costs. The bill draws its raison d'être from the 1989 law—also sponsored by Sher that created the mandatory waste-reduction targets: "The costs of implementing the Act to local government, waste haulers and others are significant and should be borne by generators and disposers of solid waste."

Under the Sher bill, the California Integrated Waste Management Board would levy "recycling incentive fees" equal to at least the difference between the scrap value of an item and the average cost of collection and processing it for recycling, plus a "reasonable return" to the companies that do the work. Suppose it costs an average of $100 a ton to run curbside recycling for newspapers, and the newspapers fetch $10 a ton on the resale market. Allowing for a 5-percent markup on the $90 net cost, the advance disposal fee would be $94.50 a ton—or 2.4 cents for a half-pound Los Angeles Times. If that tax isn't high enough to cut down on newspaper production, the board is supposed to raise it.

The Sher system illustrates a typical planning dilemma. Since it would be too complicated to trace the actual recycling costs of individual items, it uses state averages. Without this simplification, the program would be impossible to operate. With it, however, the price signals are completely distorted. Consumers who live in places where recycling is cheap will pay too much for products. Those who live in places where recycling is expensive will pay too little. And the program leaves plenty of discretion altogether outside the market: A state board decides when the fees are high enough and gets to compute the reasonable rate of return due recyclers.

The Sher bill, like many such schemes, represents not a "true cost" system but an elaborate way to subsidize recycling. It seeks to penalize materials not because they actually harm the environment (by, for instance, releasing toxic gases) but because they can't be affordably recycled. The bill's backers speak the language of economics, but they don't understand it.

The basic problem with such schemes is that they start from a false premise. There is no market failure in solid waste. The economist will find no externalities in your garbage can, unless government subsidies put them there. But that doesn't mean there are no problems.

Take landfills. They really are closing. In fact, more than half the 18,500 landfills that existed in 1979 have shut down the past 10 years. This is nothing new. Landfills have always had limited lifespans, usually about 10 years. What is new is that the old landfills aren't being replaced. The number of new landfills built from 1985 to 1990 was almost 50 percent lower than during the previous five years, the lowest level in 20 years. New landfills are much larger than old ones, but not large enough to make up the difference. As a result, it's hard to find space for trash. In a mini-version of the garbage barge, Santa Monica's trash haulers drive around in their trucks, calling each other on cellular phones to find out who's open to take their loads.

The cause of the landfill shortage isn't that we're "running out of space." A. Clark Wiseman, in a Resources for the Future study, calculates that "all municipal solid waste for the next thousand years would require [a landfill 120 feet deep in] a square area having 44-mile length sides." In other words, a hypothetical landfill that could accommodate the next 1,000 years of U.S. waste would take up less than 0.1 percent of the continental United States.

What's missing isn't land—it's prices. Cities used to be able to shove landfills anywhere they wanted. When surrounding communities rebelled, using lawsuits and environmental regulations to drag out the siting process, solid-waste managers griped about the NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) syndrome and environmentalists declared landfills (and incinerators) remnants of a passing age of waste.

But entrepreneurs have found a way around NIMBY. It's called YIMBY-FAP: Yes, in my backyard—for a price. This new approach has two components. First, the landfill developer picks up the full costs of protecting the surrounding community from environmental harm. This includes such technical components as double landfill liners and leachate collection systems (to protect groundwater from the gop produced by decaying garbage) and methane-removal systems (to keep gas from building up underground). It also includes inspections, record-keeping, a detailed closing plan, and various monitoring systems.

Robert T. Glebs, a former city waste manager who now runs a business siting landfills, estimates that such a state-of-the-art landfill would cost about $55 million to build in the Midwest including such additional costs as running local recycling programs and offering financial guarantees of local property values. Adding in a 25-percent margin-profit for private landfills, replacement cost for public ones—the tipping fee to cover such a landfill comes to $25.62 a ton, way, way below the cost of recycling programs.

The second component of a YIMBY-FAP landfill is to share the wealth—to pay the surrounding community. Charles County, Virginia, for instance, collects $5.00 for each ton of garbage dumped in the landfill Chambers Development Co. runs in the rural county. Chambers also picks up local garbage for free. "We're good capitalists; we realized there was money in garbage," county Administrator Fred Darden told Forbes. Thanks to the landfill, the county collects more than $1 million a year, enough to cut property taxes by 20 percent while spending more on local schools. Such "host community fees" make landfill siting a win-win proposition.

They also bring the full cost of landfills into the marketplace by making the landfill operator pay not only to install safety measures but to compensate the people most directly affected by the landfill. The next step to internalizing garbage costs is to bring landfill costs back to the person with the bag full of trash.

That means getting rid of free garbage service—the subsidy at the root of the "solid waste crisis." And it probably means charging more to people who generate more trash.

Cities like to give people free garbage service. Suggesting that Los Angeles might charge for trash, political wisdom has it, brought down Mayor Sam Yorty. In a 1990 survey of 246 U.S. cities—ranging from 5,000 to 1.75 million in population—more than one-third didn't charge any fees for garbage collection. Of those that did, about half charged flat rates, regardless of how much trash residents generated.

Now it is possible that a private trash collector paying full freight to a YIMBY-FAP landfill might charge all customers a flat fee for garbage pickup. But it isn't very likely. What seems more realistic is a system something like the one MCO Re-Cycling devised for Freeport, Illinois. For $5.75 a month, residents get weekly pickup of one 30-gallon bag of garbage and unlimited recyclables. For 60 cents, they can buy a sticker good for another bag of trash; the average household uses about one sticker a month. Customers have an incentive to reduce, reuse, and recycle, but they also have a choice. And, in contrast to ADF schemes, this system allows prices to be set by people who actually know what the costs of garbage are.

Unlike most city-run recycling programs, MCO uses a single truck for both garbage and recyclables, picking both up at the same time. That saves on the extra trips that make recycling costs prohibitive most places. Customers don't have to hang on to their bottles and cans forever and don't have to sort everything into a million different bins. "All we ask is that the stuff be clean," says MCO owner Bernard Mrugula. Though it's too early to be sure (the program is less than a year old, and trash composition swings wildly from month to month), the percentage of trash that gets recycled seems to be on an upward trend—hitting 23.7 percent in April.

Mrugula clearly hates to see any good stuff go to waste; he sounds genuinely stricken at the thought of the television sets they had to dump last "spring cleaning" without stripping them of valuable metal. He is a resource recovery enthusiast, but he thinks recycling promoters are often unrealistic about how much people have to recycle. "There's not a lot there," he says, "and we're getting darn near all of it."

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.

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  1. 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?”

    1. No, not really.

    2. 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.

    3. my best friend’s step-aunt makes $75 every hour on the laptop. She has been without a job for six months but last month her pay check was $17502 just working on the laptop for a few hours. Here’s the site to read more… http://www.Can99.com

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

    1. When in doubt, drink.

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