45 Years, 45 Days: The Solution to America's Garbage Problem


For the next 45 days, we'll be celebrating Reason's 45th anniversary by releasing a story a day from the archives—one for each year of the magazine's history. See the full list here.

Writing in Reason's August/September 1991 issue, Virginia Postrel and Lynn Scarlett tackle the trash problem, and explain why the free market makes for a better garbage man than big government:

Credit: mysza831 / Foter / CC BY

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.