the loony leftist town where I live, we're ordered to separate our
trash into seven neatly packaged piles: newspapers, tin cans (flattened
with labels removed), aluminum cans (flattened), glass bottles (with
labels removed), plastic soda pop bottles, lawn sweepings, and regular
rubbish. And to pay high taxes to have it all taken away.
of my aversion to government orders, my distrust of government justifications,
and my dislike of ecomania, I have always mixed all my trash together.
If recycling made economic sense and this is an economic question,
not a dogma of the mythical earth goddess Gaia we would be paid
to do it.
the same reason, I love to use plastic fast-food containers and
non-returnable bottles. The whole recycling commotion, like the
broader environmental movement, has always seemed to have a large
malarkey component. So I have never felt guilty just the opposite nor have I yet been arrested by the garbage gendarmes. But I
was glad to get some scientific support for my position in the December
1989 issue of The Atlantic Monthly.
William L. Rathje, an urban archaeologist at the University of Arizona
and head of its Garbage Project, has been studying rubbish for almost
20 years, and what he's discovered contradicts almost everything
seen in perspective, our garbage problems are no worse than they
have always been. The only difference is that today we have safe
methods to deal with them, if the environmentalists will let us.
environmentalists warn of a country covered by garbage because the
average American generates 8 lbs. a day. In fact, we create less
than 3 lbs. each, which is a good deal less than people in Mexico
City today or Americans 100 years ago. Gone, for example, are the
1,200 lbs. of coal ash each American home used to generate, and
our modem packaged foods mean less rubbish, not more.
most landfills will be full in ten years or less, we're told, and
that's true. But most landfills are designed to last ten years.
The problem is not that they are filling up, but that we're not
allowed to create new ones, thanks to the environmental movement.
Texas, for example, handed out 250 landfill permits a year in the
mid-1970s, but fewer than 50 in 1988.
environmentalists claim that disposable diapers and fast-food containers
are the worst problems. To me, this has always revealed the anti-family
and pro-elite biases common in any left- wing movement. But the
left, as usual, has the facts wrong as well.
two years of digging in seven landfills all across America, in which
they sorted and weighed every item in 16,000 pounds of garbage,
Rathje discovered that fast-food containers take up less than 1/10th
of one percent of the space; less than 1% was disposable diapers.
All plastics totalled less than 5%. ne real culprit is paper especially telephone books and newspapers. And there is little biodegradation.
He found 1952 newspapers still fresh and readable.
than biodegrade, most garbage mummifies. And this may be a blessing.
If newspapers, for example, degraded rapidly, tons of ink would
leach into the groundwater. And we should be glad that plastic doesn't
biodegrade. Being inert, it doesn't introduce toxic chemicals into
told we have a moral obligation to recycle, and most of us say
we do so, but empirical studies show it isn't so. In surveys, 78%
of the respondents say they separate their garbage, but only 26%
said they thought their neighbors separate theirs. To test that,
for seven years the Garbage Project examined 9,000 loads of refuse
in Tucson, Arizona, from a variety of neighborhoods. The results:
most people do what they say their neighbors do: they don't separate.
No matter how high or low the income, or how liberal the neighborhood,
or how much the respondents said they cared about the environment,
only 26% actually separated their trash.
only reliable predictor of when people separate and when they don't
is exactly the one an economist would predict: the price paid for
the trash. When the prices of old newspaper rose, people carefully
separated their newspapers. When the price of newspapers fell, people
threw them out with the other garbage.
all told to save our newspapers for recycling, and the idea seems
to make sense. Old newspapers can be made into boxes, wallboard,
and insulation, but the market is flooded with newsprint thanks
to government programs. In New Jersey, for example, the price of
used newspapers has plummeted from $40 a ton to minus $25
a ton. Trash entrepreneurs used to buy old newspaper. Now you have
to pay someone to take it away.
it is economically efficient to recycle and we can't know that
so long as government is involved trash will have a market price.
It is only through a free price system, as Ludwig von Mises demonstrated
70 years ago, that we can know the value of goods and services.
don't seem to understand this. They ask their followers to ignore
price signals and cut their consumption of everything from gasoline
to paper towels. This one plank in the environmental platform I
agree with, since it will make these goods cheaper for the rest
of us. I'm happy to have my standard of living raised by voluntary
poverty from what Ronald Reagan once called "the tree huggers."
liberal economists claim prices can't solve the garbage problem
because of 'external diseconomies." Since greedy capitalists are
out to make a fast buck, the theory goes, they produce goods that
impose costs external to their businesses, i.e., trash. But all
businesses have spillover effects, good and bad, and in a free market,
this creates opportunities for other entrepreneurs. The donut industry
may help make people fat (an external diseconomy). Should it be
forced to sponsor Weight Watchers? Or, more to the point, should
the public be taxed for a new federal Department of Corpulent Affairs?
cave men had garbage problems, and so will our progeny, probably
for as long as human civilization exists. But government is no answer.
A socialized garbage system works no better than the Bulgarian economy.
Only the free market will solve the garbage problem, and that means
abolishing not only socialism, but the somewhat more efficient municipal
fascist systems where one politically favored contractor gets the
answer is to privatize and deregulate everything, from trash pickup
to landfills. That way, everyone pays an appropriate part of the
costs. Some types of trash would be picked up for a fee, others
would be picked up free, and still others might command a price.
Recycling would be based on economic calculation, not bureaucratic
choice is always the same, from Eastern Europe to my town: put consumers
in charge through private property and a free price system, or create
a fiasco through government. Under the right kind of system, even
I might start separating my trash.