Municipalized Trash: It's Uncivilized

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Driving into work today, I saw garbage bins overflowing and city dumpsters spilling out with trash. It stinks. It’s disgusting. It’s uncivilized. It’s probably dangerous to some extent.

It’s a holiday, so of course the government workers charged with picking up this nasty refuse can’t work, even though construction workers in private firms are busy bees taking advantage of the extra time.

It’s true with house trash too: pickup is once per week — on schedule — and there is nothing you can do to make it more frequent. It’s part of the master plan, don’t you know, and if you make more trash than the once-per-week pickup can contain, that is your problem, not the city’s.

The very fear that people have about private trash collection — that it will pile up and no one will do anything about it — turns out to be a regular feature of government trash collection. But we look the other way. Why?

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Before getting to this, let us first establish that garbage is a serious issue. Libertarians were once chided by William F. Buckley, his head full of schemes for threatening populations with nuclear annihilation, for bothering with such petty concerns as trash collection.

"It is only because of the conservatives’ disposition to sacrifice in order to withstand the enemy," wrote Buckley in 1961, "that [libertarians] are able to enjoy their monasticism, and pursue their busy little seminars on whether or not to demunicipalize the garbage collectors."

Ah yes, little seminars. Seminars about such things as the avoiding the plague. Humanity has some experience with the results of failing to dispose of trash properly, and that experience is deadly. Plagues swept the ancient world every 50 years or so, spread mainly through a lack of good sanitation. The Black Death in Europe might have been avoided with better sanitation and a decent system for disposing of trash, rather than letting it pile up on the streets.

History’s fight with the plague in the developed world came to an end at the time of the rise of capitalism in the late middle ages, and no surprise there. With the accumulation of capital came innovation in trash disposal, since living in sanitary conditions and staying alive turns out to be something of a priority for people. This is why the largest advances in garbage collection came about during the Industrial Revolution.

And yet here we are in 2009, with trash piled up on the streets and stinking to high heaven, bags full of raw animal parts (chickens, pigs, cows, fish), baby diapers stuffed with waste, rotting eggs mixed with sour cream dip from game-day parties, piles that are right now being scavenged by roaches and rats. This is in a town that prides itself on its tidiness.

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