Sunday, July 26, 2009

Should we charge for trash?

The garbage problem in the U.S. is a big issue - of course, not an issue like the economy or war or crime, but just another one of the lifestyle issues we could easily and quickly confront.
As I took the trash out today, I realized that maybe throwing things out is just a bit too easy for us. We do pay for it in our taxes, but once that tax bill goes out the door, we have a years' worth of throwing out as much household waste as we please, literally (it's unlimited in the Town of Brookhaven as long as the bags don't weigh over 50 pounds each).

Meanwhile, on the recycling side, the Town has an every-other-week schedule that alternates between cans/bottles and paper, and a laundry list of "acceptables" and "not acceptables". You can't put any old plastic in your "CURBY" can - and you can't mix your newspaper with your mixed paper. Turning CURBY into a cartoon character may have seemed like a smart move by the Town, but he sure is discriminating when it comes to your recyclables.

Part of the answer to the problem lies in single-stream recycling. While it has its cons (one of which is the potential downgrading of paper due to contamination by the other recyclables), single-stream recycling does exactly what our culture demands: ease of use. No thought is involved - almost everything except for food can be stuck in the bin, and the garbage men will collect it later.

I learned just how much one really can recycle when I stayed with my aunt for a few days. She has somehow completely reversed the proportion of garbage to recycling that most of us use. Her main garbage pail is essentially a tiny wastebasket under her sink, right next to a giant bin for all the recycling - and it really makes sense. Each time you go to empty your wastebasket, check out how much of it is miscellaneous papers, junk mail, plastic wrappings, styrofoam, etc., and then how much is food and other non-recyclable things... you'll see that upwards of 75% is probably recyclable, yet we all just throw it into the landfill. My aunt somehow changed her mindset and sees all of these items as recyclable.

Changing to single-stream across the nation may be part of the solution, and I hope that more cities and counties move in that direction. In an ideal situation, our responsibilities as stewards of the environment would be enough to motivate us all. This is the real world, however, and in this world, the only thing that really talks is money.

As it stands now, I can do everything I can to eliminate general waste, or I can just throw absolutely everything out for regular trash collection (it's unlimited!) - either way, my household pays the same exact assessment, based on our home's value. While there's a feel-good incentive to recycling, there's absolutely no personal economic incentive to Joe the Trash-Thrower-Outer - he's not the one who lives near the dump, and he'll have moved south to Florida by the time the town has to deal with landfill capacity issues on the taxpayer's dime.

So I end with a question - does a system where one pays by volume for landfill trash, but pays nothing for single-stream recycling make sense? I could imagine a system where the household assessment remains in place, but the city/county charges say $2 per 32 gal. bag of regular trash to your account, and bills you quarterly. There would be accounting issues to be sure, but I think they could be worked through rationally. All in all, I think the only way to actually kick Americans into gear and curb their wasteful habits is money.


  1. Great work so far with the blog. A system like you described exists here in Cedar Rapids. There is a local garbage tax which allows one small garbage can per household per week. You can place an unlimited amount of recyclables on the curb. The system allowed Cedar Rapids to close 2 out of their 3 landfills. Deffinately a step in the right direction

  2. When I lived in Quincy, Illinois the town would charge per bag for garbage. One bought a roll of stickers at the grocery store ($1 each), and the average black garbage bag required one sticker, larger bags required more. It worked something like a stamp--garbage without a sticker would not be collected. Somehow our family of four got our waste down to one large garbage bag a week.