Waste not

February 13, 2007 at 5:23 am (Environment, Health)

I have a pretty good theory about why we Americans are so wasteful. I was just taking out the garbage when it occured to me: I am getting ripped off. I take my trash out pretty frequently, so my apartment doesn’t smell any worse than it otherwise does, but I only bother lugging my can to the curb when it is full. That is about once a month. But next door, a family of ten could generate three times as much trash in a week as I do in a month, and they would be charged the same amount for pick up. I tried to get my service reduced, but was told that there is a flat fee, no discounts offered.

What kind of incentive is there to be a little bit frugal? None. The rate that I do pay is about 5 bucks a week. That seems absurdly low to me, when you factor in all the resources that are required to fuel trucks, pay collectors, sorters, operate machinery at the tipping yards, ship the trash to a landfill, build, maintain and store trash for eternity.

Me and LogJammin’ were hiking in the Columbia Gorge this weekend, and a long freight train went by, probably about a hundred flat cars, each stacked 2 high with semi-trailers. As we descended to the parking lot, we noticed the logo on the side of them , and it was Waste Management, a nationally-known garbage company. Yes, that was Portland’s trash, being shipped out of sight, out of mind, to a landfill in eastern Oregon somewhere. It was quite a sight. I wonder how many of those trains rumble out of here every day?

I remember in 2000, some British guy visited us in Philly, and he was amazed that our trash pick up was free and unrestricted (free if you ignore the 4% income tax the city levies). He remarked that there was a limit in London to one small bag, with hefty surcharges over that modest limit. And the base rate was substantial, I don’t remember what, but you have a clear economic incentive to not toss stuff away willy-nilly. A relatively small government “interference” creates a demand for less wasteful packaging, more reusable materials, and less waste from top to bottom. And the whole system works better. Germany, for example, has a law that requires life-cycle production, in which manufacturers are responsible for disposal of things like household appliances. They manufacture them with this in mind, so that parts are generally reusable. There’s a lesson there.

Is our expectation for cheap and unrestricted garbage generation a cause or symptom of our societal gluttony?

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5 Comments

  1. TSS said,

    Cary, IL, in the suburbs of Chicago, you pay for each garbage bag the city takes away. You have to buy special bags which were ~8$ a piece a few years ago. There was no extra tax for it. All recycling was picked up for free (glass, plastic, paper, aluminum). Yard waste had to be put in special, more expensive bags. There was one day a year they would take anything and everything, but those piles were mostly picked over by the Mexicans by the time the city crews came by.

    Anyway, it seems like the perfect system.

    I’ve heard in Britain they have a problem with people dumping their old appliances in the country to avoid paying some throw away tax. Seems like any punitive tax ought to be levied at the time of purchase.

  2. neckfro said,

    Arlington, to be precise.

  3. JB said,

    I remember that…didn’t you have to go to the store to buy them? 8 bucks seems kind of steep, even to me…how big were they? What if you didn’t have any? Could you bribe the garbage man? I wonder what they did at the landfill if the bags were wrong…send them back?

    It really surprises me that a city that claims to be as “green” as Portland does doesn’t do something like that. If only someone in a position of authority at Metro would take a stand…but hey, as of July all of our garbage trucks will run on 20% biodiesel, so it’s all good.

  4. TSS said,

    They were huge bags, 30 gallons I think. Whatever fits a large garbage can you’d keep in the garage.

    The collectors looked for the bag at the point of pickup. If you didn’t have it, they didn’t take the garbage. Some people just laid the bag on the can and didn’t actually use it to store garbage, but I found them to be strong useful bags.

    The garbage people were pricks. If the recycling stuff didn’t fit in the box, they didn’t take it. A stack of cardboard, even if it was broken down so it would fit in the box, but the box was full, was left on the curb. You had to dole it out over a few weeks to get rid of it all.

    Oh well. You’ll get micro-weenies power tripping anywhere. It was still the best garbage/recycling system I’ve ever see. Aaaaalll except for the part where they dump it all in the same landfill anyway (they get caught doing that by the local fox affiliate all the time).

  5. neckfro said,

    Well, consider that Portland/METRO is still a democracy. The problem with the plan is that for a lot of people, especially people who vote–costs go up. So get on it, bra.

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