We’d occasionally find someone’s garbage dumped on the side of the road back when I was growing up. That was illegal, so we’d call the cops about it. They’d happily come out and sort through the stuff because invariably, the dumpers were stupid enough to leave their junk mail, complete with an address, in the discarded trash. The scofflaws would then get a visit from a state trooper who would hand them a citation and a stiff fine.
I bring this up because there is an intensifying debate about who should be responsible for the disposal of packaging. Economists are starting to think that a system that gives that responsibility to manufacturers makes more sense than foisting the problem off on cities and states. They argue that such a scheme would bring some sanity to the idea of which materials are worth recycling and which are just garbage.
One problem with the existing state of affairs is that both landfills and recycling programs are subsidized, so it is almost impossible to figure out the real economics of either disposal method. For example, landfill space is priced below the full economic cost of landfilling partly to discourage the kind of illegal dumping I saw as a kid. Recycling programs typically get priced so their promoters can claim putting plastic bottles in colored recycling bins is cheaper than throwing them in a landfill. But it’s hard to really know the truth of that statement when the price of both landfill space and recycling programs are distorted.
One economist who has studied these price distortions is Duke University professor Michael C. Munger. He points out that because it is almost impossible to know the “real” price of landfills and recycling efforts, many of the arguments for recycling have taken a religious tone: Putting garbage in a landfill is no longer expensive; it’s evil.
This sort of attitude can lead to zany outcomes. Munger recounts an incident during a North Carolina drought a few years ago when Duke switched to disposable paper dishes, napkins, and utensils in its food-service operations. The idea was to save water, which had become more expensive than the landfill space occupied by low-quality, hard-to-recycle eating supplies. “It would have been irresponsible, in terms of the opportunity cost of the resources, to continue to use water as if it were plentiful,” he says.
But that didn’t matter to a lot of students and faculty at Duke. Munger says students and faculty both complained that is was wrong to dispose of waste in a landfill. He says he asked at least 20 people why landfilling the stuff was wrong but could never get an answer. They just knew that is was, he says.
That takes us back to the concept of making end-of-life issues the problem of manufacturers. Such a mandate would be an extra headache for designers of products and packaging, who would be forced into figuring out the end-of-life economics of the materials they used. But it would make discussions about garbage less theological.