Cost-benefit analyses for individual products become so confusing that even ardent environmentalists give up. After years of studies and debates about the environmental merits of cloth versus disposable diapers, some environmental organizations finally decided they couldn’t decide; parents were advised to choose whichever they wanted. This sensible advice ought to be extended to other products. It would not only make life simpler for everyone, but would probably benefit the environment. When consumers follow their preferences, they are guided by the simplest, and often the best, measure of a product’s environmental impact: its price.
Polystyrene cups are cheap because they require so little energy and material to manufacture — without reading a chemist’s analysis, you could deduce from the cup’s low price that it’s an efficient use of natural resources. Similarly, the prices paid for scrap materials are a measure of their environmental value as recyclables. Scrap aluminum fetches a high price because recycling it consumes so much less energy than manufacturing new aluminum. The low price paid for scrap tinted glass tells you that you won’t be conserving valuable resources by recycling it. While price is hardly a perfect measure of environmental impact, especially in countries where manufacturers are free to pollute, an American product’s price usually reflects the cost of complying with strict environmental regulations. It’s generally a more reliable guide than intuitive moral judgments or abstract theories about what’s good for the planet.
A theorist could logically argue that you have an obligation to recycle not just the paper in this magazine but also the staples. As a nonrenewable resource, isn’t the steel theoretically even more precious than the paper? Shouldn’t you take each staple to a scrap-metal dealer or, better yet, reuse it in your own stapler? But if you look at the low price of new staples — and the fact that scrap dealers aren’t scurrying to buy used staples — you can see that it’s a waste of time to worry about posterity running out of staples. Recycling devotees have too often ignored such signals, preferring programs based on rules instead of prices, and they’ve hurt their own cause. They’ve missed the obvious solution to America’s garbage problems — a solution they should have recognized from one of their seminal ecological texts.
The Tragedy Of the Dump
THE PHILOSOPHICAL underpinning of the modern environmental movement can be found in “The Tragedy of the Commons,” a 1968 essay by the ecologist Garrett Hardin. It is a parable about a village’s public pasture, the commons, that is open free of charge to everyone’s cattle. Because no villager has a personal incentive to restrict the size of his herd, the herds keep growing, and eventually their overgrazing destroys the commons. The parable is a useful model for the many environmental problems in which the common good is damaged by individuals acting out of rational self-interest (like overfishing of the oceans or pollution of the atmosphere). It applies nicely to the garbage situation in the many communities where a free town dump has historically been treated as a commons.
There are two ways to avert the Tragedy of the Commons, as Hardin’s essay explains. The first is to convert the commons to private property, dividing up the land so that every herdsman owns a piece of pasture and has a personal incentive not to destroy it. The second is to make rules limiting the number of cattle on the commons. This approach, government regulation, is the most obvious solution to some complex environmental problems, especially ones involving global commons like the oceans or the atmosphere. But garbage is not one of these complex problems.
The Tragedy of the Dump is a simple problem better resolved with the first approach: private responsibility. Your trash is already your private property. You should be responsible for getting rid of it. You should have to pay to get rid of it — and you should pay whatever price it takes to insure that your garbage doesn’t cause environmental problems for anyone else. Paying for residential garbage collection sounds like a radical idea in New York and other cities where these costs are hidden in property taxes, but it’s already being done in thousands of communities, including cities like Minneapolis, San Francisco and Seattle. It’s also standard practice for commercial establishments in New York and elsewhere. Some cities charge according to volume — the number of bags or cans that you fill — and some have begun experimenting with charging by the pound.
Once people switch to this pay-as-you-throw system, they throw away less — typically at least 10 to 15 percent less. Some shop differently; some take their names off junk-mail lists; some recycle. Instead of following (or ignoring) arcane rules and targets set by politicians, they’re personally motivated to figure out what’s worth paying to discard and what’s worth diverting to a recycling bin. Those who want to recycle for spiritual reasons can do so; others can recycle whatever makes economic sense to them. If the pay-as-you-throw system became common everywhere, there would be no need for recycling laws and goals and moral exhortations. “In a purely market-driven situation, people would still recycle according to what makes sense in their area,” says Lynn Scarlett, the vice president of research at the Reason Foundation, which has studied pay-as-you-throw systems. “In most places it would pay to recycle aluminum cans, corrugated cardboard and office paper. A lot of newspapers and some clear glass would be recycled. But people wouldn’t meet the high targets set by laws. They wouldn’t bother with some of the things being mandated today, like mixed paper and certain plastics.”