Recycling Is Garbage

Environmentalists don’t necessarily oppose free-market reforms for garbage — they’ve supported some pay-as-you-throw systems — but they spend much of their energy crusading for government recycling programs and regulations. They have instinctively chosen Hardin’s second solution. This is partly because of their ideology — many environmentalists trust government regulations more than market forces — but there’s also another reason. The leaders of the recycling movement derive psychic and financial rewards from recycling. Environmental groups raise money and attract new members through their campaigns to outlaw “waste” and prevent landfills from opening. They get financing from public and private sources (including the recycling industry) to research and promote recycling. By turning garbage into a political issue, environmentalists have created jobs for themselves as lawyers, lobbyists, researchers, educators and moral guardians. Environmentalists may genuinely believe they’re helping the earth, but they have been hurting the common good while profiting personally, just like the village’s herdsmen. This is the real Tragedy of the Dump: the waste of public funds on recycling programs, the needless public alarm about landfills.

Fortunately, though, not every community has been afflicted. For those seeking the truth about garbage, there’s a mountain 300 miles south of New York that’s worth a pilgrimage.

The Celestial City Glimpsed at Long Last

T HE MOST SENSIBLE comment I’ve heard on the subject of garbage was uttered by Linny Miles as we were looking at a mountain of it near his farm. Miles grows wheat and raises Thoroughbreds in Charles City County, Va., which has 6,000 residents and one stoplight. Next to his farm, 20 miles southeast of Richmond, is a landfill that accepts 4,000 tons of trash a day, much of it from the New York area. Private carters deliver trash from Manhattan restaurants; sealed rail cars bring municipal waste from suburban New Jersey.

The trash is surprisingly hard to spot. I got lost on the way to the landfill and drove around the perimeter of the wooded property without realizing there was garbage hidden back there. I finally got a view of it from Miles’s house, which sits on a rise 200 yards from the edge of the landfill’s property. He pointed to a brown ridge rising above the pine trees. The ridge was maybe 75 yards high, and the lower slopes were already covered with grass. Miles said he was occasionally bothered by odors and noise from the unloading operations, but overall he thought the landfill was good for the county. When I asked if he objected to New Yorkers using Charles City as a dumping ground, Miles shook his head and explained his reasoning in one sentence: “They brought something to the party.”

Ten years ago, Charles City County had much in common with New York today. It had no money to fix its decrepit schools. Its economy was stagnant, its tax rate was among the state’s highest and it was being ordered to shut down its old dump. Now, thanks to its new landfill, the county has lower taxes, better-paid teachers and splendid schools. The landfill’s private operator, the Chambers Development Company, pays Charles City County fees totaling $3 million a year — as much as the county takes in from all its property taxes. The landfill has created jobs, as have the new businesses that were attracted by the lower taxes and new schools. The 80-acre public-school campus has three buildings with central air conditioning and fiber-optic cabling. The library has 10,000 books, laser disks and CD-ROM’s; every classroom in the elementary school has a telephone and a computer. The new auditorium has been used by visiting orchestras and dance companies, which previously had no place to perform in the county.

If you are are heavy with garbage and guilt, Charles City is the place to lay down your burden. There you can see garbage the way Linny Miles regards it: not as a moral issue but as an economic commodity. New Yorkers get rid of their garbage cheaply; Charles City’s children get new schools. Why should New Yorkers spend extra money to recycle so they can avoid this mutually beneficial transaction? Why make harried parents feel guilty about takeout food? Why train children to be garbage-sorters? Why force the Bridges school to spend money on a recycling program when it still doesn’t have a computer in the science classroom?

Several weeks after Dittersdorf’s lecture there, I told her about Charles City’s schools and asked if recycling needed to be so important to New Yorkers’ education.

“I wish we spent more money on other things in the schools here,” Dittersdorf said, “and I don’t think recycling has a higher priority than things like computers or art classes. But I’d put it equal. Sure, kids should have time for other things, for reading and writing and dreaming. But recycling can be a wonderful project for kids and parents to do together. It inspires creative work and teaches valuable lessons.”

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