More Unintended Trash Consequences

Well-meaning policies can often have unintended consequences: trash taxes, for example, have been associated with backyard burning of trash in Ireland, trash dumped in the woods (in Virginia), and rat-infested sewers in Germany (thanks to flushed trash). Now, a family in Sharon Township, Ohio (where residents are charged for their trash), left behind a big mess when they moved out of their home. “When I opened the garage door, there was a year’s worth of garbage stacked in the garage, and on top of that garbage was a rat that looked like a small cat to me,” said a neighbor. (HT: Joe Haugen)[%comments]

Mr. Shiny & New

It seems that there is no good way to handle garbage. If you take it away for free people produce too much garbage. If you charge them to take it away they do stuff like this. However this is an extreme example of people unable to behave responsibly and is probably symptomatic of some other major issues. It wouldn't surprise me if this property ended up the same way even if there was free garbage pickup.

Richard Tonsing

Are you proposing that we have no policies regarding trash?


Or maybe they were compulsive hoarders?

E. Nowak

This isn't a problem of taxation, this is a problem of irresponsibility. Which, if you ask me, is a far greater problem in the United States than our rates of taxation.


Perhaps all goods should be taxed at a rate commensurate with the cost of disposing. The revenues from this tax could then be used to haul trash away (at no marginal cost) to the disposer.


They were just composting. We're supposed to be encouraging that, right?? (That was sarcasm.)


did they not have a house inspection? Did the inspector miss it? I'm not terribly surprised that they decided to store garbage in the garage, but I am surprised that the new owners didn't know about it. It's not like a year's worth of trash is easily overlooked.


I vividly recall perhaps my first introduction to economics.

The summer before I entered college I joined my wise and worldly older brother, who had begun studying this field, on trip to Europe. Needing a bathroom in Paris, I fumed and searched my pockets for change to pay the "dragon lady" that barred my entry. My brother calmly remarked that I should not be surprised to have to pay for a service. I remarked, less calmly, that he should not be surprised if I choose not to patronize these restrooms and instead chose to pee in the street!

My brother then suggested that I had the appropriate qualities for the study of economics: a firm grasp of incentives combined with utter indifference to decorum.

Eileen Wyatt

If trash pick-up fees strongly discourage putting out the trash for pick-up, how does Freakonomics account for the large number of cities that have long had these fees, with the vast majority of residents cooperatively paying them?


Simple solution. Find the cost for each product during all of it's cycles. From Raw material, to consumption to disposal/recycle. Charge a tax or fee embedded to the actual price of the product. For example, when you purchase a car you should be paying for the future disposal of that vehicle in the purchase price. That would allow the consumer to evaluate and be accountable for the true cost to society a given product poses. Right now companies sell cheap products and our tax dollars have to indirectly pay for the impacts cause by those products. This disconnect leads to uninformed/bad decision by consumers.

Peter McCorison

Here in San Juan County, WA, a group of islands, we PAY $12 for the privilege of carrying a can of trash to the transfer station and dumping it ourselves into a bin.

We don't seem to have the problems noted in TFA, however.

There's a lot of green pressure here.


This is why the Aluminum Can Tax remains useful, though imperfectly executed.

You tax people for the trash they will create on the front end (i.e. at purchase). You reward them for recycling by returning that deposit.

The collection centers also create jobs and help create "scavenger opportunities" for people cleaning up waste- their are some pretty wealthy people bagging cans in the tailgate lot after a football game.

Could this be replicated for items that come in cardboard boxes, plastic cartons, glass jars, etc.? What about food waste?


making it socially acceptable to have small amounts of trash seems like a good strategy. What if neighborhoods competed for the largest volumes of recycling and composting along with the smallest volumes of trash?


Every tax has a tax evasion scheme.

Ian Kemmish

There do appear to be solutions which work, but they're depressing. One of the dividing lines in the recent election here in the UK was between Labour favouring residents paying the tax on the landfill they generate, and the Conservatives favouring a scheme where people who produce less are given a reward.

The first depressing thing is that both schemes require fitting RFID tags to everyone's bin, but of course only Labour's version of this is seen as a "bloody liberty".

The second is that this is of course merely a relabelling of the money - in one case I pay a lower basic tax and have it increased if I generate landfill; in the other I pay a higher basic tax which is then reduced (but see the next point).

The third is that I don't actually get a council tax rebate with the Conservative's scheme - I actually have to register with a commercial company who send me vouchers to spend in local shops. I don't know about you, but I never end up spending those vouchers anyway - which translates into less of a rebate for me and more profit for the company operating the scheme!

The fourth depressing thing is that the Conservative's appeal to people's greed, even though it leaves them on average worse off, does actually appear to increase recycling rates and reduce the amount of landfill produced. At least in local pilot schemes.


j mendez

while not a conservative, appealing to people's greed is the one thing we can always count on--why not make it work to our advantage? It takes what it takes, so whether we're 'rewarding' or 'penalizing' trash pick up doesn't really matter. The truth is that the only fix to our problems is to do what nature does: integrate supply chains-- have businesses support one another by using the waste from one to supply the other.

It would go something like this: I make those nifty little book 'safes' (the hollow books where you can hide stuff), a byproduct is the actual paper that gets cut out from the books, so in a flash of inspiration (they only happen very occasionally), I decided to add to my product line, and now I recycle the paper myself and sell hand made letter paper you can't get in retail outlets.

The real problem (addressed above by several readers) is getting people to see the real cost of things. It's always a zero sum game, and for every instance of 'savings' there is a cost-- cheaper food through corn, for example, leads to higher medical costs for many because of the health problems that the cheaper food brings with it. So yeah, pay it now or pay it later, you're still going to pay--try getting that message across-- especially here in the states.



Those were crazy hoarders, not trash evaders. The "human waste" on the wall kind of illustrates that.

True story related by female friend in real estate rentals: She rents a small 2 bedroom one bathroom home to an adult mother and adult daughter. During the year they rented, they mailed the checks and would not let anyone in for say repairs. They'd only answer the door by cracking it open and telling the folks to go away. Finally they skip out after about 14 months with two months owed. Going to inspect the property our friend finds a garbage strewn house with abandoned furniture. The grossest thing was that the bathtub was completely filled with used tampons stacked up from being thrown in there. So the two women were 1. so gross not to throw out their female necessity trash 2. apparently didn't shower or bath at all. Our friend had to get a biohazard outfit to clean that bathroom out as it was so disgusting all around.


Tyler Cowen

A good intuitive economist approaches a practical problem by asking "What is the relevant scarcity hindering a better outcome?" If we haven't posed this query, and assembled at least the beginnings of an answer, we may founder. For instance, we might make the mistake of throwing more money at a problem, when money is not what is needed. By identifying the relevant scarcity, we learn where to direct the incentives.


The example cited here proves nothing except that outliers exist in any system. In all the pay-as-you-throw systems enacted throughout this country, increased littering and flatout evasion are rare. These hoarders would have had this behavior pattern if collection had been free.
Freakonomics might consider a healthy regard for facts before it leaps to conclusions.

Eric M. Jones

"When I opened the garage door, there was a year's worth of garbage stacked in the garage..."

Maybe they just forgot?