The Economics of Trash

Trash: we rarely think about it -- until we have to. (EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)


Freakonomics Radio

Trashed: How economics — and emotion — have turned our garbage into such a mess.

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This week’s Freakonomics Radio podcast (you can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed or listen live via the link in box at right) is about one of our favorite topics: trash. We explore the economics thereof, and the emotions too.

We begin, as the best stories do, at sea, with the long, strange journey of the Mobro 4000 garbage barge. (You’ll hear from Duffy St. Pierre, the tug captain who shepherded the Mobro on its trip, and you’ll hear a very dramatic reading from Jonah Winter, who wrote the kids’ book Here Comes the Garbage Barge!) Some of you may remember how the Mobro sailed up and down the eastern seaboard, unable to dump its New York garbage, and how it became a national joke.

The Mobro’s journey led a lot of people to believe that America was running out of landfill space. This was mostly wrong. You’ll hear from Samantha MacBride, who teaches waste sociology at Columbia University:

The notion that we were running out of landfill space got its start by some research that was put out by the EPA that simply counted up the number of landfills over time and saw them diminishing, but failed to factor in that the new landfills that were opening up were much larger than the old ones. … The opposition by various mayors and harbor masters and things like that to the Mobro landing and discharging its contents was purely political.

DESCRIPTIONAlgalita Marine Research Foundation Captain Charles Moore aboard the Alguita, holding a buoy found in the North Pacific Ocean on a research voyage.

There’s another ship’s captain in the episode, Charles Moore, who is thought to have discovered a great soupy sprawl of plastic in the middle of the ocean now known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, estimated to be at least the size of Texas. (Here’s his TED talk on the topic.)

So even if landfill space isn’t the problem, how can we do better at controlling our trash?

Part of the problem is that many cities have a “Toss-All-You-Want” trash system, whereby there’s no incentive to produce less trash volume. To that end, we talk with Lisa Skumatz, an economist for a Colorado consulting firm that helps cities deal with their trash. Skumatz is a champion of the “Pay-As-You-Throw” model, which targets trash free-riders with significant results:

What we found is that overall, Pay-as-You-Throw reduces that amount of trash put in by an average person’s trash bin by about 17 percent, with about a third of that going into recycling, about a third of that going to organics and mulch mowing and that sort of thing, and about a third of it due to source reduction — waste that doesn’t have any cost to deal with anymore because people are donating, people are buying more carefully, and buying less packaging and so on.

You’ll hear from some folks in Sanford, Maine, which last year instituted a Pay-as-You-Throw system, replete with promotional video:

Alas, the program didn’t turn out exactly as Sanford government officials hoped.

Some Sanford residents opposed Pay-As-You-Throw because they saw it as a new tax. Traditionally, trash fees are tucked into property or utility taxes; Pay-as-You-Throw enables cities to bill directly for trash, and the fee becomes more manifest. But Tom Kinnaman, an environmental economist at Bucknell who’s been studying Pay-As-You-Throw for years, points out that even in these anti-tax, sludgy-economy times, Pay-as-You-Throw can often be promoted on the grounds of fairness and green-ness:

Yes it’s a tax grab, and I don’t want to say it’s disguised, but it’s palatable. People who consider this, residents who are tired of higher taxes, things like property and sales and those kinds of things, kind of swallow this thing and say, Okay, this is kind of a user system, where if we generate more waste, we should pay more. And so it’s a politically easy way to get revenue.

We also take a look at the unintended consequences of trash fees — which range from emergency-room visits in Ireland to rat infestation in Germany — and we end our trash sojourn in Taipei.

DESCRIPTIONJonathan Forma hand-delivering his trash to a truck in Taipei.

That’s where Jonathan Forma, an American Ph.D. student from Michigan, is living, and where he discovered a set of trash rules that are a bit baffling — but which might, if you play your cards right, lead to a little romance. You’ll have to hear Forma explain this in the podcast, but here’s a look at how the trash trucks of Taipei perform their musical routine:

Audio Transcript

Stephen J. DUBNER: Gather ‘round now, people. It’s story time. C’mon, c’mon in close …

Jonah WINTER: Well, I think it would be better just to say the title and then start reading the book. You know, it being a children’s book that’s what’s often done for kids. Okay. “Here Comes the Garbage Barge!”

DUBNER: The author is Jonah Winter. His book is based on a true story that some of you might remember …

WINTER: Garbage. Big heaping, stinking mounds of garbage. Big bags of garbage on the sidewalk. Garbage trucks overflowing with garbage. Landfills reaching up to the heavens with more and more garbage, garbage, garbage!

DUBNER: This was back in 1987. Some garbage from Islip--that’s near New York City--was loaded onto a barge bound for North Carolina:

WINTER: So, on March 22, 1987, all 3,168 tons of garbage was loaded up. Then a little tugboat named the Break of Dawn began its long journey south, tugging the rusty old garbage barge behind it. The Break of Dawn was a happy little tugboat. Her captain and crew was Captain Duffy St. Pierre, a crusty old sailor.

Duffy ST PIERRE: I’m a retired seaman. My name is Duffy St. Pierre.

WINTER: Together they tugged the garbage barge down the east coast of America.

DUBNER: Captain St. Pierre, who came from Louisiana, got the barge from New York down to Morehead City, North Carolina, where the garbage was supposed to be unloaded. And that’s when things began to go wrong. This was one barge too far, and environmental officials in North Carolina thought its trash was too hot to handle.

ST. PIERRE: Everybody went crazy, saying we had hospital waste, and that Jimmy Hoffa was buried on there, you know the story about that.

DUBNERNow, where’d did the idea come from that Jimmy Hoffa was buried in the trash?

ST. PIERRE: People blew it up.

DUBNER: Pretty soon, the garbage barge had to leave North Carolina. It headed towards Louisiana, but it was turned away again.

WINTER: Shiver me timbers, moaned Captain Duffy. You can’t do this to a hometown boy!

DUBNER: And the barge, which was called the Mobro 4000, spent the next two months at sea. Captain St. Pierre tried unloading the trash in the Bahamas. He tried Mexico. He got all the way to Belize. No one would take the trash!

WINTER: There they were floating out in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico. This was getting ridiculous. Would no one take this garbage? Which by the way, was really starting to stink.

DUBNER: Back home, the Mobro was all over the news; it became a national joke. But the punch line wasn’t so funny: we Americans produce so much trash we’ve run out of places to put it! C’mon what are we, a bunch of children?

ANNOUNCER: From American Public Media and WNYC, this is Freakonomics Radio.  Today, we sail the stormy seas of trash.  It’s an expanse of white lies, unintended consequences, and … romance? Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.

DUBNER: Okay, so poor Captain St. Pierre and his garbage barge spent months at sea. The message was loud and clear: our landfills were, as Jonah Winter put it, “reaching up to the heavens.” But were they? Listen to Samantha MacBride; she’s a waste sociologist who teaches at Columbia University.

Samantha MACBRIDE: The notion that we were running out of landfill space got its start by some research that was put out by the EPA that simply counted up the number of landfills over time and saw them diminishing, but failed to factor in that the new landfills that were opening up were much larger than the old ones. The opposition by various mayors and harbormasters and things like that to the Mobro landing and discharging its contents was purely political.

DUBNER: But you all know the first rule of politics: never let a good crisis go to waste. The Mobro crisis, even though it was a manufactured one, was a great opportunity to face the facts: we produce a lot of garbage. Not as much as we used to, believe it or not, at least if you measure by weight. In New York, the amount of trash per capita peaked in the 1940’s, in part because our waste back then was so heavy--lots of coal ash, for instance. But there are a lot more people around today. And too much of our trash ends up in places where it’s not supposed to be.

DUBNER: Hey, it’s Stephen Dubner, how are you?

Charles MOORE: Great, great, right here on the bow of the research vessel Alguita on a beautiful sunny afternoon after a fierce rain shower that has just left the area.

DUBNER: Awesome. Um, tell me your name and what you do.

MOORE: My name is Captain Charles Moore and I am the founder of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation and the skipper of the oceanographic research vessel Alguita.

DUBNER: Gotcha, how are the waters today?

MOORE: We’ve experienced torrential rains, and what we find is at the first flush, we get a tremendous load of trash and debris and then on the beach the trash and debris was a foot thick and it was covered with Styrofoam. It looked kind of like a chocolate bar with white chocolate granules stuck into it. It had this thick cap of grungy urban slobber with white plastic Styrofoam bits stuck into it, so that the beach looked like a big white chocolate chip cookie.

DUBNER: So this is all, you are describing, first of all, this is disgusting, so thanks for painting the picture for me, but what you’re describing is just the trash and run-off of big rain, that’s it, right?

MOORE: Yeah, what we experience here is drainage of two rivers for a population pushing 20 million. So, the Los Angeles and Orange County watersheds drain right here into Long Beach Harbor area, and it’s really the armpit of Southern California, and we really are the receiving body for all the waste that kind of exists as part of our consumer throwaway lifestyle.

DUBNER: In 1997, Captain Moore was sailing home to California from Honolulu. He was out in the middle of Pacific Ocean, miles and miles and miles from land, when he came upon what is now known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

MOORE: I couldn’t come on deck and spend ten minutes without seeing some evidence of civilization floating by, whether it was a bottle cap or a toothbrush or a shard of plastic or a soap bottle.

DUBNER: The garbage patch is this messy soup of little pieces of trash, estimated to be about the size of Texas, maybe bigger, right there in the middle of the ocean. Who put it there?  You and me, that’s who. Why? Well, over the past 35 years or so, landfills have gotten much bigger, and better -- landfill technology is a lot more sophisticated than most of us know. Yes, in some parts of the country it costs a lot to haul trash to these landfills, but in many parts, it’s pretty easy, and therefore cheap. The truth is that we, as a nation, are really quite good at trash disposal. Maybe too good. A lot of us just stick it out on the curb, and then voila! It vanishes. You never even see a bill for it. Sure, you probably pay for trash pickup through your property taxes, but the fee is buried in there. And, more important, it’s often a flat fee, which means you can throw away as much trash as you want. So … why bother to produce less? If your electricity bill were a flat rate, you’d never turn off the lights!

Lisa SKUMATZ: It makes me think of an all-you-can eat buffet, as in all-you-can-throw-out trash. And with no incentives for people to think about the cost of what you are doing.

DUBNER: That’s Lisa Skumatz.  She’s an economist at a consulting firm in Boulder, Colorado, that helps cities deal with their trash. She’s been studying this stuff for 25 years.

SKUMATZ: When I originally got into the field it seems like there were two camps. There were the landfill engineers who thought, What is the problem? Just build another landfill. And on the other side, we had the pure greenies who thought, Well, recycling one hundred percent is the only holy thing to do. Our job is all about trying to find that optimum that’s somewhere between those extremes. That’s what’s made this field so fun for me.”

DUBNER: Skumatz has found what she thinks is the sweet spot for trash. It’s called “Pay-As-You-Throw.” Instead of all-you-can-eat trash, it puts a price tag on every garbage bag -- and it tosses all those free riders off the trash bus. When people start paying for everything they throw away, their trash behavior changes.

SKUMATZ: What we found is that overall, Pay-As-You-Throw reduces the trash put in an average person’s trash bin by about 17 percent, with about a third of that going into recycling, about a third of that going to organics and mulch mowing and that sort of thing, and about a third of it due to source reduction.  Waste that doesn’t have any cost to deal with anymore, because people are donating, people are buying more carefully, and people buying less packaging and so on.

DUBNER: We are in the midst of a Pay-As-You-Throw boom. Twenty years ago, fewer than 200 communities in the U.S. had it; now we’re up to 7,000 -- about 25% of the country. And here’s the beauty part: if you’re the government in one of those 7,000 places, Pay-As-You Throw makes it easier to start billing directly for trash pickup. Bingo: a new revenue stream! Last July, the town of Sanford, Maine, rolled out a pay-as-you-throw plan. The town manager there is Mark Green:

Mark GREEN: Well, Sanford is an old mill town. It really saw its heyday back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. It’s home of the Palm Beach suit. Which is probably what we are best known for.

DUBNER: Sanford used to crank out breezy summer suits and textiles for drapes and upholstery. But the mills started to shut down a long time ago, and with a high unemployment rate, the local government was looking for ways to raise money. Mark Green estimated that Pay-As-You-Throw could bring in $900,000 a year.

GREEN: What we did is they were purple bags, because a couple of the counselors liked the purple color. So we did purple bags, and they had the town logo on them.

DUBNER: The big bags cost $2 apiece. On the curb, the purple really stood out …

GREEN: Oh they sure did, and what was neat about it is that they all matched, and there were very few of them, because people were so much more careful with their trash than they are when they don’t have to pay for it.

DUBNER: According to Green, the results were pretty startling. Because they were paying for volume, people no longer tossed their bottles and cans and newspapers in the trash so the recycling rate quadrupled; and overall trash volume was cut in half. But, not everyone was so happy.

GREEN: I’m sure there are effigies of me hanging from numerous places in people’s houses.  There were a lot of folks that were angry about it.

DUBNER: Like Len Mustacchio. He thought the new trash program stank:

Len MUSTACCHIO: It’s absolutely absurd. You know, anything that’s a fee it might as well be a tax. It’s one and the same. You don’t have a choice. Although they’ll tell you, you do have a choice, you can throw out less garbage. Well, what am I supposed to do, eat it?

DUBNER: Coming up: the people of Sanford sink their teeth into Pay-As-You-Throw. And: looking for love in all the trashy places.


ANNOUNCER: From WNYC and American Public Media, this is Freakonomics Radio:

DUBNER: So Pay-As-You-Throw trash collection seems to make perfect sense: you’re getting people to pay their fair share of waste disposal while at the same time giving them an incentive to increase recycling and cut down on trash. Who could argue with that? There’s only one problem: some people see it as a new tax. These days especially, and especially in towns like Sanford, Maine, people aren’t in the mood for more taxes. But Tom Kinnaman, an economist at Bucknell, says that a trash tax is special: it plays on our guilt. Even though wearen’t running out of landfill space, we’ve been taught to feel so bad about producing any trash at all, that politicians can cash in on that guilt.

Tom KINNAMAN: Yes it’s a tax grab, and I don’t want to say it’s disguised, but it’s palatable.  People who consider this, residents who are tired of higher taxes, for things like property and sales and those kinds of things, kind of swallow this one and say ok this is kind of a user system, where if we generate more waste, we should pay more. And so it’s a politically easy way to get revenue. Yeah.

DUBNER: But it wasn’t so easy in Sanford, Maine. After about four months of Pay-As-You-Throw, the citizens there voted to get rid of it.

Does that surprise you? Maybe, maybe not. As responses to trash fees go, Sanford’s was pretty mellow. The data on Pay-As-You-Throw go back a ways.  Here’s Tom Kinnaman again:

KINNAMAN: I drive at the time, I drive a little VW Beetle. Which was, I think it was about a 1970.  It ran really, really well and served me all throughout graduate school.  It was kind of loud though.  I don’t know if you remember the Beetle.


KINNAMAN: It idles at a very loud…It’s an air-cooled engine.  In my surveys after, I’d ask for is there anything else you want to say, and you know, some people were like yeah your car used to wake me up, because maybe it idled outside their bedroom window, as we went out and slammed the door.

DUBNER: Back in 1992, Kinnaman used to drive around Charlottesville, Virginia, gathering trash data. He was a grad student at the University of Virginia, and Charlottesville was about to start its own Pay-As-You-Throw program. So he’d hop out of his noisy little VW, grab his scale, and weigh people’s garbage cans and recycling bins – he did this before and after the Pay-As-You-Throw got going.

KINNAMAN: And we did find, for example, the weight of garbage did go down, and some of that reduction ended up in the recycling bin, about thirty-percent of it did. The other sixty-percent is unaccountable; we don’t know where it could have gone.

DUBNER: Some of the trash, Kinnaman deduced, was likely getting dumped in the woods. Isn’t that strange? Charlottesville was only charging eighty-cents a bag for garbage under the new plan. Was it really worth it to haul your trash into the woods to avoid paying a couple of bucks? The economics might say no, but this is where economics and psychology hook up. When people are used to getting something for free, or even what seems to be free, and are then asked to pay for it, well, some of them will inevitably freak out. In Ireland, new trash fees led to a rise in burn victims--because more people were burning their trash in the backyard to avoid paying. In Germany, people started flushing so much of their food waste down the toilet that the sewers became infested with rats. And then there’s the famous tactic--famous among garbage scholars at least--known as the Seattle Stomp:

KINNAMAN: So you can imagine a big boot right on top of that garbage.  Got to get this extra stuff in.  You can imagine the kid putting the garbage out and the father coming out and saying hey wait a minute you can put those in one can because we can save eighty-cents if we do that, and it’s not too hard.  And I think it would be an interesting economic study to find out, immediately after a large scale Pay-As-You-Go program is implemented, suddenly people are buying waste containers that are a little bit stronger, because they really want to compact stuff in there. Before maybe before they had a flimsy one that had a rip in it or something.  And this might be really good business for those who makes waste containers.

DUBNER: It’s a cornerstone fact of economics: people respond to incentives. But they don’t always respond how you think they will, or how you want them to. You expect logic; instead, you might get emotion. And trash, for whatever reason, inspires a lot of emotion. It seems we see it as our civilization’s equivalent of bodily waste--something we’re ashamed of. We don’t want to think about it, see it, certainly not smell it!  But wouldn’t it be nice if, in our well-intentioned efforts to produce less waste, to have people pay their fair share, to stop from turning all our oceans into one great soupy garbage patch, wouldn’t it be nice if we could un-demonize trash just a little bit?

Consider Taipei, the capital of Taiwan. Jonathan Forma, is an American PhD student in sociology who moved there last fall. He was baffled by the city’s strange trash rituals. They don’t make it easy to get rid of trash there, not by a long shot. But as Forma discovered, trash isn’t just something to get rid of in Taipei. It’s a chance for a love connection.

Jonathan FORMA: Well, I can tell you that when I arrived here, in the dormitory, I was given a list of rules.  And one of them was, “When you hear the trash truck come, take your trash out the door.”

DUBNER: “When you hear the trash truck come, bring your trash out the door.”   So it comes around like an ice cream truck or something?

FORMA: Exactly.  You know, this is one of the funny things, it actually plays Beethoven music.

DUBNER: That’s nice.

FORMA: Blares it, in fact.  When you hear it, your first thought is the ice cream truck is coming.  But in fact, it's smelly garbage that is coming down your street.

DUBNER: But basically, you’re hearing, you’re in your room, you’re working, or you’re getting ready for going to school, or whatever, and then you hear (hums Für Elise) and then you think trash; I got to get my trash and run out the door. Is that the way it works?

FORMA: That is exactly the way it works. For the first 10 days, I didn’t hear it one time. I was told it comes roughly, in our area, it comes in afternoon and evening, supposedly. Although, for the first ten days I was literally out every single day. I mean, I had just arrived in a new city; I wanted to travel around a little bit.  And so, you know, the result of all that was about ten days worth of trash in my room.

DUBNER: Ten days worth of trash in your room because you were not home when the trash truck came, right?

FORMA: Exactly, I couldn’t bring myself to tell my friends, no I won’t go out to eat with you because I’m waiting for the trash truck.  I couldn’t do it.

DUBNER: What do the locals think about this trash collection system where you have to wait to hear the trash truck come and bring your trash out to it?

FORMA: You know, I asked a couple friends about this, and they said people like going out and talking to each other while waiting for the trash truck.  I’ve seen this where there will be people, you know, twenty or twenty-five people gathering on a corner, and with the trash truck coming in the distance. And I’ve also heard that guys sometimes go there and try to find pretty girls.

DUBNER: Oh, so you’re re giving trash a whole new spin here.  You’re talking trash as like, a babe-magnet, and trash as a community builder, right?

FORMA: You know, if you talk with your neighbors a lot, I suspect it’s just as easy that you could get into an argument as it is to have delightful chatter, but they say that they like it.  And you dress in nice clothes sometimes.  You go out there, you talk to your neighbors, you put your trash in together.  It does sound nice.

DUBNER: But what you’re describing, it’s like, you know, I’m living in this neighborhood in Taipei in a residential area, and I’m a young single guy, and it’s like hey it’s trash time, I’m going to put on my best shirt and try to go meet a girl, right? That’s what you’re talking about?

FORMA: I haven’t been reduced yet to going to the trash truck to find girls, but maybe one day…

DUBNER: Maybe one day.



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  1. Calvin Graham says:

    Most people seem to like the idea of being paid to throw less out. That is of course until the system comes in and they find other people are placing filled bags at the end of the driveway instead of their own.

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  2. Drill-Baby-Drill drill Team says:


    With the recent SnowPocalypse, trash remained uncollected for days. A young man suffering from Holiday Depression decided to end his life. Opening his window, he bid farewell to the cruel world and plunged to the sidewalk.

    He landed on a pile of trash that save his life. And he vowed to celebrate Christmas in his heart everyday!
    …..Take that DIckens!

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  3. James says:

    Of course America isn’t running out of landfill space – the Grand Canyon alone will take years to fill up.

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  4. Ruth says:

    @Calvin — Some pay-as-you-go systems require people to buy color-coded bags or stickers, so it doesn’t matter where the bag is placed.

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  5. James says:

    Re #4: But consider the economics of manufacturing & selling bags for the sole purpose of throwing them away.

    I’ve always been puzzled by this: why people buy bags, put their trash in them, and then deposit the bag in a trash can. Or stranger yet, certain neighbors who every fall neatly bag their leaves and deposit them to be collected, then in the spring buy plastic-wrapped bags of compost from the garden center.

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  6. hay says:

    I just listened to your podcast, and I think you missed one important point on government run pay-as-you-go programs: they quickly become revenue streams for the government unrelated to garbage disposal.

    That is, the gov’t realizes it can make money of the garbage bag fees, specially when there’s no other choice for people, and the gov’t soon starts charging much more than the price of garbage disposal. (Similar to parking meters, supposedly implemented to lessen traffic, now a naked revenue stream for DC)

    This destroys the incentive to not game the system, or your willingness to support the program/participate, no?

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  7. Robert Baker says:


    There is a simple solution to preventing goverment from making trash fees a tax unrelated to trash. Have a pay as you go system where private companies pick up the trash. In La Canada, California they not only have private trash collectors, but there are two of them. If one gives you lousy service or charges too much you can switch.

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  8. Joe says:

    Pay as you throw around here encourages illegal dumping. In a semi-rural area where lots of people have pickup trucks….well……

    The county has to pay to clean that up, which I think costs more than unlimited trash did.


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