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