Magical thinking about garbage

WorldChanging.com has a link to a very interesting Fortune story on some businesses’ efforts to achieve a zero-waste level in their operations. There’s Interface, the carpeting company whose crusading chairman with the charming southern accent, Ray Anderson, is a frequent media guest, but Fortune finds a lot of companies (and municipalities) that are seeing real value in reducing their waste streams. “Waste” is something you have to pay somebody to take away — so if you either find a buyer for your byproducts or stop producing them, there’s a measurable effect on your bottom line.

But this is the part of the post by WorldChanging’s Sarah Rich that caught my attention:

When I lived in San Francisco, my food scraps went into this giant compost heap, and the resulting substance went to growing some of the regions finest wine grapes and sweetest peaches. But the heart of the Fortune piece is not about how nice the compost is in San Francisco, but about how to get other cities, big businesses, and average residents, to take the time to become cogs in the zero-waste machinery. …[T]here’s a certain degree to which mass participation at the origin of disposal would make the process run more smoothly. So financial incentives come into play. San Francisco offers community members a discount on waste hauling if they accept a smaller bin for non-recyclable/non-food waste. It’s a “pay as you throw” pricing scheme that leads easily to that critical extra second of thought before tossing a recyclable bottle into the trash bin.

Figuring out what to do with all the junk we produce is a major problem for many Canadian cities, including Ottawa where I live, but amazingly few of them have decided to do the obvious and charge user fees for waste disposal. Any time the subject comes up, you only have to read the letters page of the local paper to see evidence of the loads of people who argue that garbage-disposal is a basic municipal service for which they pay property taxes, so why should they pay extra just to throw out an extra bag of trash? It seems to me to be a kind of magical thinking, in which what you pay in taxes is disconnected from the services you get.Calgary landfill

The city doesn’t create landfill space out of nothing. Landfills are expensive. Recycling is expensive. People who put more junk into the stream, whether it’s for landfilling or incineration or recycling or whatever, ought to pay more, and thereby face the true consequences of their retail decisions. I guarantee we’d see a lot less Styrofoam and a lot more compostable corn-based wrappers, really damned fast. And shortly thereafter, reduced pressure on the city budget, which would mean either tax cuts or money freed up for other things.

Yes, you could cheat, and the real jerks would because they always do, but some people you just can’t reach. Doesn’t mean you don’t try. And yet Ottawa’s previous mayor was first elected in part on a promise to do away with a tag-a-bag experiment, and followed right on through.

The photo above is of Calgary’s Spy Hill landfill,
taken by Flickr user D’Arcy Norman,
used under a Creative Commons Licence.

Ottawa’s pleaUpdate: At the stop where I catch the bus in the evenings, my city government has started pleading with me to do the right thing out of the goodness of my heart. The small print says: “Ottawa residents throw too many milk and juice cartons into their garbage. When tossed into the Blue Box, these cartons can be recyled into products like tissue and toilet paper. This helps us all by creating income for the City and saving landfill space. PLEASE DO YOUR PART. USE YOUR BLUE BOX.

Creates income for the city, eh? Not to be crass about it, but why can’t I have a taste, if only in reduced fees for doing the right thing?

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