All Commentary
Saturday, June 1, 1991

What Garbage Crisis?

Charles W. Baird is a professor of economics at California State University, Hayward, California. This article was written in association with the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment, Seattle, Washington.

Last November, several state-wide environmental initiatives—most notably California’s $12 billion “Big Green” and a $2 billion New York bond issue for land acquisition, dump closures, and recycling subsidies—failed to pass. Big Green was defeated by a 2-to-1 margin. The then-emerging economic recession has been given most of the credit, or blame, for these outcomes, but there is more to it than that.

The general public is, at long last, beginning to take a more cautious, critical attitude toward the claims of the environmental establishment. Environmental values are still important to the electorate, but so too are other values such as common sense, individual freedom, property rights, jobs, and economic well-being. Moreover, the general public is beginning to recognize that much environmental hectoring consists of gross exaggerations and sometimes, as in the case of Big Green, directly contradicts elementary scientific principles as well as readily available evidence.

For example, the advocates of Big Green overstated the risks of pesticides on fruits and vegetables by 2,600 to 21,000 times. If they had won, produce grown outside of California that didn’t meet Big Green’s pesticide standards could not have been sold there, and the prices of California produce would have risen dramatically. Most physicians agree that eating fresh fruits and vegetables is a good way to reduce the incidence of cancer in the digestive system. As University of California biochemist Bruce Ames has pointed out, if Big Green had passed, Californians would have eaten fewer fresh fruits and vegetables and therefore would have increased their risk of getting cancer.

Environmental extremism has become the principal means by which many collectivists hope to achieve their dream of a thoroughly regulated, controlled, and planned economy. The Red Star is burned out, but the Green Star is rising.

A Quasi-Religion

Consider, for example, the alleged garbage crisis. This year, Congress must decide whether to reauthorize the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which is the principal Federal waste disposal law. There is no doubt that Congress will indeed reauthorize this act, and, if the Green Lobby has its way, the law will be substantially strengthened. For example, recycling, regardless of whether it is cost efficient, will be made mandatory for everyone throughout the country.

Environmentalists have already done substantial propagandistic groundwork. For example, recent TV pictures of garbage-ladened barges in search of a dumping place were skillfully used by the Greens to suggest that the U.S. is about to drown in municipal solid waste unless we sinful, profligate American consumers reduce our wasteful consumption and take the recycling pledge.

And sin is what they have in mind. For many environmentalists, pantheism has replaced belief in a transcendent God who grants human beings dominion over the earth and all its creatures. This new (actually it has ancient roots) “earth womb” religion comes complete with its own creed.

One of its most important doctrines is the recycling of municipal solid waste. Landfill sites, the litany goes, are scarce, and, in any case, they are hazardous. Incineration, the litany continues, is unthinkable because of the resulting air pollution and the dangerous content of much of the resulting ash. There are, the litany goes on, only two legitimate acts of contrition—recycling and less consumption. The litany ends with “Go in peace, and abstain from plastics. Thanks be to Mother Earth.”


There is no shortage of geologically safe, potential landfill sites in the United States. Japan, a land-poor country, has 2,400 operational sites. In the land-rich U.S., there are only 4,800. While it is true that one-half of existing landfills are due to close in five years, that is always the case—landfills are designed to stay open, on average, only 10 years.

State-of-the-art landfill technology makes it possible for all new sites to be environmentally safe and people-friendly. There are vast, empty regions in the West and Southwest that aren’t used by anyone for any purpose that could be developed into environmentally safe landfills. Only politics and pantheism stand in the way of common sense.

Private landfill owners have strong economic incentives to use liners, install leachate and methane gas collection systems, and include groundwater monitoring systems. It is only on government-owned landfills that scant attention is paid to such amenities. The reason is simple—private owners are liable for the damages they create, and government operators are not.

Similarly, it is in the interests of private owners to charge fees that reflect the full costs of collection and disposal, which include landfill closure and post-closure maintenance costs. Such fees will be different for different kinds of waste. Individuals and businesses can make rational choices about the composition and quantities of what they dump only if disposal fees embody the true costs of that activity. Municipal disposal fees, politically set, areusually uniform for all kinds of waste, and they typically cover only current operating expenses. This encourages over-dumping and lack of attention to the composition of the waste.

Moreover, dosed landfills don’t have to be dead land. Housing developments, golf courses, and conference centers are only three types of already successful post-closure landfill uses.

The way to overcome the alleged shortage of landfill sites is to get politics out of the way. All existing landfills should be privatized, and government should get out of the landfill business.

The proper role of government in this matter is judicial. If courts held private landfill operators strictly liable for the real harms they impose on others, the operators would internalize those costs and make appropriate decisions thereon. To overcome the not-in-my-back-yard (NIMBY) attitude of most people toward landfill siting, operators would have to offer compensation to people whose property would be in close proximity to landfills. Thus residential and commercial sites that have already been developed would be avoided. lncineration

State-of-the-art incineration technology makes it possible for new combustor sites to be constructed and operated that would be environmentally safe and people-friendly. According to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, “The technology exists to carry out, monitor, and control the processes of incineration of municipal solid waste (inclusive of ash residue management) in such a way as to completely ensure that potentially harmful con stituents are not expected to pose risks to humans and/or the environment which would normally be of regulatory concern.”

We incinerate only 14 percent of our municipal solid waste, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set a target of 20 percent for 1992. In contrast, Japan safely incinerates over 60 percent of its waste. Air pollution from incineration is no longer a problem. Even much of the resulting ash can be put to good use—in secondary road construction, for example. The rest can be safely landfilled. If we incinerated at the same rate as the Japanese, we would cut our need for landfill space by almost half. Only the irrational opposition of environmental zealots and the NIMBY phenomenon prevent us from siting, constructing, and operating sufficient new incinerator facilities. Just as with landfill siting, NIMBY can be overcome with offers of compensation. Prudent choice of incinerator sites would minimize the compensation bill.

Furthermore, the energy released through incineration can be converted to electricity. Waste-to-energy incineration would reduce our consumption of nonrenewable fossil fuels in electricity generation. About 40 percent of landfill waste is paper and paper products. Paper is a renewable resource. If we incinerated the paper we now send to landfills we would ameliorate two problems with one stroke.

The state of Maine has moved toward prohibiting private ownership of new incinerators, but rational public policy dictates just the opposite. If private owners are held liable for the damages they cause, and if government sets standards while monitoring private operators for compliance, we will have safe and effective incineration. If government agencies operate incinerators, less care will be taken. The reason, again, is simple—private owners have their own wealth at stake, government operators do not.


Recycling is not what it is cracked up to be. While it makes economic sense to recycle some things, especially aluminum and ferrous metals, recycling other things, such as most paper, does not. There are already more stored old newspapers waiting to be recycled than the demand for recycled paper can absorb. Much recycled paper is too poor in quality to be used effectively in printing. The bleaches used to de-ink paper during recycling are toxic and present their own environmental problems. Moreover, most paper comes from trees specifically planted for that purpose. If the demand for new paper is reduced by forced recycling, fewer such trees will be planted. Recycling of paper can be anti-green.

The irrational attachment of EPA bureaucrats to recycling was illustrated by their proposal last December that all municipal waste incinerators be required to recycle 25 percent of the trash they received for burning, notwithstanding any considerations of the cost and benefits of doing so. Fortunately the Vice President’s Competitiveness Council quashed that regulation before it took effect.

The best way to get people to be careful about what they discard is to charge them by-the-can or by-weight garbage collection fees based on the composition of what is discarded. The city of Seattle has set a target of recycling 60 percent of its trash by 1998. Its current recycling rate is 37 percent, the highest in the nation Seattle’s “pay as you throw” system imposes differential disposal fees for various kinds of waste based upon their disposal costs. Seattle adopted its program as an alternative to the construction of a large incinerator facility. Although its municipal solid waste disposal problem has been ameliorated by this sensible pricing policy, recycling alone will not suffice. The 60 percent target is unattainable without large subsidies. Sooner or later the citizens of Seattle will have to reconsider the incineration alternative.

Thirty-nine percent of American cities don’t charge for garbage collection. Of those that do charge, half impose flat fees that are unrelated to the amount and kind of garbage collected. Thus about two-thirds of American cities provide no direct incentive for households to consider the costs of their garbage disposal decisions. If recycling must be done, the implementation of differential fees based on the separation or non-separation of recyclables and the characteristics of what is discarded is the best way to accomplish the task. Direct command regulations enforced by garbage police and neighborhood monitors should be anathema to Americans. Worse yet is the real danger that school children will be encouraged by their environmentally conscious teachers to become garbage police deputies at home as they try to instruct their parents in environmentally correct thinking and acting.


“Plastics” is not a four-letter word. McDonald’s recent capitulation to the environmental establishment on the use of polystyrene foam containers was an act of infamy. It is testimony to the power of the environmental priesthood that McDonald’s felt it had to take this public-relations step to defend its goodwill capital. Ironically, McDonald’s switched from paper to plastic in the 1970s at the behest of environmentalists who were then concerned about excessive harvesting of trees.

Styrofoam is clearly superior to paper in hot food and drink containers. Moreover, plastics are just as recyclable as paper. Almost 200 companies are in the business of recycling plastic food containers, milk containers, bottles, knives, and forks into such products as carpet backing, paint brushes, scouring pads, appliance handles, floor tiles, automotive parts, and fiberfill for pillows, sleeping bags, and ski jackets. High density polyethylene plastic is recycled into such things as traffic cones, trash cans, and plastic lumber.

Plastic takes up less landfill space per comparable item than does paper and, unlike paper, plastic will not decompose and produce leachate that could find its way into groundwater. Polystyrene foam makes up only one-quarter of 1 percent of landfilled waste, and all plastics make up only 8 percent. Paper, in contrast, constitutes 40 percent. Moreover, plastics, just like paper, can be safely incinerated. There are simply no grounds for the widespread plastiphobia that the environmental zealots have created.

The Aseptic Package

Many environmentalists seem to fear and loathe any kind of technological innovation irrespective of its environmental impact. The aseptic package is an excellent case in point.

An aseptic drink box, for example, can store fruit juices for extended periods without refrigeration or chemical preservatives. These boxes, in single-serving sizes, are sold in most supermarkets across the country. They have become popular with consumers who wish to include such beverages with packed lunches at school or work. They are unbreakable, light in weight, use less material than any other packaging alternatives including those that require refrigeration and chemical preservatives, are energy efficient in production, and have the lowest environmental impact of any alternative single-serve package on the market.

Notwithstanding the fact that in 1989 the Institute of Food Technologists voted aseptic packaging to be “the outstanding food processing technology of the last 50 years,” the state of Maine, in that same year, at the behest of environmentalists as well as producers of alternative packaging, banned it. The ostensible reason was that since aseptic packaging takes more packages to hold the same volume of product as a larger package of a different type, aseptic packaging increases the amount of discarded waste.

But this is a non sequitur. For any volume of product, the total amount of packaging material required by aseptic packaging is less than that used by any alternative. It takes more separate boxes, but all those boxes together require less material than one larger package of a different type that could hold the same volume of product. Maine’s action cannot be defended on rational grounds. It was decision-making on the basis of misinformation, superstition, and ignorance.

We should forsake the environmental priesthood and adopt an integrated approach to municipal solid waste management. Such an approach would include sensible landfilling and incineration along with recycling and prudent packaging decisions, all based on cost-benefit comparisons. If we adopt that strategy, the “garbage crisis” of the 1990s will be seen to be as chimerical as the “energy crisis” of the 1970s, and for the same reason. Both were caused by faulty government policy. The cure is simple: discard counterproductive government interventions, privatize, get the prices right, and allow individuals, guided by those prices, to make their own choices. 

1.   Warren Brookes, Revenge of the Killer Watermelon. California’s Big Green Initiative (San Francisco: Pacific Research Institute, July 26,1990), p. 5.

2.   Bruce N. Ames, oral discussion of “Misconceptions About Environmental Pollution and Cancer,” paper presented at the General Meeting of The Mont Pelerin Society, Munich, Germany, September 3,1990.

3.   Robert James Bidinotto, “Environmentalism: Freedom’s Foe for the ‘90s,” The Freeman, November 1990, pp. 409420.

4.   Incineration of Municipal Solid Waste: Scientific and Technical Evaluation of the State-of-the-Art (Washington. D.C.: U.S. Conference of Mayors, February 1,1990), p. 8.

5.   Kenneth Chilton, Talking Trash.’ Municipal Solid Waste Management (St. Louis: Center for the Study of American Business, Washington University, September 1990), pp. 9-12.

6.   Lynn Scarlett. “Integrated Waste Management: A Primer on Solid Waste Problems and Policy Options,” paper presented at Integrated Waste Management Systems: A Seminar for Academies, by the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment, Seattle, Washington, November 24,1990. p. 13.

7.   Chilton, op. cit., p. 12.

8.   Scarlett, op. cit., p. 5.

9.   Characterization of Municipal Solid Waste in the United States:. 1990 Update (Washington, D.C.: Environmental Protection Agency, June 1990), p. 10.

10.   This section is based on Harry Teasly, Jr., President and CEO of Coca-Cola Foods, “Presentation on Aseptic Package to Maine Waste Management Agency.” October 9, 1990

  • Charles Baird is a professor of economics emeritus at California State University at East Bay.

    He specializes in the law and economics of labor relations, a subject on which he has published several articles in refereed journals and numerous shorter pieces with FEE.