Saturday, December 15, 2007


Last weekend Jennifer and I went to the Sugarloaf Craft Festival, where among other things, we bought a couple of hats from an outfit called The Mouse Works. As we were cutting the tags off our purchases we noticed that as a result of the owner's efforts to be environmentally friendly, he generated just a single bag of garbage in 2004. Naturally, the first thing I wanted to know was, what was in that bag? Was there a single event sometime during the year that generated the unrecyclables, or did he accumulate them steadily over the course of the year? It seems strange to me that he was able to get so close to zero waste without reaching exactly zero. It's a bit like the fine-tuning problem in cosmology.

I think solid waste is a more serious problem than people realize, and certainly more serious than some environmental issues that get a lot more play in the media. Part of the problem here is that solid waste disposal is heavily subsidized in most places, so throwing stuff away is ridiculously cheap relative to the actual costs of operating a landfill. It's those rotten old negative externalities again.

We generate about a bag and a half of garbage per week, which seems pretty good relative to our neighborhood. I suspect there are quite a few things that we throw away that actually could be recycled, if only we knew the exact rules for what the recycling company will and will not take. As it is we only recycle the obvious cans, plastic, and glass. Maybe we should start experimenting. We also tend not to recycle things that would require extensive washing before we could put them in the bin. It's not obvious to me that running trash through the dishwasher so that we can recycle it is a net win, environmentally speaking.

As part of my research for this post I conducted an informal survey of our solid waste generation habits (i.e., I pawed through the trash until Jennifer told me to stop). The number one component seems to be junk mail. A lot of that could be recycled (and there is a lot more that we do recycle), but I was under the impression that glossy paper and envelopes with cellophane address windows don't recycle. Maybe it's time for a little experimentation at curbside pickup time. The other big component is packaging, mostly cardboard and cellophane. If we got rid of those two, then we could probably cut our trash output to 1/3 or 1/4 of what it is now.

Now, if you will excuse me, my wife tells me I have a year's worth of garbage (by mouse works standards) to take out.


Jeff said...

Do you know what the most depressing part? A majority of your paper recycling is packed up in a container, shipped back to China, and reprocessed there to make recycled packaging for products that are then shipped back to the United States. Which probably contain lead ;)

Robert said...

Depressing, perhaps, but less depressing than cutting down trees to make new paper for packaging for Chinese products being shipped to the US, or so I would think.

As a side note, I once heard that the supply of paper for recycling far exceeds the demand for recycled paper, and so much of the paper submitted for recycling gets dumped into landfills anyhow. Any idea whether that's true? If so, then it would seem that the most important thing consumers can do to reduce paper waste is not so much to recycle paper as to buy products made from recycled paper.

Piet Barber said...

In Switzerland, we pay for our garbage bags. If you want to throw something away (household trash, specifically), it will cost you something. These trash bags are not cheap -- about 10 bucks for 8 bags, each bag one of the 35 Liter variety (about your standard kitchen trash size).

Now that we have to pay for the privilege of trash, it's amazing how much more we recycle and compost.

We have also found out, the easy way, that if you violate the trash customs, you get a serious yellin-at by the neighbors.

Robert said...

They did that in Bloomington (IN), too, when I lived there, and my wife informs me that they did it in Binghamton (NY) as well. In Binghamton they even refined the practice to include a variety of sizes charged at different rates.

It seems like a reasonably good solution, provided that you don't make the cost so high that illegal dumping becomes prevalent. It makes me wonder why more places don't use similar schemes. Unpopular with residents, perhaps?