Private firms operating in competitive markets supply goods which people want at prices people are willing to pay not by accident, but by paying careful attention to the choice of materials and production techniques which minimize production costs. The fact that most people take this for granted is both a blessing and a curse. It's a blessing because we don't have to think a lot about it. It's a curse because, not having to think a lot about it, we tend to forget that the same forces which generate goods and, residually, the waste which derive from discarded goods, can also operate to manage the disposal of wastes.

Private firms collect most of the garbage in America because experience has shown that private firms are far more cost efficient at collecting garbage than governments. The rates charged for private garbage collection will, provided there are no governmentally imposed barriers to entry, reflect the real value of the resources absorbed in providing this service. That's as it should be. Garbage collection has for too long been an "invisible" service: people put the stuff out and someone comes and takes it away. If that "someone" is a city or county government sanitation department, the cost of that department is covered in the household's tax bill. No direct relation is established between the number of garbage bags or cans put out for collection and the real cost of collection. [141]

In the same way, private firms can and do operate landfills more efficiently than do governments. Moreover, private landfill operators are compelled to operate landfills in ways which minimize landfill operating costs. Strict observance of all relevant environmental laws which apply to the operation of a landfill is cost-minimizing behavior. No private firm which has invested the large sums required to open and operate a modern landfill will ever knowingly allow that landfill to face the risk of closure by state or federal environmental authorities. Therefore, private landfills are comparatively easier for government environmental officials to monitor since the legal threat of closure is so compelling from the perspective of the private operator. [142]

Even recycling is best handled by private firms. Firms which have worked in secondary materials markets, sometimes for several generations, are knowledgeable brokers of secondary materials. They understand both sides of the demand-limited and supply-limited character of secondary materials markets and are equipped to discover new – often overseas – markets for materials which may not currently be in demand domestically. When Adam Smith observed in his 1776 Wealth of Nations that the division of labor was limited by the extent of the market, he was telling both his contemporaries and future generations that expanded markets are essential to economic efficiency. (In using the word "markets" throughout this section I am revealing my economist's hard heart. While it may be true that recycling is the only thing which can "save the planet" – and I don't believe that is actually the case – absent real markets for secondary materials, all the things the pure-in-heart may bring to a recycling center, or may by law be compelled to prepare for curb-side collection, will be spirited away to a landfill or incinerator in the dead-of-night if there are no final markets for these materials.)

With regard to incineration, Michigan's Morbark Industries' waste-to-energy gasifier reveals that private sector entrepreneurs can offer economically superior alternatives in what may prove to be the most expensive component of MSW management.

As legislation is being considered in the Michigan State Legislature to tax some products and subsidize others to reduce reliance on landfills and stimulate recycling, several things about waste disposal techniques need to be reviewed.

For one thing, one ought to recognize that neither our current pattern of waste disposal nor proposals for altering that pattern are new. The University of Arizona's William Rathje notes that throughout human history, every culture which archaeological research has been able to uncover shows us that humans have always recycled, burned, dumped or tried to minimize their waste. [143] Therefore, to suggest, as EPA does, that doing all these things through a managed, comprehensive, and "complimentary" [144] hierarchy of waste management methods is something quite new is simply not true.

That fact that everything which is now being offered as the "best" way to address the Michigan solid waste problem has been done before (landfilling, recycling, source reduction, burning) tells us something we would do well to acknowledge before we move too quickly to alter the pattern of economic signals which currently moves the economy: the four elements of EPA's waste management hierarchy are not, as EPA claims, "complimentary". They are competitive. If they were truly complimentary and if the market were poised to welcome these procedures, all these elements would have already been done.

It's time to take a look at the various legislative proposals and currently enacted laws which have been offered at both the state and local level to manage Michigan's solid waste.