E. What Really Drives Source Reduction Mandates?

Pennsylvania has not allowed new landfills to be developed at a pace sufficient to handle the volumes of waste being generated. In response, Perkasie, a suburban Philadelphia borough, requires households to separate their garbage and provides both an economic incentive and an economic disincentive to make sure families do what is required. By imposing a per-bag fee for garbage collection, while simultaneously collecting materials which may be sold in secondary materials markets, the community tries to "compensate" households for participating. At the same time, families which fail to comply face heavy fines.

Borough Manager Paul A. Leonard claims that in imposing per-bag charges in concert with heavy fines for those who do not participate, the community is "letting Adam Smith lead the way." At the same time, Mr. Leonard puts a chill through consumer-products companies and plastics manufacturers when he argues "We're not going to let the big guys dump on us anymore. Why should we pay to dispose of trash that companies needlessly produce?" [64] At base, Mr. Leonard seems to be saying that if there was source reduction, he could stop having to be a garbage policeman.

It is abundantly clear that in Perkasie, as well as in other communities, source reduction is aimed at decreasing reliance on landfills or incineration. Recycling is aimed at decreasing reliance on landfills or incineration. Insisting that materials be biodegradable is aimed at extending the life of landfills by, presumably, allowing nature to create additional space where more may be dumped (i.e., as materials in a landfill biodegrade, nature gives us what amounts to a perpetual space-making machine.)

If this is a reasonable picture of what is driving the effort to ban or tax-away certain materials, the real "solid waste crisis" issue is the lack of landfill space.

Create more landfills or build more incinerators and the problem would take care of itself. If landfilling is considered to be environmentally unacceptable, build incinerators. If both landfills and incinerators are unacceptable, as many argue, there is always source reduction. If source reduction will not reduce waste sufficiently, recycling is the only option left.

Indeed, some have argued, recycling ought to be the first, if not the only, option. If something can't be recycled, it shouldn't be allowed to exist at all. If organic materials cannot be recycled, they should be composted. If that were not reason enough, there's another: "Recycle or Die". That's the way some "environmental activists" argued their case before Saginaw, Michigan officials in a hearing on that region's solid waste management plan. [65]