Mixing Government and Garbage

We now know two things about the garbage virus: it can infect the mind and it's non-partisan. The symptoms include an overwhelming urge to substitute government for the marketplace in managing solid waste disposal.

When it first appeared in Washington, it seemed to work its mischief only on Democrats. Sen. Max Baucus (D-Montana) and Rep. Al Swift (D-Washington), for example, have been pushing legislation which would dictate the way every community in the nation manages solid waste. If they get what they want, America's waste-management economy will look more and more like that engine of efficiency we once called the Soviet Union.

Now the garbage virus has infected Republicans too, right here in Michigan. The Michigan House Republican Policy Committee Task Force on Recycling and Waste Reduction recently offered a series of legislative proposals to solve what its chairman, Rep. Michael Nye (R-Litchfield), and his associates think is the problem: that "Michigan does not have a comprehensive policy regarding recycling and waste reduction."

The Republican Task Force wants done at the state level what Baucus and Swift want done at the national level: the complete politicization of waste management and the creation of what is nothing more than a series of socialist "solutions" to problems that would not exist if the state wasn't already involved in making it difficult for market forces to manage solid waste.

Virtually every proposal contained in the Nye Committee report is the product of either special interest pleading for taxpayer subsidies of dubious programs, or a serious failure to understand what waste is, how it evolves, and how markets can manage it without political direction.

The report begins with the assertion that no further study is needed. It suggests that it is not really necessary to know the facts and the economics of the issue, only that action be taken for government to "control the reduction of our waste stream."

While the report acknowledges that the cost of implementing the controls it recommends will be higher than the cost of leaving waste management to pure market forces, it asserts that economic costs really don't matter because "Despite the costs, the Task Force believes the price we will pay as a society will bring about a cleaner and healthier environment."

Is that really true, or just wishful thinking? The largest and most expansive study ever done on waste management costs (The California Tellus Institute Report, 1990) was done to promote what the Michigan House Republicans want: state-mandated recycling. Its conclusion? When all costs are fully accounted, including rigorous analysis of likely environmental costs of different waste management systems, widespread curbside recycling programs were 60 percent to 81 percent more costly compared to disposal in modern landfills and more dangerous for the environment.

A 1991 Mackinac Center report on waste management (Managing the Michigan Solid Waste Stream: Markets or Mandates?) found no place in America where government mandates for waste management did not result in a net loss of scarce economic resources. With regard to recycling, we argued decisively that markets will recycle materials from the waste stream when it makes sense and not before.

Furthermore, we noted that in some areas of a given state, market forces will move materials from the waste stream and into secondary materials markets while in other parts of the same state these materials will be better disposed of in different ways. We noted the ways the market has evolved to reduce the volume of waste through new forms of packaging, and the ways the market has evolved to bury, burn, and compost while reducing cost and protecting the environment.

In all these cases, government mandates have contributed little that's positive and much that's detrimental. Indeed, most mandates, such as those proposed by the Nye Committee, have tended to work against market forces to complicate what is, at bottom, an uncomplicated issue. A simplistic "one size fits all" approach may be appealing to some politicians, but it seldom makes for good public policy.

The garbage virus is powerful, but there's a cure. It's called common sense and sound economics--things the Nye Committee report lacks.