Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Market Recovery Dilemma of Trash

What I am about to write, reminds me of something a friend whispered in my ear many years ago during a public meeting here in Durham, where I live, as the then-Mayor of another city took a personal “cheap shot” at me:

“Some people seem to think there is only room for one person at a time to stand on principle.”

Those of us who believe in the free market, as I do, and this usually includes other moderates, liberals and conservatives, but especially anyone who also denigrates government, must admit that as miraculous as the market is, it fails to account for many costs that are passed on to the public at large.

In fact, if the market did absorb what economists call externalities, we’d pay even less in taxes than we currently do, but we’d also pay much more for products and services and would most likely reap less in stock dividends.

Consider all that stuff we buy.  In fact, lets just take the 3% to 5% of waste created by that stuff, the portion that makes it into the world’s municipal waste stream and put aside industrial and hazardous waste such as what an aluminum company dumped into Badin Lake here in North Carolina (image shown in this blog) or the asbestos tailings used as fill under residential homes in Libby, Montana. Just two diverse examples.

For those of us who live in urban areas in the United States “that stuff” generates 4.43 pounds of municipal solid waste per person per year, according to data collected by the Environmental Protection Agency. That’s a full ton every 15 months.

That’s also 65% more per person than in 1960 when I made the seventh grade football practice squad for the famed Green Acres JH Cubs and 49% more than when I worked as a summer replacement on the back of a garbage truck one summer before college.  It is also 36% more than when I graduated from college in the early 1970s, but it is 3% less that when I moved to Durham in mid-1989 and 6% less than the fist year of this millennium.

According to Worldwatch Institute, a quarter of the world’s urban solid waste is now being “diverted into recycling, composting or digestion.”  In the US, recycling reached 34.1% in 2010, up more than 500% over 1960 and up 200% since the time I moved to Durham at the end of the 1980s.  Interestingly and coincidentally, 34% is about the same amount of Americans who recycle.

Today in the US, local governments are rerouting 85.1 million tons of trash back into the marketplace through recycling, including 96.2% of auto batteries, 71.6% of newspapers, 67% of steel cans, 57.5% of yard trimmings, 49.6% of aluminum beer and soda cans, 35.5% of tires, 33.4% of glass containers, 29.2% of plastic bottles.

This is a remarkable transformation, but in the US we still discard 54.2% of urban waste into landfills, many times more per capita than some other western, developed countries and we recycle far less than countries such as Switzerland.

Recycling is not only hampered by those who do not yet connect the dots.  It is hampered by the intermittent reliability of that same free market to accept back the waste it failed to account for in the beginning.

To learn more about the worldwide solid waste dilemma, click here for a report by the World Bank but remember that these stats are metric.

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