Gus Speth’s column (“How to respond to this crisis,” Feb. 11) rightly encourages us to work toward a sustainable future in spite of the deep economic crisis. Given the budget crises that many municipalities face, now seems to be an inopportune time to make significant improvements. But what if we could improve by cutting back instead of doing more? Is this even possible?
Indeed, it is. After much debate, the Concord, N.H., City Council voted last Monday to impose a volume-based garbage disposal program. Beginning July 1, residents will be required to dispose of non-recyclable waste by using 30-gallon government-sponsored trash bags that cost two dollars each.
The proposal kills three birds with one stone. By putting a price on the amount of un-recyclable trash (recyclables will still be collected free of charge), residents have incentives to recycle as well as to think twice before throwing things away; additionally, the trash bag revenues will cut the city’s $2.5 million budget deficit by 40 percent.
This is a great idea and one that the city of New Haven should adopt in support of a municipal-level movement for higher awareness of waste and recycling. We Americans have lived for too long in a society in which no thought is given to the sheer amount of waste that is produced. Indeed, we are addicted to consuming and disposing: the United States produces almost 800 kilograms per capita per year of municipal waste, almost double and quadruple that of Japan and Poland, respectively.
Similarly, the time has come for us to realize that disposing of waste is not a costless process. Whether through incinerators or landfills, the waste we throw out is picked up — and paid for — by someone. Thus, this pay-as-you-throw proposal is not simply about levying a fee on garbage bags to create revenue to fund waste management; more than anything, it is a way to stimulate a change in attitudes towards wast by internalizing previously external disposal costs.
Before the critics jump in, let it be known: Radically changing behavior toward waste and recycling is neither unfeasible nor outrageous. In the 1970s, the city of Tokyo was burning and dumping so much trash that officials predicted failure in the waste disposal system. At that crisis point, the city instituted a recycling program. Today, Tokyo is one of the most efficient and environmentally conscious recycling communities in the world.
As a long-time former resident of the city, I offer an anecdote that demonstrates how quickly mind-sets can change. One day, a family from Chicago moved into the house next to my family’s. Unaware of the (demanding) recycling regulations of our ward, they placed unsorted bags of trash out for pickup. That evening the family came running to us thinking that hoodlums had pranked them — their trash bags were back on their porch. What was the explanation? Upset locals had returned their unsorted trash. My mother explained to them how recycling was done in our ward. After this instance of positive social pressure, these formerly prolific waste generators became conscientious model recyclers.
In other words, we might now scoff at the idea of changing our behavior in such a great way, but it is clear that, with a nudge, attitudes toward waste can change for the better.
There is obviously a number of issues related to implementation of this program. And one can argue, justifiably, that the program will affect certain groups disproportionately. But the sheer importance of changing our environmental mind-set should override the minor logistical concerns that may arise.
Furthermore, this proposal will receive ample criticism from libertarians and economists: “How could you possibly incentivize cutting back on consumption at such a critical time, when we need people to consume? This proposal will stifle our economic recovery!”
This program will certainly reduce incentives to consume. But the decrease in consumption will occur at the margin. That is, this program will not affect people’s consumption patterns of basic necessities. Instead, people will think twice before buying products that use unnecessary packaging or are superfluous in themselves.
In other words, this type of program is, in fact, good for the economy. By reducing excess consumption, households will be able to reduce their debt loads. Given that we live in a nation whose private-sector debt totals $41 trillion (294 percent of our GDP), this makes perfect sense. Indeed, if there is anything that we’ve learned from this economic crisis, it is that we have to stop living beyond our means.
Just as the financial meltdown on Wall Street has reset our nation’s moral compass, we now have an opportunity to reset our environmental compass. Changing the incentives behind certain behaviors will be easier at a crisis point like today.
In short, I’m imagining the Elm City, the rest of the United States and the world as they should be: environmentally conscious. It’s possible.
Wookie Kim is a senior in Ezra Stiles College.