Landfill

The Garbage Crisis in America

What do you call a system that charges people the same amount for a product whether they use it sparingly or wastefully, creates outcomes that run counter to the objectives of the people in charge of it, and is built in a way that actually encourages people to be wasteful?

You call that system garbage.

Yes, garbage in America is a broken system. It’s rife with perverse incentives that lead to waste of both municipal finances and environmental resources. The flat fees that most people pay to have their trash hauled away leave them with little reason to redirect some of their trash into more productive uses such as recycling and composting. Throwing away more than we need to means higher costs for towns and cities in the form of tipping fees, which can be a large component of municipal budgets. And the environmental cost of throwing away too much is also extraordinarily high, with air pollution from greenhouse gases and incinerator ash, and soil and water pollution from chemical leachate.

Amid all those mixed-up incentives, it hardly comes as a surprise that Americans are increasing the amount of waste we generate at the same time that the number of landfills has dropped dramatically.

Garbage-Crisis

That increasing gap between the amount of trash we’re creating and the number of places where we can throw it away is the problem. And simple economics—the laws of supply and demand—dictate that the price of disposal goes up when trash volume increases while landfill and incinerator space doesn’t. In the past three decades, the consumer price index for waste disposal has risen at twice the rate of the overall economy. Amid all those mixed-up incentives, it hardly comes as a surprise that Americans are increasing the amount of waste we generate at the same time that the number of landfills has dropped dramatically.

The garbage crisis is real, and it’s serious, and it won’t go away by itself. But there is a solution: pay-as-you-throw—by far the best possible way to quickly and easily bring those lines closer together again. PAYT can help solve the garbage crisis because it fixes the incentives problem in solid waste. By making people aware of the cost of their garbage, PAYT rewards people for sending less garbage to landfills and incinerators. When they do that, the garbage system behaves more like the utility that it is—saving towns and cities precious budget dollars and helping preserve and protect environmental resources.

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