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How Personal Responsibility for Garbage Turned Me Greener
I’ve long debated with online and offline friends about the virtue and morality of liberty, often touting the wealth-generating effects of institutional respect for private property and rule of law. Over the past several years, however, another linkage has come into focus for me: personal responsibility. Of all the strange places for this to have developed, it was in regards to my perspective of garbage. Allow me to explain…
Having moved from rental apartments to co-operative living, buying rental properties, and eventually moving into my own house, my perspective of garbage has changed, and has made me realize more clearly the virtue of personal responsibility. Proponents of the Green movement take heed: my awareness of your values has come from a position of believing in capitalism, and I think your study of capitalism and personal responsibility will help you crystalize your understanding of your issue, and will further advance what should actually be your cause. This matter is a classic “tragedy of the commons” situation, but you’re focused on the ends rather than the means.
The majority of my tenants live in “affordable” apartments in a city which provides a lot of services, including trash pickup. Consequently, they don’t have to think much about it; they simply put out their trash in the designated locations and the city takes it away. It matters not to them whether their trash is reducible, recyclable, reusable, or not – they simply put it out and it vanishes. In fact, this city doesn’t have separate collection services for rubbish and recyclables, so it simply all gets placed in the same receptacles without tenants needing to give it any thought. I used to live in an affordable apartment in that same city, so I speak from experience.
Someday, should the city decide to institute recycling, the tenants won’t see it as an important step towards advancing economy and ecology; having come to expect personal irresponsibility as the norm, they will simply find it to be an annoyance. They will reluctantly struggle to separate different categories of what they previously regarded as undifferentiated garbage into multiple interim storage bins cluttering their cramped apartments. Looking at this from their narrow perspective, separating trash is someone else’s problem, and they will see no value in having it turned into their problem. Although the city may save money by instituting recycling, rents will not be reduced because taxes will not be reduced; this extra burden will simply be thrust upon them by decree, and without remuneration or other perceptible benefit.
The system works the same with their sewage. Whatever they flush down their toilets simply goes away, becoming someone else’s problem. This is true whether it is biological waste, or non-biodegradable material. It goes down the pipes and vanishes, never to be considered again. As a landlord, most of what they throw away or flush down their toilets falls into the same category for me, but occasionally, they attempt to dispose of things which cause problems. In fact, if you ask people why they do not invest in residential real estate, one of the most common answers is that they don’t want to deal with backed-up toilets at all hours of the day and night. I can confirm that there is some validity to this answer. Drains and sewers were never intended to process cooking grease, cloth wipes, women’s sanitary products, condoms, or steel wool pads. Even quantities of paper towels and toilet paper can eventually clog up a drain, and when a stoppage occurs, it is often impossible to determine which tenant(s) are at fault, so it becomes the landlord’s problem.
That which does pass through becomes someone else’s problem, although of course, the city’s costs in operating and maintaining its sewage processing systems does translate into tax costs for we property owners, and is passed on to our tenants in higher rents. Even for those of us who recognize this linkage, taking measures to mitigate such problems are merely expensive drops in the bucket when one considers one building’s tiny place in the socio-economic-political cosmos which is that city. The tragedy of the commons prevails, and tenants use the sewage system to dispose of whatever they can, rather than deal with it in a more economically- or ecologically-responsible manner.
Someone else’s problems also become my problems when my tenants attempt to dispose of things the city won’t collect. My city will not pick up building materials, for instance, so in my cost of apartment renovations, I must also factor the cost of privately disposing of the debris. My tenants don’t consider this, so if they perform any of their own renovations and leave their debris for pickup, it becomes my problem. More frequently, though, my tenants attempt to dispose of common bulk household items like furniture or CRT televisions. My city will only pickup one piece of bulk furniture per address per week, (and only on non-holiday weeks,) and they will only pick up a television by a special appointment, individually scheduled, weeks in advance. Tenants don’t care about these details, of course, so they will leave two old televisions and four pieces of a sectional couch out for pickup on whatever day their new furniture arrives, making it my problem. The city uses violation notices and fines to inspire me to the personal responsibility necessary to properly deal with this rubbish. It is that personal responsibility imposed upon property owners which makes them consider these things which tenants do not consider.
The idea of the “tragedy of the commons” stems from public grazing lands. When multiple ranchers share public grazing land, it is in the best economic interest of each of them to exploit the resource to exhaustion, so as to gain the most personal benefit from the shared cost of its maintenance. Privately-owned grazing lands are managed much more sustainably and economically by their owners. Similarly, being able to capriciously dispose of anything without regard for the cost of the disposal makes tenants use more than their fair share of the sanitation system. With costs disconnected from utilization, everyone exploits the system, so the costs simply escalate, which translates into higher taxes, which translates into higher rents. Not one in a hundred, however, would be able to trace back to their garbage disposal habits as a source of their rent increases, and it is admittedly a small effect on each of them, but when multiplied by the city’s 200,000 inhabitants, it becomes considerable.
Being in a different economic class than my tenants, I receive a proverbial carrot when I donate my used furniture or televisions to charity. Various not-for-profit organizations will come pick it up for free, and compensate me with a tax deduction for my contribution. Lower-income tenants taking the standard deduction on their tax returns and being able to make their disposals someone else’s problem get neither the carrot nor the stick, so they don’t care if someone else might be able to use their discards as hand-me-downs instead of turning them into landfill.
My home also has its own septic system rather than a sewer connection, so whatever I flush remains my problem until it either degrades or is pumped out manually – and of course, the more I flush inappropriate stuff, the more frequently I directly experience septic pumping expenses. Hitting someone in the wallet for their own irresponsibility is a terrific way to make them see a better path.
I first began to come around to this realization when I was on a cruise ship. I had seen the placard in my cabin’s bathroom asking me to help save the planet by conserving water. Later, taking a galley tour, they explained that they have onboard desalinization systems which convert seawater to potable water. Well, if they could make all the potable water they wanted, how was my conservation of it going to help save the planet? Hotels do this, too – they ask you to voluntarily reuse your towels and sheets rather than expect them to be replaced (and washed) daily, but surely, hotel washing machines are connected to the same seemingly-endless supply of water as that of a tenant’s apartment, no? Perhaps I was slow on the uptake, but it took me time to realize that the desalinization systems require energy to operate, so conserving water conserved energy, and of course, conserving energy saves money. The city’s water treatment plants also require energy to operate, so the more water tenant’s use, the more the city bills the landlord for the utilization. It takes the recognition of a lot of linkages to realize that running the tap on a cruise ship eventually translates to higher cruise fares. I wish I were the only idiot who took a while to see this, but when I saw one of my tenants defrosting a roast in her sink by running hot tap water over it, I realized the flaw in the system. She had no inkling of the connection between my fuel and water bills and her rent.
For the Green folks still reading, this is where capitalism comes into it. You’re predominantly trying to get government to make us Green rather than free us to make better decisions, ourselves. All other factors being equal, those cruise lines which are better able to inspire their passengers to conserve water will operate at a lower cost than those which don’t. With those savings, they will be able to offer their cruises at a lower fare or with more amenities, and will garner more market share and earn more profit. Over time, cruise lines which operate inefficiently, uneconomically, and anti-ecologically will be unable to compete, and will either change their ways or fail. Efficiency, economics, and the ecology are all linked, and the enemy is the tragedy-of-the-commons situation which is created when these things are separated. Doing so allows disrespect for the environment to be profitable. It makes inefficiency an externality (i.e., someone else’s problem). It permits uneconomical enterprises to survive by spreading their costs on unsuspecting masses, for each of whom the tiny proportion of the cost is imperceptible. Let this sink in and crystalize: common property is your proper enemy. When government provides a service like trash collection, without regard for the content or quantity of garbage, it becomes abused. When whatever drains down a pipe becomes someone else’s problem, people will flush all sorts of environmentally-thoughtless things. When landlords provide free, unmetered water to tenants, it is bound to be wasted, and in the case of hot water, the energy will be wasted, as well.
In one regard, the US Postal Service actually does what I’m suggesting: business mail. When you drop a stamped first class letter into a mailbox, it requires a number of steps to get from there to the addressee, and for the price of the stamp, you’re asking the Postal Service to perform all of those steps for you. However, the more of those steps business mailers are willing to do, the more savings they can reap. Mail sorted and separated by the first three digits of the Zip codes gets a small discount because those entire trays of mail avoid some of the local processing and are simply delivered to the centers which handle those geographic areas. Sorting and separating by five-digit Zip codes gets a larger discount by skipping another level of processing. If you sort mail down to the delivery point, you’re effectively doing most of the work for the Postal Service, short of putting it in the recipient’s box, so you get an even larger discount. What if trash were handled this way? Instead of a tax-funded one-size-fits-all solution, what if property owners were free to make their own decisions on the matter? They could decide for themselves whether they wanted the discount of separating their trash, or whether they wanted to pay to delegate that to a disposal company. Savings – and freedom of choice – could be passed on to tenants, too; a tenant opting for the lower rent of a trash-separating building could be obligated in his lease to separate trash, else be in default, facing penalties or eviction. Those tenants could separate their own trash, assign it to their kids as chores, or hire a maid to do it. Conversely, a tenant who didn’t want to deal with trash separation could delegate that to someone else by paying the higher rent of a building which took care of it for them. Next, that building would be free to employ its own trash separators, if economical, or could simply pay the higher fee to have its trash picked up by a company which took care of separation for them. In turn, those haulers would be free to hire their own trash separators or could pay more to transfer stations to take care of it. Transfer stations would be free to hire their own separators or could pay more to dumps to take care of it. Finally, dumps would be free to decide which material was worth separating for resale, and which most appropriate to simply bury or incinerate.
Choice, rather than force, is the way forward. Forcing car manufacturers to conform to ridiculous environmental standards made cars small, weak, and expensive… and drove consumers to instead buy minivans and SUVs, neither of which were required to meet those standards; choice would have allowed manufacturers to produce something in the middle for people who wanted more room or more metal between them and the other drivers, without pushing buyers completely out of the category of “car.” Forcing unwilling people to separate their trash makes them minimally comply, resulting in otherwise-recyclable glass, plastic, and metal being contaminated with food waste, often disqualifying entire loads; choice would allow disinterested people to dispose of their otherwise-recyclables without as much risk of contaminating the properly-separated recyclables of compliant volunteers. Choice coupled with assigning people the costs of the various options will encourage them to make better decisions.
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