Problem or Opportunity?
OCTOBER 01, 1969 by CLARENCE B. CARSON
Dr. Carson is Professor of History at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. Books by him include The Fateful Turn, The American Tradition, and The Flight from Reality, originally serialized in The Freeman.
The disposal of trash, garbage, and refuse is becoming a major problem, it seems. The feature page of one Sunday newspaper described the matter with this frightening headline:
“Will Our Garbage Bury Us?”
Indeed, newspapers and magazines have been devoting increasing amounts of space to the situation. We are told that policemen are having to allot more and more time to disposing of abandoned automobiles. In some states, trucks used to pick up refuse carelessly thrown out by motorists bear legends as to how much this costs the taxpayers each year.
Many cities are running out of places to dump garbage. The countryside is dotted with automobile graveyards. The problem has come to national attention; in 1965 Congress passed a Solid Waste Disposal Act. A move is afoot to increase the appropriation for this activity. Something must be done, we are told, else we shall founder and sink in our own waste.
Whether a given situation constitutes a problem or an opportunity is a nice question. Is a given material a waste or a resource? Trees were once a great obstacle to the utilization of land for farming in the eastern part of North America. They were cut down, rolled into position so that they could be piled up, then burned. They were refused, hence, refuse. Today, of course, trees are reckoned to be a great resource, are planted, sometimes fertilized, and intentionally grown. Nor is time the only factor in changing problems into opportunities (or vice versa) or wastes into resources. Of even greater importance is who is viewing the task or material and what object he has in view. This principle can be readily illustrated.
When government undertakes to perform a task, it quickly becomes a problem. When private business undertakes to perform a task, it is seen as, and is, an opportunity. For example, I cannot recall having seen an article on the problem of making automobiles. Indeed, the basic problem of constructing an automobile was long since solved, and men labored at it not as a public problem but as an opportunity. Yet, disposing of old automobiles (a simpler task basically than constructing new ones) is now described as a major problem. In large, this is true because government increasingly monopolizes the disposal industry (though this does not begin to tell us why government forecloses opportunity and raises problems). Disposing of wrecked or old automobiles was once a great opportunity for private business, but it is becoming a problem for politicians and looms as a burden for taxpayers. Numerous other examples come to mind of this principle. Providing transportation in cities was once a great opportunity for private entrepreneurs; it led to such fabulous successes as the private building of the New York subway system. But since governments have entered more and more into transportation (particularly within cities), it has ceased being an opportunity and become a series of monumental problems for cities. The post office is a perennial problem. Airports, since they are heavily subsidized by governments, are described as problems. So it goes with many other tasks. What is waste or what is resource depends almost entirely upon how it is viewed. A private entrepreneur will tend to view all material in the light of its potential use—he can profit by utilizing it. Governments, on the other hand, may be inundated by waste, for they do not recognize profit as a measure of public demand.
Back on the Farm
How did the refuse problem come about in America? It was not always so. When I was a boy growing up on the farm, we had no waste disposal problem worth discussing. Indeed, we had very little that could be classified as waste. Leftover food was carefully saved to be fed to the hogs. Worn out metal objects were saved—kept in a pile—against the day the junkman came around so that they could be sold. Buckets, cans, and jars had many potential uses once they were emptied of their original content. Sacks could not only be used as containers for produce, but also were a source of cloth. Animal wastes were returned to the soil. Any large object was apt to contain lumber or other scraps which could be used in future construction. Hardly anything then could be called waste.
I am aware, of course, that times have changed, that it is no longer economical to use labor in ways that were even then becoming marginal. Specialization has proceeded apace so that it now may be cheaper for a carpenter to use another nail than to retrieve one he has dropped. Containers and products have poured forth in bewildering shapes and varieties. Yet, as will be seen, this is just the point. Specialization has proceeded apace in production and distribution; it has declined and atrophied in the utilization of leftovers. Hence, the mountains of waste that are said to loom over us.
Two developments of import have occurred regarding leftovers. One is that manufacturers have ceased to give much thought to further uses for their container than the original one. That understates the case. They have devoted much energy to developing containers that can be thrown away after one use. Second, there has been a trend away from separated and segregated trash and garbage. "All the trash goes together," the sweeper used to say (when humor was not so sophisticated), as he approached someone in his way. What was once a jibe has become a fact in many towns and cities; garbage has become a potpourri of boxes, cans, coffee grounds, leftover food, papers, fourth class mail, and what not. Hence, its various elements are ruined for other use even before they reach the dump. The opposite of specialization has occurred. What was once potentially usable has been made waste by methods of storing and collection.
Government Garbage Collection
There are several interrelated reasons why this has come to pass, but the most direct one is this: Governments (city usually) entered the business of trash and garbage collection, in many cases establishing monopolies or near monopolies of this collection. Quite often, even if a citizen did not use the service, he would still have to pay. When governments took over trash collection, production and distribution were separated from disposal. A large rent occurred in the economic fabric. Private enterprise continued to produce and distribute (sell) goods, but these functions were no longer integrally related to further uses or disposal. Specialization has proceeded with great vigor in production and distribution. It is grinding to a halt in reuse of materials and their final disposition.
The reason for this is not far to seek. The disposal of leftovers was taken out of the economic realm and placed in the political. In the economic realm, leftovers offer an opportunity for further use and profit; in the political realm, leftovers are only a problem. Moreover, force had been introduced in the affair; one had to pay for the service whether he would or not, and was frequently denied alternatives. Not surprisingly, the citizen lost interest in separating and segregating his leftovers. After all, why should he bother with it? Why not lump it all together? This is what he did, when he could, and politicians began to acquiesce—in pursuit of votes.
The Cost of Labor
Another reason for the mounting waste is the cost of labor. There is no blinking the fact that it often takes considerable ingenuity and labor to reclaim materials from an earlier use for another one. There is the cost of collection, the labor of getting them ready for use, and the intelligent employment or reproduction for reuse. Almost any material sufficiently sturdy to be in the way could be put to some productive use. But costs may discourage this. The crucial factor here has been government interference in the labor market. This interference has been by way of minimum and union wages, compulsory education, partial exemptions from the draft for attending college, the subsidizing of idleness in old-age pensions, and so forth. Moreover, labor costs have been made more expensive to the employer because of required social security payments, by payments into the unemployment fund, by the cost of bookkeeping to keep up with all these, and by regulations on the use of labor. These costs explain, in part, why potential labor and various material resources are not utilized, hence, why they become waste.
There is a deeper dimension to the mounting piles of waste. They are mute indicators of the wasted lives among us; they are a much truer measure of the unemployment in America than the figures released by government agencies. This writer does not know, of course, how many people should or could be productively employed, or at what, but it is reasonable to suppose that some portion of them could render leftovers into goods, and would do so were they not subsidized in idleness.
The main reasons why the disposal of leftovers has become a problem, then, are these: government pre-emption of garbage collection, the consequent separation of production and distribution of goods from the disposal of leftovers, the decline in specialization in dealing with leftovers, the lumping of all "trash" together so as to render it unfit for further use, the changing of disposal from economic opportunity into political problem, and the pricing of labor out of the market which might deal more effectively with what is otherwise refuse.
The prognosis, given current conditions, is that the waste situation will continue to worsen. Looming ahead are probably government regulations on manufacturers and distributors as to materials to be used in dispensing their goods. When government undertakes to provide a service, it cannot be long before more force is applied to make the way of the user harder and the task of government easier. Already, labor unions have begun to perceive the diabolical possibilities for leverage from tying up garbage disposal in cities and towns. They have long realized the possibilities of hurting people by tying up production and distribution. The stopping of disposal may be even more potent. The concentration of this service because of government monopoly renders cities prostrate before their demands, or very nearly so.
Return the Responsibility to Individuals and Families
There is a way out of this mess which offers possibilities of better prospects. To put it in its simplest form, it is this, Return the responsibility for the disposal of leftovers to individuals and families. I am aware that this proposal, in its blunt and simple formulation, is unlikely to gladden many hearts. Many a housewife would throw up her hands in despair. As if she doesn’t have trouble enough already getting her husband to set out the garbage cans, now there is to be no pick-up service! Yet, such a reaction does not take into account the response of private enterprise and the market. I do not know all the myriad ways the market would respond, nor am I sure that in particulars I am right about a single one of them. After all, mine is only one mind, and many minds would be loosed by this change to provide solutions to the problem. Still, it is worth‑while to explore some of the possibilities.
One thing we may be sure of, however, is that the householder would not be left to his own devices to dispose of his leftovers once the responsibility became his. Indeed, the massive resources of private enterprise would be mustered to serve him as a customer.
Ingenuity might be expected to be devoted to producing containers that could be reused, could be returned, could be easily discarded, or some combination of these. If containers became of greater concern to consumers, existing and potential technology undoubtedly would be employed in this way.
One of the important changes that might be expected to occur if private enterprise took over responsibility for disposal from government is that positive incentives would be substituted for force and penalties in trash collection. It might still be appropriate for governments, in the interest of health and safety and for the protection of property, to make rules regarding the burning or disposal of trash, and to enforce these with penalties. But private enterprise would try to attract its customers to dispose of their waste in helpful ways.
One of the possibilities is that stores might become collection centers for many items that otherwise become debris, especially if the stores and customers could see a way to profit in the process. Stores are patrons of manufacturers. Manufacturers might be expected to give attention to making their packages reclaimable. It is this function that has been neglected because of the present arrangements. Delivery trucks, which otherwise return empty from their rounds, could be used to return the containers to collection points for reprocessing plants.
A Specialized Service
What is being discussed is, in the broadest terms, the restoration of specialization to disposal of leftovers. If restrictions on the use of labor and other resources were removed, a great deal of specialization might be expected to develop in the collection of what is now refuse. Many of these leftovers have potentialities for reuse as matters now stand: edible scraps, fats, metals, bottles, paper, rags, and the like. There would undoubtedly be a residue of just plain trash to be carted away and burned, buried, or converted. It would, however, have been reduced to quite manageable proportions once private businessmen put their minds to it.
It may be objected that all this sounds like too much trouble for the householder, and for the others. There are two considerations which should reduce if not entirely remove this objection. One is that a variety of incentives would be employed to induce people to perform the tasks of collection. Not only might stores offer rewards for the return of their containers but also the householder might well be paid for some of his leftovers picked up at his home. At the least, a token payment should be made for food scraps, magazines and newspapers, scrap metal, old furniture, rags, and such like. Part of the payment might be made in hauling away free the refuse that remained. It is amazing what trouble people will go to for a little reward, as the popularity of trading stamps attests. For those who find the whole business distasteful, they should be free to lump all their leftovers together and pay to have it removed.
Waste Not, Want Not
There is another consideration, however. It is the matter of morality. Waste not, want not, is a venerable adage. The fact is that we are wasting potential resources in astonishing quantities today by making containers without attention to their further use and by the methods of disposing of leftovers. The problem is not one-sided as it is often presented—what to do about the waste. It has another side—how best to employ our resources. And, as pointed out, we add to the material waste the wasted lives of those denied productive employment by government policies. True, it is possible to waste time by reclaiming some objects to use. For some people it may be a waste of time to separate their leftovers for further use. What is and is not waste cannot be settled a priori, and it should not be settled by government policy. Instead, it should be left to an integrated market where the matter of what is irreclaimable waste can be decided by calculation. This results in prudent saving and reclamation as well as economic decisions as to what is to be thrown away.
The foregoing suggestions as to how leftovers might be effectively collected and used or disposed of may be debatable. They are submitted only to awaken the imagination to the myriad possibilities of positively dealing with what is today described as a growing problem. But there can be no reasonable doubt that once responsibility is placed on the individual, once private enterprise is mobilized to serve him as a consumer, what have been problems become opportunities and what was waste will much of it become resource.