Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Garbage In, Garbage Out

"Proposal: Real XMas tree retailers be made responsible for used tree pickup and disposal. Pass costs on to consumers, not municipalities."

Why is waste collection a municipal responsibility? Why do our property taxes have to subsidize taking away our neighbour's garbage?

This question starts running through my head every time the waste disposal issue hits the political and social radar. Nothing illustrates the waste in our consumerist society more than the collection of garbage sitting at the curb each week in communities across the western world. It is a cost, and a burden that can result in some bizarre stop-gap solutions. Shipping your garbage out of country? Really?

"Free" curbside pickup has encouraged a use-and-discard society. The costs are hidden in municipal budgets, and the physical waste is hidden from view in remote waste management stations. Recycling and composting are encouraged, but for the most part, that relies on the good-will and co-operation of the home-owner. In Waterloo Region, where I live, there is no real benefit in choosing to recycle. I only hope that I am doing the right thing. But I could be like my none-discerning neighbours and not bother recycling anything and throw out everything in the garbage instead. Out of sight, out of mind impacts how we use products; but it also impacts how and what we purchase.

Real Christmas trees are a real perverse example of this. A living organism is killed, purchased and used in a home for a few weeks as pure decoration only, and then disposed of for the municipality to remove. Over 2.5 million trees are chopped down in Canada each year, to be used as a throw away decoration.

Out of sight, out of mind indeed.

How much we consume, and how much we reuse, recycle, compost or throw away is a personal choice. But how to deal with the waste produced is a collective responsibility, and a collective cost burden. Nuts to that sez I. It's time we put the burden of waste management as much as possible on the end consumer that chooses to generate that waste. A simple solution would be direct waste billing; much like water, electricity or natural gas. Unfortunately that system is hard to bill (how do you price it?) but it also encourages illegal dumping. Especially when larger items need to be disposed of.

So what if we made the producers and the importers responsible? When a product is in its final, ready for delivery mode it's easier to calculate the product's waste/recycling potential and the impact of packaging. Collect a "Waste Management Tax" (based on some sort of calculation) before sale and pool that money for municipalities to draw from to pay for their waste management programs. Ideally municipalities would no longer need to draw from the tax base to cover waste fees. This would free up a large portion of their budget for more practical infrastructure. The cost of the waste part of the consumerist lifecycle would be baked into the product itself. That $2.50 cheap plastic thingy may now cost $5.00 and deter its purchase. (Hopefully entire sections of cheap junk would disappear from dollar store aisles.) Consumers would have no incentive to dump illegally as all items would have their waste cost built in. Disposal would still be free, but acquisition would be higher. Producers would have incentive to improve quality and maintainability of their products. The longer a product's lifespan, the lower its waste cost. Like a carbon tax, a properly designed waste management tax encourages producers to find a way to legally reduce that tax. The "Greener" the product, the lower the tax.

And maybe, just maybe we can start tackling the throwaway mindset that society has adopted.


Ken Breadner said...

Freaking brilliant. Read this to my business analyst wife and while she had a few caveats and loopholes--which government regulates this, and how much money does *that* cost? was her biggest--she agrees this is an excellent proposal.

lungta said...

christmas trees are a funny place to start
around here they are mulched or become a new years bonfire fund raiser
tree and hedge trimmings over the summer generate at least 10x the volume ....more free mulch
tires are done with a $4-$200 tax at purchase
really most landfills are 60% plus in building materials
i estimate i recycled 50 k just on my house...insulation,siding ,framing, windows doors and god knows how many antigue pieces
in my mind the real dangers are
the millions of tons of pesticide, herbicide fungicide and the 60% of every prescription we urinate into the water table

Catelli said...

Thanks Ken and Eva!