Policy Study

Do We Need a Federal Garbage Man?

Executive Summary

“We must not nationalize the garbage problem,” cautioned EPA Administrator William Reilly in testimony before a Senate subcommittee in September 1991. Yet that is what Congress will do if they approve legislative proposals now drafted to reauthorize the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).

As they tackle the “garbage problem,” federal legislators are keying on two basic policy questions: 1) how to “create” markets for the deluge of recycled materials generated as a result of state and local recycling legislation, and 2) how to address state-level concern about the interstate transport of waste.

Much of the legislative activity is driven by a perception of recycling as an end in itself. Resource conservation is not well-served, however, by measures that dictate inflexible, one-size-fits-all, usage of secondary materials as prescribed in current federal RCRA reauthorization bills. Such measures are likely to result in significant cost increases to consumers, representing, in effect, a regressive “hidden tax” on consumer products.

Market creation does not require public-sector intervention. Examples of private-sector initiatives to build recycling infrastructure abound–and these efforts do not impose costs on taxpayers. The push to “create markets” is a political response to what is likely to be only a temporary mismatch of supply and demand for many materials. For example, the paper industry is already on track to reach a 40 percent recovery rate for wastepaper by 1995.

Taking a secular view of recycling would turn attention to the problem of providing adequate solid waste management capacity. Recycling goals of recovering 50 percent of the solid waste stream by the year 2000 are likely to prove to be unattainable. More realistic recycling rates may peak at, or below, 25 percent. Thus, to head off a real garbage crisis, modern, safe combustors and landfills need to be sited at a more rapid pace.

Legislators crafting the current RCRA reauthorization proposals have lost sight of the problem–to safely manage municipal solid waste in a cost-effective manner. This requires 1) conveying to consumers information about the full costs of waste collection and disposal; and 2) allowing waste to flow to disposal facilities without regard to state boundaries.

Many cities still provide “free” trash collection to residents. In a 1991 Roper Organization survey, of the one-third of the respondents who said their trash is paid for by local taxes, 93 percent had no idea how much garbage collection costs. Treating trash as a “free” good has given little incentive to consumers to seek ways of generating less trash. And even when cities attempt to account for the costs of solid waste disposal, they typically understate the full costs by as much as 20 percent. The failure to fully charge for garbage disposal has inhibited the development of the most cost-effective waste handling systems and deterred recycling efforts where they might be economical.

If policy action is needed, it should be taken by the lowest level of government qualified to do so. Local and state solutions to waste problems are preferable to federal responses for two reasons: first, because of their proximity to the people affected by their legislation they are more likely to reverse ill-considered courses of action. Second, solid waste management needs vary significantly depending on local conditions.

To avoid a real garbage crisis, public policy must take a different direction than the current course of escalating state and federal intervention. The concept of an arbitrary hierarchy of solid waste management that emphasizes recycling must be abandoned. Instead, local decision makers should be free to decide which combinations of management methods are best for protecting public health and the environment in the most cost-effective manner. In short, we do not need a federal garbage man.

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act Amendments of 1991 is a major, comprehensive piece of environmental legislation. It seeks to reorient what has come to be known as our “throwaway society.” It will affect the consumer, the homeowner, the worker, and the manufacturer.

Senator Max Baucus, (D-Mont.)

Introduction of S.976 into the Congressional Record April 25, 1991


Kenneth Chilton is the Deputy Director of the Center for the Study of American Business at Washington University in St. Louis. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not of the CSAB or the Reason Foundation.