Mobros Two Months of Fame

Ever had photographer's cheesecake? Mid-Nineteenth century photographers concocted the recipe. A photographic process from the Nineteenth century, callotype prints used egg whites, but not egg yolks. Because resourceful, thrifty photographers didn't want to throw useful items away, the egg yolks were "recycled" into photographers' cheesecake (recipe in Endnotes1). Of course, humans have a long history of recycling. Archaeological records indicate that early humans reshaped broken metal tools into new ones and re-carved broken pendants of exotic stones into smaller ones.

Market forces encourage people to be thrifty with scarce resources. As someone once said, "I recycled before it became trendy. They used to call it being cheap." As we mine more of a virgin ore, the mineral becomes scarcer, the price rises, and because we're "cheap" we recycle more. Many of us also feel better because we're "helping" the environment. Recognizing that a plastic bottle thrown into the ocean takes 450 years to biodegrade, is it any wonder that the idea of recycling has become so popular? And of course there's Mobro.

In March 1987, Mobro, a barge loaded with 3,186 tons of New York City trash, left Islip, New York, for what became a fateful journey. What was meant to be a short trip to haul trash to an inexpensive southern dump turned into a two-month odyssey. The novice hauler, who set up the deal, hoped to profit from regional differences in dumping charges, called tipping fees. Unfortunately for the hauler, he failed to nail down a contract before leaving New York, and at Morehead City, North Carolina, the first stop, state officials raised questions about the contents on board. Nervous officials, not sure of what might be on board, ordered the barge back to sea, without investigating. The media picked up on the story, and for the next two months, as Mobro steamed from one place to another (including Louisiana, Mexico, and the Bahamas), the American public got nightly updates on the plight of the Mobro. Eventually Mobro returned to New York where the garbage was incinerated in Brooklyn.2

As the barge steamed the seas, with the trash getting riper all the time, Americans recognized garbage as a new menace. Most Americans interpreted the Mobro spectacle to mean that we must be inundated with trash with nowhere to dump it. In fact, space was plentiful, but once the Mobro was branded a pariah, no dump wanted to accept the trash and the public ridicule that would surely follow. The result was a new campaign, inspired by the nightly news and appealing to our moral sense. The new battle cry: reduce, reuse, and recycle.

No doubt about it—recycling can be a good thing. By not dumping newspapers, telephone books, and soft drink cans into the dump, we use less trees and aluminum, and also reduce the trash hauled to landfills, which means that we don't need as many new dumps. So why don't we recycle more? We have an easy culprit to blame for society dumping too much trash—incorrect market signals.

Rather than collect a pile of statistics and charts about how much should be recycled, let's accept for the moment that the supply of waste is higher than we would like. Let's ask why, and then consider what should be done about it.

Most households pay a monthly fee (set by local government) for solid-waste disposal regardless of how much waste they produce. The household that recycles all possible materials and produces fewer bags of trash to be hauled away to the dump pays the same fee as a neighbor who creates mountains of trash, and recycles nothing. The message from the city trash service is "dump as much as you want, landfill space is no problem." That's not true, of course, but that might be how the trashmaker would think of it. Consequently, households throw away too much garbage and recycle too little since solid-waste disposal is underpriced. The cost of dumping is less for the individual than for society. Taxpayers pick up the tab for what the individual doesn't pay.

We have an easy solution for this problem. We can encourage people to pay more attention to the amount of trash they create by changing the message to households. "Because landfill space is scarce, although not necessarily in short supply, the more trash you create the more you will pay. If you create more trash than your neighbor, you will pay more than your neighbor." Many people will reconsider their trash disposal policy. Because people have better ways to spend money, they will likely try to reduce, recycle, and reuse more than they did before.

Some municipalities have already altered the policies of trash pickup so that the fees more accurately reflect the cost of taking solid waste to the landfill. In these cases when people dump more bags of trash, they pay more. A study of one such program in Charlottesville, Virginia, a university town of 40,000, indicated that the fee per bag does not have to be high in order to get people to change their trash disposal habits.

The city of Charlottesville began charging $0.80 per 32-gallon bag, rather than continue with a set fee regardless of the amount of trash produced. Waste volume decreased by 37%, and total weight dropped by 14%. (Hmmm. What effect do you suppose this policy change had on the demand for trash compactors in Charlottesville?) What happened to the 1,500 tons per year that no longer ended up at the dump? One-third of the reduction was from households using less packaging and doing more composting (reduce and reuse). One-third was due to increased voluntary recycling (recycle). And the other one-third reduction—well, no laws of physics were violated, just civic laws—illegal dumping increased.3

So, the good news is that a fee-per-bag program will encourage recycling and reduce the amount of waste sent to the dump. The bad news, in addition to increased illegal dumping, is that the program was costly. In fact, because of the high administration costs (almost $0.20) per bag, the benefits to the community were actually less than the costs.

Other government policies, such as bulk postage rates for catalogs and other "junk mail," encourage the production of too much waste. As a result, the supply of trash is too high. Government policies, such as depletion allowances for mining companies, decrease the cost of mineral extraction and thereby lower the demand for recycled materials. Also, because the federal rate on transporting scrap metal by rail is greater than the rate on virgin materials, the supply of recycled materials is less than it otherwise would be.

Valuable as recycling is, it would be unwise to recycle everything. Recycling has a cost, and it is not pollution-free. Recycling involves many processes—collection, transportation, cleaning, manufacturing, storage, transport again, and sale. Each process uses energy and pollutes just as manufacturing from virgin materials does. We create waste like chemical sludge from deinking used newsprint. We pollute the air with sulfur dioxide as we generate the additional power needed to run the machines that transport and process the recycled materials. Recycling also takes time in separating, collecting, and hauling recyclables. Recycling may even contribute to global warming because of the energy use involved.

Americans create about 200 million tons of municipal solid waste each year, which is about three-quarters of a ton per person, and the per capita rate is rising at almost 2% per year. Compare the percentage of waste recycled in the United States (27% in 1998) to the percentage recycled in other developed nations, and people in the United States appear to be profligate. Japan recycles 50% of their waste. However, factors in addition to attitude and character may explain the difference in recycling rates.

Many nations exclude some things from their official measure of solid waste that the United States includes.

When the definition is adjusted, U.S. waste production is similar to most other nations. Also, the United States has more landfill space than most other developed nations. To place all of the solid waste generated by this country in a year in a landfill would require no more than .00001% of the continental United States. If all the waste produced in the United States for a year were put in one landfill, the space requirement would not exceed a landfill 100 yards deep and two-thirds a square mile on each side. We have sufficient space for landfills, but a problem often results from the not-in-my-backyard syndrome, which creates a problem for communities with very little nearby space available for landfills. In fact, total landfill space has actually increased, but so have dumping fees as stricter environmental standards have increased costs.

Although recycling can be a good thing, the question is what and how much should we recycle? In principle, we should recycle as long as the additional benefit of recycling a glass bottle, for instance, is greater than the benefit of simply dumping the glass bottle in a landfill. Since benefits and costs vary from product to product, we must examine each item in order to determine the recycling merits. For example, aluminum is profitably recycled in large quantities because the product is lightweight, easily handled, and production technologies make recycling economical.

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