Tag Archive | recycling

Linking taxes to empathy

I look at how logical Ireland, Sweden, Denmark, Japan, Australia and the Netherlands are [because they enacted a carbon tax] and wonder how we in the US are still so positively stupid.

(I’m not alone in thinking so.)

It’s the one tax that both conservative and liberal economists agree on. You tax the amount of gasoline you use, the amount of garbage you don’t recycle (since it releases greenhouse gases once it’s sitting in a landfill), and the amount of energy you use to heat your home. The result: more money for the government (which wouldn’t be in such a fiscal mess otherwise), and less pollution. If you design it so that lower-income households are subsidized, it doesn’t lower consumption or increase inequality.

You can’t blame Obama entirely because any environmentally-progressive thing he might want to do would be vetoed by the Republican-controlled House (though it doesn’t mean he shouldn’t try). And you can’t blame Republicans in the House entirely because someone elected them. Could you blame the people that elected the Republicans?

I used to think that people who were homophobic, conservative, and tax-evading didn’t have the same access to good education. But then I remembered Alex. He and I went to the same public middle school and high school, and by his senior year, most of his opinions were already formed. He was smart and capable–he just didn’t care about most other people. And there’s the problem: no public school curriculum in the US teaches empathy.

Are all environmentalists good people? Probably not. Are all environmentally apathetic people “bad?” Certainly not. But for every person who opposes having taxes, I must ask: will they still refuse to pay taxes once they need the services of a fireman, policeman, public school teacher, or even sanitation engineer (garbage collector)? Once they or their children somehow end up needing social services support? Why should it be different for our shared environment and climate? Why do we need gigantic natural disasters to foster any significant action?

The Innards of Waste Dumps

Ever wondered where your aluminum Pepsi can goes after you throw it out? Or your blue pen and old notebooks? Yesterday I visited the PSSI (the Peninsula Sanitary Service, Inc.), which handles Stanford’s recycling and waste management, to get a better idea of where our waste goes. Sure, it smelled like rotting spaghetti sauce at some points, but I found glimpses of beauty there too. (Side note: this is probably not representative of all sanitation/collection facilities; I think the images would vary hugely if I were to be in another country, and even a different part of the U.S.).

Shooting into the sun, dumpster-diving style.

It could almost pass for a rose.

Apparently Sierra Nevada is very popular on campus.

Close-up of a dumpster; it made me think of Chinese characters.

Tin cans and a stray campaign poster.

This bunch will thankfully be recycled, or “diverted from landfill,” as some would say.

A PSSI employee; he seemed simultaneously noble and humble.

The current “divergence” rate, or amount of waste that isn’t going straight into the landfill, is currently 65% or so at PSSI–pretty decent, especially when compared to Houston, Texas (3% !!! = actively opposed to recycling anything). Nonetheless, there is still progress to be made.

One promising corner of the industry is the increasing use of biogas from landfills being used to generate electricity (where it is naturally emitted from the decomposition of our apple cores, banana peels, and cotton gym socks). Half of Sweden’s natural gas vehicles are now fueled by biogas, but the U.S. lags worse than a snail in taking advantage of this resource. Capturing biogas from landfills seems especially promising for inland states, like Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, and Nebraska, who cannot simply ship their waste to China or to Eastern Europe the way that coastal cities do.

Other interesting tidbits: the funding for California’s waste management agency comes from taxes for filling landfills. But as waste management facilities like PSSI become more efficient, less money goes to the agency, and there is less funding for investing in projects to further improve the waste stream. It seems like it ought to be an important consideration when designing policy that you shouldn’t create perverse incentives. Hopefully this would be taken into consideration for biogas projects (which also presumable depend on the filling of landfills to be functioning and profitable.)