Academic journal article Journal of Environmental Health

Creating Incentives for Waste Reduction: State and Local Perspective

Academic journal article Journal of Environmental Health

Creating Incentives for Waste Reduction: State and Local Perspective

Article excerpt

While waste reduction is the real solution to solid waste management, national per capita discard rates and total waste disposed continue to steadily increase as shown in Figure 1 (1). Disposal costs are relatively inexpensive, pricing mechanisms are distorted and society is accustomed to the creed of "purchase, consume and dispose." The task of bringing about the changes necessary for economic and environmental sustainability are formidable (2). Some aspects of waste reduction can be addressed at the national level, such as labeling requirements or stopping the production or inappropriate use of nationally used materials such as lead, DDT, PCB, or strontium 90 (3). Most waste reduction efforts, however, are best addressed at the state or local level. Selection of the most important combination of solid waste management techniques has traditionally rested with local government (4). This paper will look at the primary state and local options available.

A Brief Look at the Bigger Picture

Waste management plans must be affordable, provide adequate disposal capacity, properly allocate risks, and consider total environmental resource impacts (1). Following reduction, in order of priority, are product reuse, materials recycling, energy recovery, and landfilling. Reuse is generally more efficient than recycling, recycling incentives are at odds with energy recovery, and the existence of some 200 landfill superfund sites is a reminder of the potential hidden costs associated with landfilling (7,8). The reduction of wastes is accomplished by reduction of material usage, reuse of products, recycling where possible, and energy conservation or recovery.

Any plans for control of air and water pollution would do well to include resource conservation. For example, recycling aluminum requires 95% less energy than use of raw materials. Recycled paper can conserve 75% of the energy and 50% of the water required by paper made from virgin timber (2). In general, recycling requires less energy than use of raw materials and saves 1.5 to 3 times its weight in new materials (5). The savings in resource use is aimed at reducing mining for raw materials or energy resources and reducing timber harvesting. These conservation efforts in turn result in reduced habitat destruction and an improved relationship with the planet's resources and ecosystems.

As a general rule, subsidizing an activity produces more of it and taxing the activity produces less of it. Currently depletion of natural resources is subsidized and work is taxed. Pricing mechanisms and marketing practices currently discriminate against waste reduction (2). For example, the U.S. Forest Service, manager of 22% of the nation's timberlands, continues to sell timber below cost. This leads to the depletion of wildlife habitat, continues our reliance on virgin materials, and shrinks the market for recyclable paper. Subsidized loans for power plant construction and pollution control equipment masks the true cost of energy production. If the price of energy directly reflected the cost of subsidized loans along with extraction and depletion allowances, energy users surely would have opted for conservation measures long ago.

Simply put, there is a general lack of factoring into market economics the full life-cycle and environmental costs of production. These costs are largely hidden from American consumers (6).

In Michigan (and the U.S. on average), 90% of waste is landfilled, despite the estimate that 70% to 90% of it can be reused or recycled (2). Figure 2 (1) gives examples of recycle rates for various recyclables. Interstate commerce laws create a significant disincentive for local waste reduction since any landfill space conserved can simply be replaced with imported out-of-county wastes. However, disposal is the least environmentally desirable solution and source reduction is the most desirable solution. The solution is to create appropriate incentives to move the process in the right direction. …

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