Nobody who comes to my home smokes. But cigarette butts litter the ground near the curb and the sidewalk in front of my house. If you multiply those butts by every building in town, thousands of acts of littering, constantly repeated, are dirtying our town.
What should government do about littering? Like every community, Jacksonville has an ordinance against littering. The city could put greater enforcement on the streets to catch litterbugs, raise the fines much higher, even prescribe jail time for repeat offenders.
That seems like overkill. Littering is an anti-social act, which should be fought by social persuasion, not serious legal consequences. Keeping our town looking good is a collective responsibility. The more pride that citizens take in their own community, the less likely they are to drop garbage on other people’s lawns or toss it out their car windows. This problem is better solved through education and public awareness than with government programs.
But litter is garbage and garbage requires public policy. When I lived in Maine, the state passed a bottle and can deposit law. That nickel deposit suddenly cleaned up the streets, as returnables disappeared from sight. Bottle bills reduce litter by at least one-third, sometimes up to two-thirds. Currently 10 states have bottle bills, and they are all blue states: California, Oregon, and Hawaii in the West, Michigan and Iowa in the Midwest, and New York and 4 New England states. They were all enacted in the 1970s and 1980s, except for Hawaii, which means that the enthusiasm for bottle bills has waned or that the opposition has become more persuasive. Illinois has no deposit law and drink containers litter the streets.
Bottle deposit laws insure that a sizable proportion of potential garbage is instead recycled. Plastic bottles and aluminum cans, instead of sitting in the soil for centuries, are turned back into new products. The millions of electronic devices which are thrown away every year contain toxic metals, which can be recaptured, as well as glass and plastic.
The economic value of recycling depends on the material. Producing new aluminum from recycled products uses only 5% as much energy as producing aluminum from ore. About one-third of all aluminum produced in the US comes from recycled scrap. That means that much more could be recycled, at great savings.
Recycled paper still costs a bit more than new paper. My local Staples charges $10.49 for a ream of new paper, $12.29 for paper with50% recycled content, and $13.29 for paper with 100% recycled content.
Perhaps some of the cost difference comes from paying people to sort recyclables, which here in Jacksonville are just all dumped together. Popular unwillingness to do sorting ourselves raises the costs of recycling. As with litter, consumers could take responsibility for the garbage we create. Across the country, Americans produce so much garbage that landfills are filling up. Millions of tons of daily garbage pollute the environment, now and for the future. Communities can no longer afford to deal with their garbage.
The newest method of keeping trash out of landfills is to recover the energy released from burning trash, while keeping the toxic gases and residues out of the atmosphere. This waste-to-energy process can conflict with recycling, which decreases the amount of trash available to burn and thus reduces possible profits for companies which incinerate the waste. If a community’s trash becomes energy, there is less motivation to institute recycling programs.
Our garbage problem calls for political solutions. Garbage is usually managed through a working partnership between government and private industry. Localities set rules about recycling and provide sites to dispose of waste, while private companies collect the trash. States make laws about bottle deposits. Entrepreneurs take old computers or TVs, and make money by recovering the valuable parts.
Many communities have considered political solutions to garbage issues. Dozens of cities nationwide have banned plastic bags, including Los Angeles and Seattle. A proposal was floated in Illinois to enforce the recycling of plastic bags. The Illinois legislature passed a law requiring manufacturers of plastic bags used in the state to increase their recycled content, eventually up to 30%. The law also prohibited Illinois communities from passing their own plastic bag laws, which might have been more stringent, including banning them altogether. Governor Pat Quinn just vetoed the legislation, saying that he did not want to prevent towns from approving bans on plastic bags.
Garbage does not appear to be an issue in this year’s political campaigning. Neither of the parties mentions garbage, landfills, recycling, plastic bags, or litter in their political ads, nor do these words appear in their party platforms, with the exception of a statement in the Republican platform that “Efforts to ... encourage recycling ... have been a success.” But in our daily lives, in our home towns, the increasing loads of garbage that we create must be dealt with. We must reduce the amount of stuff we throw away. We must find places to put the garbage we still create. We must figure out how to recycle products that poison the earth or contain valuable materials.
That work is public and collective, whether it happens through laws, education, or simple social responsibility.
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, September 11, 2012