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What a Waste

Among my “favorite” aspects of reading “E”nvironmental books is the usage, oftentimes with authority, of myriad facts completely devoid of context, illustration or even in many cases sources or evidence. In the book on trash I am reading one of the many, many, many, many facts tossed around like a bludgeon is that in our landfills we “waste” $50 billion of valuable materials each and every year. The assumption of course is that we are profligate, stupid, irresponsible and idiotic for leaving $50 billion of cash on the table unclaimed each and every year by burying the stuff.

Now $50 billion is a big number, used in such a way as “evidence” by its size alone of how irresponsibly stupid we are. It’s a neat trick. It would be like me saying to you that the U.S. population of a massive 315 million people is evidence of our overcrowding, wholly ignoring the massive size of the country and the vast areas of empty space, and small areas of actual urbanization in the country. Oh. My. Goodness! 315 million! The horror!

Using that $50 billion is no different. It is in fact worse. Why? Well, in the simplest form, it says nothing about the costs required to pick up those $50 billion in “obvious” benefits. Indeed, if you see a $100 bill on the sidewalk and refuse to pick it up (even after confirmation it is in fact a $100 bill) you might be deemed irrational. But, if it takes $500 worth of effort to pick up that $100 bill, you would be silly to pick it up. It’s just not a good idea to spend $500 to get $100. So, what would it presumably cost to prevent the $50 billion from ever making its way into the landfill? What would it cost, ignoring that, to get it out? Those surely are numbers worth estimating, and even if it is hard to estimate you’d think that an entire boon on trash and the waste stream would at least in a footnote ask such a question. Thus far I’ve seen no indication of such.

Another problem with just saying $50 billion is similar to the 315 million above. How big, really, is that? Compared to? And so far we’ve been a little generous by not asking where the evidence is for this number. Is there really $50 billion worth of valuable stuff wasted each year? Perhaps. But in our calculations on whether it makes sense to recycle or dispose of particular waste products, the reason throwing away often wins the analysis, even after considering all of the costs, including environmental ones, is that the stuff that ends up in municipal landfills is largely not valuable. But let’s assume that this is also not true. Assume that the stuff IS valuable. And for simplicity, let’s assume the stuff is all plastic. Wow, there’s $50 billion worth of plastic in the dump each and every year. Citing that as evidence of waste is like me claiming, “wow, there’s $5 billion worth of copper that is going unmined today, just sitting in the ground wastefully, that phone companies could put to good use constructing phone lines.”

There’s more to say, but the use of that big number got me thinking of another big number. The employment-population ratio in the US. Right now the employment-population ratio stands at about 58.6 percent, which is about 3 percent lower than the average over the last 33 years. Ignore the economics of the labor market for the time being, or the implications of that number, or whether it is “good” or “bad” or otherwise. How would you respond if I decided to blog the following: “each year, the U.S. wastes billions of dollars of labor. There are 245 million Americans aged 16 and over that are not part of an institutionalized population. And only 145 million of them are employed. That means 100 million Americans are being wasted each and every year. If we estimate that the value of a worker’s time is $25 per hour, and that a normal worker can produce 2,000 hours worth of value each year, then each year we are wasting FIVE TRILLION DOLLARS EACH AND EVERY YEAR!”

I see little difference between making that last statement and one that claims we are wasting $50 billion each year in our landfills. Have a nice weekend. We’ll discuss this issue much more in the future.

2 Responses to “What a Waste”

  1. blink says:

    Big numbers make great bludgeons. All the better when the analysis is preemptively one-sided. (Who can come out in favor of trash?) Probably we should be used to a lack of imagination and counter-factual thinking (the seen and the unseen, your masthead), and the problem here is related. Your third paragraph is right on: Sincere proponents of these arguments simply do not value time.

    My favorite example (from Landsburg’s Fair Play, I think) tells about an elementary school teacher who asks students to wash out their drinking cups for reuse. Even a child can see there is a cost. Maybe we should report garbage statistics in terms of lifetimes for better effect. For example, Americans spent XX thousands of years sorting their trash for recycling last year. Or, we could recover/prevent disposal of X% of those precious medals in landfills at an additional cost of XX human lifetimes.

  2. Harry says:

    Good one, WC.

    I hope you have several book projects going. That post could make it to a chapter, but not in your best-selling brewing guide.

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