Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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More Rubbish

For a time in the late 1980s and 1990s it was a frequent theme that the U.S. was running out of landfills. It struck me then as another overheated mini-crisis, but it led to a number of counterproductive and inefficient laws and regulations. Today the New York Times discusses this exaggeration.

Hat tip: Instapundit.

Discussions - 25 Comments

in the late ’80’s and 90’s it was touted as mini-crisis... My County landfill was "filled" and closed. I don’t think it is a scare tactic. It is just a fact of things that are sustainable and non-sustainable and extreme consumption is not sustainable. BTW - it took too long for me to follow the links, so I can’t refute exact claims in the articles, but I do think it is irresponsible to try and paint a picture that we should not be more aware and responsible when it comes to environmental issues. It is obvious to anyone with common sense that Americans cannon just dig a hole and bury their waste at the rate they have been and think that it is sustainable.


I guess you have never been out west....a lot of land, would take a while to exhaust it.


In case you still haven’t been able to follow the links you should know that what the article says is that large landfills have become continually more efficient in promoting disintegration of the garbage as well as using capping methods which take up less space. Though your county landfill may have closed, the article says larger regional landfills are increasing their efficiency using even GPS technology to ensure its packed down enough.

All I think Dr. Hayward is saying is that hasty rushes to laws and "crisis" talk in environmental issues is often unneeded and in the end, harmful, since the mini-crisises rarely meet the hype in reality.

Hey, yeah, of course! We could just ship all the garbage from the megalopolis in the east out west! It’s practical and cheap to send tons of garbage thousands of miles away, and it gives us a great excuse to chop down all those annoying forests they have out there! You’re right, it’d take a long time to run out of room if we weren’t selective about WHERE to put landfills. So the obvious solution here is to quit being so darn picky! So relax, folks, and keep buy-buy-buying as much as you want- there’s always more room out west!


Apparently you have never been out west either. Anything west of Illinois is pretty treeless, unless we are speaking about the Northwest. I suppose I should have been more specific, I meant the plains and the Southwest. Shipping garbage out west would be costly, at some point such cost would probably reduce consumption and the problem would take care of itself. Please refute the spaciousness of the Southwest and/or plains states, or my free market proposition.

A few thoughts. I recall a study done about fifteen years ago, near the height of the frenzy about "vanishing landfills," by Clark Weisman of Resources for the Future, that concluded all of America’s trash for 100 years could be stored in a single landfill just 100 square miles in size. Can you say "Wyoming?" (For obvious reasons we wouldn’t do that, but it is illustrative of how we get carried away on these things.)

In the late 1980s, LA’s air regulators considered an ambitious scheme to close all LA area landfills (since they produce measurable emissions) and have all of LA’s trash sent by train to a huge new landfill out in the desert somewhere. I called it the "Trash Trains to Hell" scheme. It was ultimately dropped as new control measures for landfills were developed.

Finally, I am always amazed how quickly people read a criticism of how we perceive a problem and jump to the opposite extreme of assuming that the person making the criticism is therefore indifferent or opposed to doing anything about the problem. My broader point, which Rob gets right, is that some of the laws passed in a moment of frenzy lead to wasteful results. Our current recycling schemes, using two sets of trucks and curbside trash separation, is a grossly inefficient way of recovering resources from the waste stream. And when you are operating inefficiently, you are wasting resources! We would recover much more material if we ended curbside recycling and sent the entire waste stream to a MRF ("murf", or "materials recovery facility"), the state of the art in solid waste management today. However, existing programs (and the clients who benefit from them) and diversion laws like California’s AB 939, are retarding the development of MRFs. Way to go environmentalists. But at least they feel good about separating their cans and bottles.

In my town, at least, environmentalists advocate the use of murfs, so they can’t all be on the wrong track.

The problem would take care of itself? OK, I’ll refute that. Make it so that it’s so expensive we’ll just be forced to quit producing garbage? That’s not much of a solution, Steve.

Steven Hayward, how much do these MRFs cost? Would they be more or less affordable (to build and operate) than a recycyling plant? That’s not a sarcastic question, either- I’m genuinely curious.


I have always understood a refutation to require the thing being refuted be shown to be false (I say a cat barks, in order to refute that you show that claim is false because cats meow), or logically impossible (I claim a valley may exist without two mountains, a refutation of that proposition would show how the very definition of valley presupposes at least two mountains). You have offered neither about my previous statement; rather you have attacked the desirability of it.

I am willing to revise my previous statement in the spirit of compromise. I suggest that when the cost of landfills reach a certain level (because of their scarcity), then people will be forced to find substitutes for landfills. Such a substitute could be recycling. Perhaps at some point trash companies would incur such costs for disposing at landfills they would give away trash to enterprising firms or individuals who would then develop the technology to do all sorts of wonderful things with the trash, creating a positive benefit from trash while reducing dependency on landfills. While I am not certain of the solution, I am certain that so long as relatively free markets, technology, and science exist, the United States will never have a landfill problem, and anyone who believes otherwise is being silly. The only qualification of my position involves the fact that many, if not most, landfills are publicly owned and do not respond to market pressures as quickly and efficiently as a privately owned one would. I suppose politicians and public clamor for less than market rates for trash disposal might doom us all.

Andrew: You’re right, I should have qualified things. The smart environmentalists (there are many, though often outside the advocacy groups) do know about murfs, and other leading edge ways to dealing with problems.

Gabe: I’m not sure what murfs cost (I’m on the road, so it will take a while to look into it), but it is not as simple as an either-or choice between a murf and a recycling facility. What murf operators will tell you is that current recycling practices skim the cream (esp. aluminum cans) that are the most profitable part of the waste stream, and make it uneconomic to do a murf. Hence, many marginal items that might be removed from the waste stream in a murf go to a landfill instead, lowering overall potential material recovery. For a murf to be profitable and therefore recover marginal things like certain plastics (and even some food waste for biodiesel, for example), they need to have access to the more profitable recyclables. And beyond this I have talked to lots of recycling and waste experts over the last decade who know of lots of potentially profitable recycling projects that could be undertaken but are impossible to do because of the perverse regulations in place (at least here in California).

The MURFs in my community, which were accepted by the public in a narrow initiative vote, work fairly well.

Say, I see things have been a bit slow and blue around this blog since Peter took ill, but is anyone going to post about the Bob Taft situation in Ohio, the Cindy Sheehan protest in Texas (and what O’Reilly, Malkin & crew are saying about her), the gun-nut in Texas who drove over those crosses in apparent counter-protest at the Sheehan camp, the "Marine of the Year" who shot out of his window in Boston and injured 2 (American, civilian) people, OR the breakdown of the London Police’s story regarding their fatal shooting of the Brazilian man on the tube (no turnstile-jumping, no heavy jacket, etc.)... Just a few news items that deserve at least perfunctory mentions from the NLT crew.

Steve and Steve- My question is this: would ANY changes in the rubbish status quo be likely if no one had pointed out a crisis? In retrospect, it is easy to see that the crisis might have been contingent on a continuation of business-as-usual, but isn’t invention often sparked by someone crying "Problem!"??

In other words, recycling, MURFS,laws that have come and gone, are all various responses to a very real trend: that space was an inevitable problem if no changes were made. Often, the various strategies need to be implemented, tried, and sometimes discarded before we can recognize how "stupid" they are. (This should not be the case, but if often is. Look at the field of Education, for instance.)

To Steve S.: There was a time when the Northeast had a great deal of space, too. When I lived in Texas, there was a great deal of talk about shipping Nuclear Waste to a remote area in that part of the Southwest. As it turned out, the people there, who valued their "space" didn’t want it filled up with nuclear waste. To point to the spacious Southwest, and to forget how quickly places can fill up, seems short-sighted indeed.

Dear S Wynn- I agree. First, however, someone has to spin the bad news. In the case of Taft, and of Cindy Sheehan, it seems to be taking quite a bit of time to find a way to come out smelling good!

But, like you, I look forward to it. Another one is the Gaza pullout.. Big news, small coverage in these parts.


I am unsure what you mean by your comment that there was a time when the Northeast had a great deal of free space. If we compare the Northeast and the Southwest, we can objectively see that the Southwest is MUCH bigger than the Northeast, even if we include New York. I suppose you mean there was a time when the Northeast had much more land than the population utilized for living, production, etc. I agree with that, but to be fair you should agree that the Southwest could hold much more stuff than it currently does (I wonder how many NYCs, just in terms of space) South Dakota could hold?).

As far as local opposition to landfills and storage areas, I would suggest that people were opposed because they were not offered enough compensation. Compensation need not be money, but people should receive some sort of compensation for living close to nuclear facilities, etc., or they should receive enough to allow them to move freely to another location that pleased them. If you paid me $1,000,000 I would most definitely live by such a place, and enjoy reading Aristotle and law books all day long. I think we can both agree that if people were compensated fairly any moral objections to placing landfills would disappear.

I do not think my proposition was short sighted. I offered it in response to the prediction that we would be quickly running out of space for landfills. I meant merely to point out that that claim is empirically false because American has so much land that is being utilized in a much less productive fashion than using it for a landfill (so using it for a landfill would be ok), and that a great majority of that land could be found in the Southwest and Plains states.

Finally, I have yet to see any refutation of my economic market-substitute argument. If my argument is correct, then assuming people are somewhat rational, and motivated by a desire to make money, then disposing of waste should never be a problem.

Fung asks a sensible question: why would we expect any changes in the absence of people pointing to a crisis? Well, for one reason, there were profitable opportunities to be had. If you go back 60 years ago or so, there were low-tech MRFs in places like Fontana, CA--low tech meaning human beings picking stuff out of a conveyor belt. This was before we probably had the word "recycling." These kind of operations ceased when labor became more expensive relative to land and disposal ("tipping fee") costs. But if landfill space was really scarce in the 1980s, one would have expected the changing economics to shake things up.

The trouble is--and here your comment I think is roughly harmonious with my point--is that some of the policies enacted in haste have been counterproductive. California mandated a 50 percent "diversion" of the waste stream from landfills, to encourage recycling and save landfill space. Ah, but how is "diversion" defined in the regs? An entrepreneur I know (who has started several paperboard recycling efforts--his main clients are the Chinese) wanted to collect green waste (yard clipppings, etc), mulch it up and sell it to farmers in the central valley, which he expected he could do very profitably. What he found is that the trash companies that segregated green waste didn’t want to sell green waste to him, because they got to count that material as "diverted" since it was collected (and still is) separately from regular garbage, but low and behold, what do they use the green waste for? They use it for their daily "fill" cover as part of landfill "vector control" (mixing it with dirt) which means it all ends up in the landfill anyway, though it is counted as "diverted." Perversely, if they sold my friend their green waste, they’d actually lose ground on their diversion commitment. In hundreds of ways like this, a bureaucratic approach, based on exaggerated (not wrong, but exaggerated) public perceptions leads to stifling creative approaches to dealing with problems.

I don’t see that this should be a hugely controversial point (and it isn’t with most smart environmentalists), but somehow it is.

Now, Fung, can we get back to Jerry?

I certainly agree that things have slowed down considerably here in the past couple of weeks. However, Peter’s illness is only part of the story; just as important is the fact that classes are about to start here at AU (and a lot of other places as well), so we’ve simply had a lot less time for blogging. I hope everyone will remain patient.

Just as I was finishing that last comment, the recycling truck drove up in front of my house to pick up my full can. Life imitating art?

Steve Sparks: My problem with your idea about compensation for people who live near undesirable sites like landfills or nuclear waste dumps is that it will only be poor people. Only the truly desperate would be willing to live near a potentially dangerous site for the kind of reward that would be offered. And I can’t imagine any government offering anywhere near $100k a year to a family living near a landfill.

I just fear that people would be told "hey, this is perfectly safe, don’t worry!" and then, thousands of cancer cases later, it would turn out that "whoops, it leaked after all!"


I would be willing to live near such a site (provided it had modern safety precautions) and I do not consider myself desperate, or too terribly poor. I graduated from Ashland with 2 degrees (history and poly sci), a minor, and I am currently attending law school. I think the question is the amount of risk people are willing to take for a certain amount of money, and the life they would like to live. I would most certainly live by a nuclear waste site if I got $1,000,000, and could invest it and earn a sufficient return so that I would no longer have to worry about working. I value lesiure more than the risk I would be taking. Since people are compensated for their risk there could be no moral objection (unless you think people should not be allowed to take some risks that only involve themselves).

I am unsure why you object to compensation. Everyone knows that such sites are necessary. Do you favor no compensation? Traditional property law includes the concept of nuisance, no one is allowed to use their land in a manner that creates an unreasonable danger towards other people unless they compensate them: I think a nuclear waste dump is an unreasonable danger. I am assuming the government must somehow override the law of nuisance when establishing such sites, which I think is unfair and creates false information for markets. People should be compensated for the increased risk they run, and that risk should be based on the market, not some arbitrary value. Can you please explain your objections to compensating people who live near toxic dumps, or explain what you propose to do with the waste if we do not have such dumps.


A couple of additional thoughts. I agree that no government would fairly compensate individuals for living near a landfill (because a majority will always oppose spending to benefit a minority unless they think they may someday be part of the minority). Such costs should be born by the industries and the people that benefit from such industries. Nuclear power plants, and any other nuclear waste producers, should pay for the site, along with necessary compensation, and government’s only role would be enforcing safety codes (since risk to industries over time often costs less than one worst case scenario, therefore force must be used). That cost would be passed on to consumers. Diffusing the cost over many consumers would make such a cost affordable. The people who benefit pay the cost, and the people who assume the risk get paid for their assumption of risk. This sounds perfectly fair to me, but I am interested in any objections you might raise.

Steven H.- Yes, we can always channel Jerry! In fact, I was thinking of him as I was offering my perspective. That is, it seems to me that, in this case, people like you and I want pretty much the same things: rational, appropriate, and pragmatic responses to real problems. I don’t think we disagree here, though your tendency seems to be toward deregulation, and mine tends more toward governmental oversight. You trust the factory owners more than I do, perhaps. I trust governments more than you do, perhaps.

The irony, here, is that the weight of the Federal government has increased incredibly under Bush, and I don’t trust the Feds anymore!

Steve Sparks: I think that you are relying too much on people responding "rationally" and financially. In my view, there are some areas that should not be governed on economic, and maybe even rational, principles. Family is one, for instance. Aesthetics is another. Love might be yet another. And freedom is another.

What you suggest is an imposed choice: Either you leave your home, or stay in it while exposing you and yours to perceived risks. First of all, governments should keep this kind of forced choice to a minimum, and all available alternatives should be investigated before resorting to it. Certainly, we should not submit to it because distant (or close) industries cannot handle their own garbage.

So, what is the "rational" thing to do when our homes are threatened, or our families are threatened, or our wilderness is threatened? It may be rational for you to select a piece of land as a garbage dump, but it may not at all be the "right" thing for its inhabitants to submit, either to the pressure, or to the forced choice, itself.

Finally, I think your view of the Southwest as limitless remains short-sighted. Many things were perceived as limitless, and proved otherwise: oil, buffalo, the green area between Denver and Boulder, honeybees, drinking water, the British Empire, the Soviet Union, and so on. When we can generate exponential growth, then nothing is limitless. Look at Nevada, and think about those posters at the veterinarian that show what happens when you fail to neuter your dog. We could fill up the Southwest just like that!

Steve Sparks said:

Phil, I would be willing to live near such a site (provided it had modern safety precautions) and I do not consider myself desperate, or too terribly poor. I graduated from Ashland with 2 degrees (history and poly sci), a minor, and I am currently attending law school. I think the question is the amount of risk people are willing to take for a certain amount of money, and the life they would like to live. I would most certainly live by a nuclear waste site if I got $1,000,000, and could invest it and earn a sufficient return so that I would no longer have to worry about working. I value lesiure more than the risk I would be taking. Since people are compensated for their risk there could be no moral objection (unless you think people should not be allowed to take some risks that only involve themselves). I am unsure why you object to compensation. Everyone knows that such sites are necessary.

1. Guess what is at the root of those "modern safety precautions"? Yes, the dreaded government regulations! But, unfortunately, since the chemical and nuclear industries have all but captured the government regulators, nothing much actually gets regulated, so you shouldn’t put too much confidence in those "modern safety precautions." See the fabricated "science" that was used and approved by the DOE to indicate that the Yucca Mountain facility would be a safe, non-leaking place to store high-level nuclear waste that will be deadly for thousands of years.

2. What exactly do your academic credentials have to do with this? Is this supposed to automatically prove that you’re neither poor nor desperate? Also, I notice that your degrees are not in environmental science, epidemiology, biology or anything of that nature. I hope you don’t reflexively give credence to anything that is said by someone who is a college graduate. I’d guess that when it comes to discussions with equally well-educated Dems, liberals, leftists their credentials don’t do them much good in your eyes. In arguing a court case isn’t there some requirement for relevance?

3. "Since people are compensated for their risk there could be no moral objection (unless you think people should not be allowed to take some risks that only involve themselves)" Your parenthetical speculation has a serious flaw. The risks to human health wouldn’t likely be limited to just you or even you and your presumably equally well-compensated neighbors. In the case of nuclear waste there is the phenomenon of bioaccumulation, which could have harmful health effects on plenty of people, current and future generations, who weren’t asked for their consent in the matter of risk and compensation. Also, it is exceedingly difficult to trace radioactive contamination, but as the recent conclusion of the BEIR (Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation) Committee’s (govt. group) latest report pointed out, ANY amount of radiation poses potentially fatal health risks.

4. "Everyone knows that such sites are necessary." Yes, at present the wonders of science have formulated the ingenious solution for disposing of nuclear waste by dumping it in holes in the ground, and then trying to stop it from leaking into the ground by using barrels, plastic sheets and rocks. The thing is, in the case of nuclear waste dumps, we wouldn’t have to think about building more of them if we stopped using nuclear energy as the most inefficient and dangerous means ever to boil water to turn a turbine. Nukes produce just under 20% of the electricity in the U.S. We don’t even need to talk about "well, if not nukes, then what else to produce electricity" - a solid conservation plan, effectively utilized, could easily reduce American consumption of electricity without everyone reverting to a caveman lifestyle (despite the best efforts of nuclear energy PR hacks to convince people this is so). But as it is, even if we shut down all of America’s nukes tomorrow, we’d still have a hell of a lot of nuclear waste sitting around, endangering everyone’s health for thousands of years to come. Just great!

5. $1,000,000 ?? You put far too low of a price-tag on your life, I’d say.

Not a jesse fan:

I will respond to your points one-by-one. I would appreciate it if you could tell me how to do paragraphs. I always place paragraphs in the typing box, but they never appear in my posts. #1--You are beating a straw man. I do not object to government regulations, in fact I stated government regulations were necessary because the costs of taking a risk is greater than an actual worse case scenario, therefore some noneconomic means (force or threat or force) must be used. An example: There is a 5% chance the nuclear waste dump will leak within 10 years and kill 100 people. Companies will run this risk without regulation because safety measures are expensive, they could invest the money in other ways, and after 10 years IF the worst did happen, they could pay for it with the return from their invested money, and still have money left over; this is why regulation is appropriate. I am in favor of real, scientifically based regulation. #2 My academic credentials were an attempt to prove I am not poor, desperate, or too stupid. Phil was implying that only poor country bumpkins or the down and out would want to live by such a place, because I would live by such a place I guess his claim is wrong. Also, do not try to play the "he is conservative he hates poor people" card with me: my parents are from Eastern KY, I am the first to graduate from college in my family, I worked construction for 7-8 summers; I am well aware that many intelligent people are not college educated. Also, do not play the "he is a dumb humanities" major with me. I was a microbiologist in QC for a pharmaceticual company for 2 years, and worked as a serologist at the Ohio Dept of Ag ADDL for the 6 months before law school. While I have no formal college training in science, I do know a bit about the scientific method, etc. #3 I am unsure why you oppose compensation for the people who take the greatest risks. Your argument seems to be: We cannot compensate everyone who experiences the risk, therefore we should compensate noone. I will grant that we should compensate EVERYONE who experiences any risk. This may force nuclear power out of business, but if its total costs (including externalities) are greater than its benefits, it should not be an activity that is pursued. #4 You admit we need nuclear dumps. Can you offer a different plan as fair as mine, or will you continue to unconstructively whine? I predict you cannot and will. Also, it is my understanding that even if we did not use nuclear plants to produce electricity, we would still have to contend with low level nuclear waste from x-rays, etc. I do not expect people to stop using x-rays because there do not seem to be any substitutes except for cutting people open. #5 Obviously I value my life more than $1,000,000. The payment was for the risk to my life. If the risk were moderate it seems like a fair amount. Also, $1,000,000 can produce more than $1,000,000 through investment. I suppose the $1,000,000 also compensates for the potential shortening of my life. It still seems acceptable to me.

(Steve, to divide your comments into paragraphs simply click on the phrase "New Paragraph," which is right between the word "Comments" and the comment box itself, whenever you want to start a new paragraph)

I guess I simply haven’t been able to follow what your arguments are in this whole debate. I’m glad to see you’re in favor of government regulations, esp. on the industries at issue.

I don’t think that your academic credentials prove what you apparently think they do. Some poor people do graduate from college, thanks to scholarships, loans, and grants. I don’t know why you think I was playing either the "he hates poor people" or the "dumb humanities major" with you. I wasn’t thinking either thing. (It does strike me as odd, though, that you were employed as a microbiologist or a serologist without what is usually considered the requisite training in those fields. If only all of those medical students knew that they could skip their specialized education. I shouldn’t have to say so, but this doesn’t mean I think you’re "dumb")

I am not necessarily against compensation programs, but my concern remains that such a program would simply serve as an incentive program for people to jeopardize their health to make some money. Not one that would necessarily ONLY induce the poor to live near facilities that pose health risks, but one that would prove to be a risk that poor, desperate people would be more likely to consider. And aside from all of this, we’re discussing this in a context that is generally unrealistic. In most scenarios the dump is not built first, in a completely isolated wildnerness area, and then the real estate is built up around it with a clear, open compensation program in place for those who choose to settle there. Typically people already live in an area without a dump and then a dump is put in next to their neighborhoood. And those neighborhoods aren’t generally filled with million-dollar homes and late-model Mercedes.

I think that the government should ensure that citizens do not face exposures to human-produced, ionizing radiation without their explicit consent, and that the long-term total containment of nuclear waste and its hazardous by-products is paid for by the producers of said waste. Any scenario that meets these standards while not creating a scenario that effectively bribes the poor into risking their health/lives is fine by me.

As for the "low level nuclear waste from x-rays, etc.," an increasinlgy small percentage of x-ray machines create nuclear waste now; most of them probably don’t. In any case, the volume of low-level nuclear waste produced by the healthcare industry is infinitesimally small compared to that produced by the nuclear power and weapons industries, and it typically has a much shorter half-life. Often, it can simply be stored in a room for a matter of months to a couple years and then disposed of by more conventional means. So, in case it needs to be said, I’m not opposed to judicious and careful usage of radiopharmaceuticals and nuclear medicine.

Not a jesse fan:

Thank you for the information about paragraphs. I think we mostly agree. My economic argument about compensation was in response to comment 12 by Fung. He noted that people who lived in the Southwest were opposed to building nuclear waste dumps, and I stated they were opposed to it because they were not sufficently compensated. My argument does allow for the fact that waste dumps will be built in populated areas, and I argue that people in these areas should either be given the money to move, or if they do not wish to move because of sentimental attachment, etc. should be compensated (since forcing a person to move when he does not wish to do so is unjust).

Finally, I do think requiring a college education for some science related fields is VERY ineffienct. It has been my experience that scientists use complicated words for simple concepts in the hopes of making themselves and their profession more august. This is analogous to the latin Bible of the Catholic church and the Priests that read from it. I am not certain as to what sort of science background you have, but if you were involved with microbiology then you know it is rather simple. Many processes involve using a sterile cotton swab to transfer bacteria onto media, and using good technique to avoid contamination. My experience with microbiology and serology convinced me that what is important is not theorectical knowledge but good technique and a capacity to learn new skills. APIs are not difficult, biolog is not difficult, making media is not difficult, gram staining is not difficult, counting plates is not difficult, why should any lab tech need a 4 year science degree to do this? I became a pretty proficient micro person through 2 years of on the job training, I would have felt my 4 years of college to be a waste if I had worked there. Obviously research scientists live by different rules than simple lab techs ( lab techs are what most industries need?).

I think requiring college degrees does help to ensure some minimum standards, but when rigidly adhered to are unfair, and uneconomical.

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