Thursday, January 10, 2008

What constitutes trash? 

James Lileks says "paper or plastic" will be a catch-phrase of the early 21st century, likely to die off.
The �Paper or plastic� question is coming to mean something different: Less evil, or utterly unsustainable, sir? Uh � less evil, please. The unloved and unlovely plastic bag, once a symbol of ease and progress, is being banned in city after city. Chicago and New York are considering a ban. San Francisco has banned them already. There�s another approach: tax them. Ireland charges 15 cents a bag � not a lot, but enough to make people think about bringing their own reusable hemp tote. Not me; I need paper bags. Without paper bags I don�t have anything to put the recycling in. It�s a vicious cycle. Sometimes I have two bags left over; one bag goes in the other, and they�re set out for collection.
We use plastic for the recycling (or paper if we're of a mind) but the paper bags hold more and ergo are preferred. So what happens to your leftover bags?
You can�t recycle one bag. You could, but if you just set it out, open and empty, I wonder if the recyclers would take it. Sorry, that�s garbage. It has to have a recyclable material inside for me to take it. But the item itself is recyclable! Sorry, the container doesn�t count. It's a rule. Keeps us from carting off recycling bins made of mud and wattles.
I prefer Mike Munger's test: If someone will pay you for the bags, they're a resource. If nobody will pay to take it off your hands, it's garbage. (Here's a related podcast on EconTalk.) If you have old copper pots and put them out, people will take them -- heck, people will steal them. There was a phase in antique collecting in the 1970s where glass insulators were collected by enthusiasts. As a college student, I found it therefore profitable to climb abandoned telephone poles along railroad tracks to get the insulators off them (abandoned meaning no wires. Why were the insulators left behind? Because when the wire was taken down, the glass was considered garbage. When it ceased to be such, college kids climbed the poles to get them. (As you'll see in that last link, there's still a market for them, so my guess is all the poles are now barren.)

Of course, there is the possibility that plastic taxes will happen because of rentseeking by large retailers. My local co-op has reusable cloth bags, but it's unlikely the mom-and-pop grocer will be pleased to spend its revenues on bags labeled "mom-and-pop". (The co-op bag has also that cachet of "I'm green!" written all over it.) It isn't always about less evil. It's sometimes about more profit.