The Economics of Reducing Waste

Buying smarter and taxing the full cost of products on corporations would go a long way toward reducing waste.

  • “Outsmart Waste,” by Tom Szaky, challenges us to look at waste in a different way and transform it from useless trash to a useful resource.
    Cover courtesy Berrett-Koehler Publishers
  • There is already a model for taxing companies for the waste their products produce in the way that we tax cigarettes. Anywhere from $0.17 per pack in Missouri to $4.35 per pack in New York is collected to help offset the costs incurred by hospitals treating people who develop lung cancer.
    Photo by Fotolia/Kesu
  • Living the most sustainable lifestyle possible would require you to not buy new belongings and reuse the waste you create.
    Chart courtesy Berrett-Koehler Publishers

Outsmart Waste (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2014), by Tom Szaky, explores why the garbage crisis exists and explains how we can solve it by eliminating the very idea of garbage. To outsmart waste, Szaky says, we first have to understand it, then change how we create it and finally rethink what we do with it. The following excerpt from Chapter 9, “The Economics of Outsmarting Waste,” shows us that we might make reducing waste more appealing to companies and governments by speaking the language of economics.

The main reason why waste is sent to landfills and incinerators and why few of our outputs are recycled (like they technically can be) is all tied up in the economics of waste. It is simply more expensive to collect and recycle most things than the results are worth, and it’s cheap—because we allow it to be cheap—to send waste to a landfill or an incinerator.

Because our world is so economically motivated, perhaps we can make outsmarting waste more attractive by speaking the language of economics. There are hidden economic benefits of investing in the process of outsmarting waste on several different levels. Like the whole of outsmarting waste, these benefits can begin with you at home.

The Benefits of Outsmarting Waste on an Individual Level

Although outsmarting waste may require an investment of your time, every aspect should save you money. If you don’t buy unnecessary items, you can save money for something more important. Packaged processed food tends to be more expensive then unpackaged fresh foods. Durable products, even though they may cost more initially, will last longer than disposables and should save you money over the long term. Buying used instead of new will also leave a few extra bucks in your pocket.

Outside of buying differently, you can save money if you compost your organics, recycle your inorganics, and upcycle your non-recyclables. This will take more work than putting everything in a garbage can, but you will see a number of economic gains. Your waste management bill, if you are billed by weight, will decrease or completely disappear. You won’t have to buy potting soil, as you’ll be making fantastic compost. In states with container deposit laws, you will actually get money back for bringing your empty beverage bottles and cans to a recycling center. And because you will be able to make upcycled goods from your waste, you’ll save money by buying less stuff overall. If you don’t want to upcycle at home, look for services that help you recycle your non-recyclables.

You will also have the noneconomic benefit of knowing that you are not only contributing to solving a major environmental problem but actively working to fight it.

2/9/2015 1:10:42 PM

When we speak of the economics of reducing waste, you touched on one of the big problems - the cost of recycling products - but I think your solution is a bit backwards. They can place an EPR tax on all the manufacturing they want, but the manufacturers would just pass the costs onto the consumer. That may have the effect of reducing consumer consumption a bit (but only a bit, as $4.00/gal gas prices have proven), however it does nothing to encourage the creation of circular recycling patterns. To keep products out of the landfill, we have to encourage recycling and re-use. To encourage recycling and re-use, we have to create more of a market for those post-consumer recycled products. We have to level the playing field cost-wise. Go ahead and shoot for the taxes on manufactured products, BUT exempt all products made in whole or part from post-consumer materials from those taxes. Perhaps even pro-rate those exemptions based on the percentage of post-consumer content used. That way, manufacturers would have more of an incentive to keep the recycling circle going... and it would be easier for us who prefer buying recycled products to purchase them.



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