City’s garbage rates should go farther to discourage waste production

Scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced recently that the carbon dioxide levels in Earth’s atmosphere measured just shy of 400 parts per million. Evidence from ice core samples and other means strongly suggests that level is the highest that carbon levels have ever been since humans first appeared on Earth. In fact, one scientist said that the last time the carbon levels were this high, the sea level was between 33 and 66 feet higher.

In a city bordered on three sides by water, that should trouble everyone.

Clearly, humanity has reached the point that we must view the environmental ramifications of our behaviors as a whole rather than thinking of each of them in isolation. When it comes to solving this problem, a multitude of reforms are needed: cleaner energy, more efficient manufacturing, technological advances in material science and — let’s just put it out there — a reduction in consumption, including the needless packaging that often accompanies it.

That last part is where your garbage comes into the picture.

Recology, The City’s monopoly provider of residential waste disposal, is proposing an increase for home trash pickup that would hike the average bill by 21.5 percent, mainly to offset rising labor and fuel costs. One aspect of the new rate structure that we strongly support would encourage Recology’s customers to route less refuse to the landfill through pricing cues. The company would do this by increasing the price to pick up its large black refuse containers, while making it cheaper to have smaller cans. That should encourage more people to recycle and compost, both of which are better for the environment.

But merely encouraging people to transform their waste stream from refuse into recyclables and compost does less to change our behaviors than is truly needed. Much of Europe has already adopted waste pricing schemes that encourage an overall reduction in consumption, such as by charging customers for the weight of what they put into each of their bins. The idea behind such thinking is to make people pay directly for the impacts of their consumption.

The concept of levying a charge on behaviors that impact the larger community is hardly a new one. The British economist Arthur Pigou wrote about it in his 1920 book “The Economics of Welfare,” which is why such taxes are called Pigovian. A Pigovian trash fee in San Francisco could work to calculate the damage done to the environment by each type of item disposed. Items that end up in the black bin and are bound for a landfill would be the most expensive type of waste to dispose of. The other fees would step down from there.

People should have to pay for the true impacts of their consumption. Such a fee structure would make people think upstream, as it is called in manufacturing. Consumers would be encouraged to buy items with less packaging since they would be the ones charged to dispose of it. Such a fee structure would, in turn, pressure businesses to be more responsible in the products they make.

San Francisco has adopted the admirable goal of sending no trash to landfills by 2020. But talking zero waste is one thing; attaining it is something quite different. Recology should be encouraged to build upon the pricing cues in its current rate proposal by coming back with a proposed rate structure that actually makes zero waste a reality. The stakes are high.

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