Thanks, Liberals. Now You’re Making Me Hate Recycling, Too.

Jason Kuznicki

Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and contributor of Cato Unbound. He's on twitter as JasonKuznicki. His interests include political theory and history.

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50 Responses

  1. Larry Signor says:

    A chip in everyones ass is coming.

    From the same article:

    “The city stepped up enforcement of ordinances governing trash collection last year by issuing 2,900 tickets, nearly five times more tickets than in 2008. Those infractions include citations for people who put out their trash too early or fail to bring in their garbage cans from the curb in a timely manner.

    The Division of Waste Collection is on track to meet its goal of issuing 4,000 citations this year, Owens said. “Report

  2. JFM says:

    Note again, that it is local govenment, as always, that is quickest to violate your freedom.
    Because people are too busy yelling at the President on TV to care.

    That said, they are almost always supported by conservative efforts to lower taxes – defunding government only makes it desperate and willing to impose fees everywhere. I imagine there would be no need for this if the recycling program were adequately funded through normal means.Report

    • Mike Farmer in reply to JFM says:

      Good Lord, now limited government advocates are to blame. Jason, it’s worse than you suspected, obviously. If we would only pay higher taxes everything would be alright. This has to be the best rationalization for nannyism I’ve heard in awhile.Report

      • Hyena in reply to Mike Farmer says:

        @Mike Farmer,

        Except that it’s not an “expansion of government” it’s “punishing people who break the law”. And that is why conservatives have plenty of problems with an 1/4 cent increase in sales taxes but no problems with $600 speeding tickets.Report

      • JosephFM in reply to Mike Farmer says:

        @Mike Farmer,

        That, and that I wasn’t referring to sincere advocates of limited government, but to the sort of Republicans that have no problem with all sorts of onerous mandates and fees so long as they can claim to have lowered taxes.Report

  3. Jaybird says:

    This is what happens when you start legislating “sin”.Report

  4. 62across says:

    Jason –

    Why is this an indication of how docile we’ve become and not an indication of government trying to be cost effective like we always say it should be?

    From the article: “Recycling is good for the environment and the city’s bottom line, officials said. Cleveland pays $30 a ton to dump garbage in landfills, but earns $26 a ton for recyclables. The city last year sent 220,000 tons of garbage to landfills and collected 5,800 tons of recyclables.”

    If the city can get Clevelanders to go along and bring recycling to around 10%, they stand to turn ~$600,000 in costs to ~$600,000 in revenue. Isn’t this a good thing? If a business made this effort, wouldn’t we applaud it?

    Offer another mechanism than a fine to drive citizen participation if you wish, but this is a good thing.Report

    • Jason Kuznicki in reply to 62across says:


      We have become so docile, apparently, that an entire city doesn’t rise up in rebellion when it is told that agents of the state will be picking through their trash.

      What’s next? The clean underwear patrol? The Did You Brush Your Teeth police? Community Don’t Wear White Shoes After Labor Day Watch?

      It would be entirely different if a private company had adopted this policy. Entirely different.

      Why? Because when I’m on company time, I accept that I have to obey certain rules and work within certain constraints. If I don’t like them, I can work somewhere else. Or I can just go home, where I (should) enjoy some measure of dignity and autonomy. There is no home here anymore — no private realm, free from the prying eyes of the state.Report

      • Dan Miller in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        So would you oppose any effort whatsoever to encourage recycling? And if so, what?Report

        • Simon K in reply to Dan Miller says:

          @Dan Miller, Round here recycling is free. Trash collection is expensive. Its always been quite enough of an incentive for me.Report

          • Dan Miller in reply to Simon K says:

            @Simon K, How is that different from a fine? Logically it seems like almost the same thing to me.Report

            • @Dan Miller, I don’t think the main problem here is that there is a fine for insufficient use of recycling, it’s that the mode of enforcement is incredibly invasive.

              To be sure, there is – legally speaking – no expectation of privacy in trash, but something like this drastically increases the likelihood that government will, in fact, go picking through your trash. Indeed, it’s quite easy to see how a program such as this could have particularly pernicious effects on an entirely compliant person.

              Like, say someone goes on vacation for a few weeks or winds up in the hospital, or whathaveyou. Under this program, the first time he puts his trash out after returning home, it is a virtual guarantee that he will have government employees picking through his trash and classifying every item therein. Even if he’s fully compliant with the recycling program, what are the chances that the employees (who will almost certainly be locals who may even know the resident in question) find something embarassing? Pretty good, right?

              And this doesn’t even get into what I take to be the main thrust of Jason’s concerns, which has to do with the concept of constant government monitoring of each and every citizen’s activities.Report

            • 62across in reply to Dan Miller says:

              @Mark Thompson, this is a very good point and how this program is enforced will be critical to its staying in control. I’m just not willing to assume it will get out of control, just because it is a government program.Report

            • @@62across, The thing is that the express terms of this particular program make clear that the scenario I described is exactly what this program does. The express terms of the program are that:
              1. There will be computer chips that constantly monitor the location of your trash and recycle bins.
              2. If you go “a few weeks” without putting your recycling bin out, then a government agent will (not may) be sent to sift through and analyze your trash.

              I have a hard time imagining any situation where “failure to put out recycling can for a few weeks” alone is sufficient justification for “government employee will sift through your trash.”Report

            • Simon K in reply to Dan Miller says:

              @Dan Miller, Besides the question of whether enforcement will be abusive or abused for other purposes (my money is on it being abusive), its expensive and potentially has worse unintended consequences to impose costs by fining people. For example, if the fine comes the first time you put the garbage out after a break, don’t you imagine people might stockpile garbage in their yards and then take it to the local dump, instead? Isn’t actually a deterrent to using recyclable packaging if you get fined for disposing of it incorrectly?

              The only benefit of this scheme over just fixing the relative pricing of recycling versus trash pickup to encourage the former, is that it increases the power and probably also the revenues of local government officials. Not that I’m cynical or anything, but its hard to see what other reason there could be for this elaborate, intrusive scheme over just setting the prices correctly. The whole point of recycling after all is that its cheaper to process than trash – its not like this is rocket science or anything.Report

      • gregiank in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        @Jason Kuznicki,
        “What’s next? The clean underwear patrol? The Did You Brush Your Teeth police? Community Don’t Wear White Shoes After Labor Day Watch?”

        OMG the slippery slope logical fallacy is going to send us all to gulags.

        “If I don’t like them, I can work somewhere else. Or I can just go home, ”

        And of course people are free to move out of Cleavland.

        “It would be entirely different if a private company had adopted this policy. Entirely different.”

        Would this be a time to mention the often unfair criticism of libertarians that they are perfectly fine with private companies being intrusive and controlling.

        I guess having public trash collection is just another road to dictatorship.Report

        • Jason Kuznicki in reply to gregiank says:


          If, years ago, someone had objected to recycling programs — based on the slippery slope danger that one day they’d be mandatory, and there would be computer chips in the bins, and you’d get fined if you didn’t do it, and Big Brother would go picking through your trash — the pro-recycling people would have called that fellow a lunatic. They’d have howled in laughter. A paranoid! Delusional! Idiot! He would never, ever have been taken seriously.

          But that guy everyone thought was a lunatic turned out to be completely, 100%, dead-on right.

          Do I hate all recycling programs? No. But whenever I see a recycling bin, from now on I’m going to remember this.Report

          • Jaybird in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

            @Jason Kuznicki, back when Bush was president, if you had told me that leftists would be screaming “LOVE IT OR LEAVE IT!” within 10 years when people complained about mandatory fines for not recycling, I’d have said that you were selling our lefty friends short.Report

            • gregiank in reply to Jaybird says:

              @Jaybird, I’m not saying love it or leave it. I think Jason is doing a poor job of explaining the issues with this. Mark does a better job a few posts up. I have heard plenty of libertarian types say how people can just pick up and move if their company treats them like crap even in the middle of a massive recession. People can also vote out officials who support this or protest it. The people actually have options for fighting back if they wish. If they don’t then i guess they think this is okay.Report

            • Jaybird in reply to Jaybird says:

              @gregiank, And of course people are free to move out of Cleavland.

              Hey, if you don’t like living in a country where we are free to complain about the government…

              Well, I suppose you just need to wait around a while.Report

      • 62across in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        @Jason Kuznicki, dismiss the “good for business argument” if you want. It’s not important to my point.

        But, I thought you were one of those who was always going on about waste in government. Here is an instance where a city is trying to transition costs to earnings in order to gain significant savings. To realize those ends, which are admirable I think, the city needs its residents to cooperate. The status quo has the city recycling at less that 3% and getting it to around just 15% would mean a great deal, so some method is needed to increase civic participation.

        So you hate the fine and sifting through people’s trash. Fair enough. I hate it, too. Perhaps an extensive ad campaign could bring about the desired result. But that campaign would have costs, too. If they had to raise taxes for that campaign, wouldn’t the costs go to everyone indiscriminately? Isn’t it preferred to shelter those taking personal responsibility from the costs?

        I have issues with the design of the program. My response was about how seeing “recycling”, “government” and “fine” in the same article brought the visceral reaction of “OMG, nanny state” with so little consideration of the alternatives.Report

        • Jason Kuznicki in reply to 62across says:


          I am absolutely “always going on” about waste in government. You should too, because it’s equally your money.

          I consider that 4,000-ticket quota for insufficient recycling, as Cleveland has, is almost certain to be wasteful. To say nothing of invasive. This really does look like Big Brother at work to me, and how anyone can fail to be at least a little disturbed is really sort of beyond me.

          Want to provide incentives and disincentives for people to recycle, while still maintaining a little dignity and privacy? Try this instead, from a commenter at Volokh:

          [I]nstead of a flat-fee bill, the bill is (+) for trash by the pound, (-) for recyclables by the pound. This gives people a direct financial incentive rather than a fine-based incentive to recycle.

          So simple. Instead, though, what we’re going to get in the rest of this thread is probably a lot of people saying “oh, fines are okay, they’re the price we pay for civilization” or somesuch nonsense. A colossal failure of imagination.Report

          • Rufus in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

            @Jason Kuznicki, I wonder if areas couldn’t address recycling through some sort of incentive/discount like the Beer Stores do here. They have something like a 90+% recycling rate on beer bottles and cans because they add a discount on to your next purchase for the bottles and cans you bring back. So, we all bring our “empties” when we buy beer. I wonder if grocery stores, for instance, couldn’t do something similar. It would encourage recycling and, probably, get people to buy more groceries than they would otherwise.Report

          • 62across in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

            @Jason Kuznicki, I always go on about government waste, too, which is why I wondered how you could give that effort so little weight in your initial assessment of the Cleveland program. I am disturbed by the Big Brother factor here, but it has to be considered balanced against the program’s benefits and the alternatives. It may very well not be worth the trade-offs or perhaps someone like Rufus could offer up a better way, but that is up for the people of Cleveland to decide and they won’t assess the situation well if they dismiss any part of it out of hand.Report

        • Lyle in reply to 62across says:

          @62across, Here is a business opportunity set up a trash collection service that does not restrict but charges more and we can find out how much its worth.
          Anyway this is an evil british idea. Just more reason to move to a suburb where it will not be in place, just like Wal-Mart builds right to the city limits of the cities that don’t want them.Report

    • Rufus in reply to 62across says:

      @62across, How much does it cost to install radio frequency identification chips and bar codes in all of the city recycling boxes? I’d add that to the costs. Also do they already have these trash monitors on staff, or do they have to hire and pay more people?Report

  5. Mike Farmer says:

    It’s amazing how some people have no problem with such invasions into our lives. It’s also pathetic how all some can do is make fun of the slippery slope argument as they slide into bondage. What nice subjects they will be — the State will surely reward their cheerful cooperation. Good little comrades they are. But it’s just trash we’re taking about, that’s all.Report

    • 62across in reply to Mike Farmer says:

      @Mike Farmer, I have big problems with invasions of my privacy. And if I always had some Pavlovian response whenever the word “government” came up, I’d be barking like a dog now, just like you.

      But I don’t react to government actions in some knee-jerk way. I consider the facts. And in this case, if I were a citizen of Cleveland, I could control any invasion of my privacy merely by putting my cycling bin out once in awhile, even if it was empty. In return, my municipal government could save millions of dollars in costs, reducing pressure to increase my taxes.

      I thought you favored lower taxes.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to 62across says:

        @62across, maybe we could reduce poverty by sterilizing women and they can only become fertile again if they pass an IQ test.

        What? I thought you people liked poverty reduction!Report

        • Aaron in reply to Jaybird says:

          @Jaybird, you seem to resort to reductio ad absurdum quite a bit, Jaybird.

          Nobody is addressing 62across’ point — the city can apparently create a substantial revenue windfall without raising taxes on the citizens by enforcing recycling ordinances. All of that seems like an excellent thing so far. Can someone suggest a mechanism that the city could use to get more than 3% (!) of the population to recycle other than fining people who don’t? Beyond that, nothing is stopping anyone from going through your trash now, if the Big Brother angle is what’s bothering you. That’s just kind of childish.

          Anyways, nothing’s stopping anyone from taking their trash to the dump themselves. You don’t want to use the cities’ trash services? Don’t! Well, deny them your trash productivity, Mr. Galt!Report

          • Jaybird in reply to Aaron says:

            @Aaron, and if I don’t like it, I can just move?

            To Somalia?Report

          • Simon K in reply to Aaron says:

            @Aaron, But its easy to generate revenue and encourage recycling. Charge people the full cost (or more) of their trash pickup and make sure recycling is free and easy. That way you don’t have any enforcement costs, you make at least some money by selling the recyclables and you get revenue from the trash collection. What exactly is the benefit of this scheme over just correcting the prices? You need more staff, it costs money to enforce, its intrusive and it will inevitably be selectively and abusively enforced. Those are only advantages from the point of view of the city government, of course, not the poor suckers having their garbage sifted through.Report

            • 62across in reply to Simon K says:

              @Simon K, I’d prefer this approach, but it’s not without its own problems. It seems to me that this would incentivize dumping your trash at the nearby park or in your neighbor’s yard.

              If the starting place in the discussion is to assume evil motives on the part of government and the citizenry, it becomes self-fulfilling doesn’t it?Report

      • Mark Thompson in reply to 62across says:

        @62across, “And in this case, if I were a citizen of Cleveland, I could control any invasion of my privacy merely by putting my cycling bin out once in awhile, even if it was empty.”

        This strikes me as just a variation of “if you don’t have something to hide, then you don’t need to worry about intrusive government searches.”Report

        • 62across in reply to Mark Thompson says:

          @Mark Thompson, I can see the similarities, though it’s not what I intended. I’m open to the problems here and certainly understand the “ick” factor of having anyone rooting through my trash.

          The bottom line for me, though, is we have a city trying to achieve cost effectiveness and trying to target the cost of city services toward those citizens who are not helping keep the budget under control. These seem to me to be clear public goods. There are almost certainly better ways to achieve these objectives than the program Cleveland is going to use and that is a debate worth having. I would hope the good citizens of Cleveland engage their government to find one of these better ways.

          But that debate won’t happen or at least is made very difficult, if the place people start from is “Government BAD – damn those hippy-environmentalists.”Report

    • historystudent in reply to Mike Farmer says:

      @Mike Farmer, I agree with most of your comment, Mike. Except the final sentence. Recycling whatever “trash” we can is very important, especially since we Americans produce so much much — out of proportion with the rest of the world. But this plan is not the way to go. Encouragement, education, and inducements are.

      This trend toward monitoring increasing chunks of American’s lives by electronic devices (chips, smart meters, etc.) may seem innocuous to some, but the tightening web of government control runs the risk of becoming tyrannical if people who choose to use it that way are in power. Better not to offer the temptation to such people by rejecting every “innocuous” encroachment before it becomes entrenched in daily life.Report

  6. Alan Scott says:

    So Jason, are you objecting to the fact that the operators of a waste management service have made rules about what is and isn’t allowed to be thrown into their trashcans, or are you objecting to the fact that they’re backing up those rules with a fine?

    Would it be okay if instead of collecting a fee they just dumped all the unacceptable waste in their client’s driveways instead?Report

    • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Alan Scott says:

      @Alan Scott,

      I am objecting that it is a government and I believe a monopoly doing this. If people had other choices, I’d have less of a problem, and if it weren’t the government, I would have basically no problem with it.Report

      • Alan Scott in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        @Jason Kuznicki, I’d be very surprised if the government is a monopoly in this case, Jason. Cleveland would have to be different from everywhere I’ve lived–where the city trash pickup is the default, but you’re always welcomed to take your trash to the dump, or pay somebody else to do it for you.Report

        • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Alan Scott says:

          @Alan Scott,

          I would be very surprised if the city dump were not a monopoly. Also, I wasn’t aware that there even were any independent curbside trash collection services. I’d figured that the subsidized service drove them out of business.Report

  7. Rufus says:

    1. This is the sort of news item that makes me rush to make sure it’s not April 1st.

    2. I hope Clevelanders freak out and the idea bites the dust.

    3. You know, entire countries have been able to solve their budget problems by making massive cuts to government spending along with small, universal tax increases. Believe it or not, Canada did it. Japan did it. England has announced they’re going to close their budget gap by 75% with budget cuts and 25% with taxes. At some point, the political system in the US is going to have to allow its political leaders to do something similar, instead of adding fines to everything and making law enforcement a financial growth industry.

    4. I still don’t see how the fines cover the cost of the chips, receivers, and paid monitors, but maybe that’s just me.Report

    • Rufus in reply to Rufus says:

      5. Some of us who are eco-nuts actually pride ourselves on not taking out the recycling for weeks at a time because we’re not buying enough crap that needs to be recycled. So, when the trash detectives show up, do they consider us a “false alarm”?Report

    • 62across in reply to Rufus says:

      @Rufus, I would expect the cost of the chips, receivers and monitors would be off-set by the difference between reduced cost of dumping trash and increased revenue from selling recyclables.

      I hope Clevelanders fight this as well, but they shouldn’t expect a better outcome if they merely freak out about it.Report

    • Alan Scott in reply to Rufus says:

      @Rufus, A cheap RFID Tag costs fifty cents, and a cheap RFID tag reader costs about $500. If you figure two trashcans per household, and one garbage truck per five hundred households, then the RFID equipment costs $2 per household plus installation.Report

  8. sidereal says:


    If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on an empty beer can. Forever.Report