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Brooks Wilson's Economics Blog: The Trash Police

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Trash Police

John Brandon asks a couple of good questions in “Cities Increasingly Turn to 'Trash Police' to Enforce Recycling Laws.”

Beware the green police. They don't carry guns and there's no police academy to train them, but if you don't recycle your trash properly, they can walk up your driveway and give you a $100 ticket.

They know what's in your trash, they know what you eat, they know how often you bring your recycles to the curb -- and they may be coming to your town soon. That is, if they're not already there.

In a growing number of cities across the U.S., local governments are placing computer chips in recycling bins to collect data on refuse disposal, and then fining residents who don't participate in recycling efforts and forcing others into educational programs meant to instill respect for the environment.

From Charlotte, N.C., to Cleveland, Ohio, from Boise, Idaho, to Flint, Mich., the green police are spreading out. And that alarms some privacy advocates who are asking: Should local governments have the right to monitor how you divide your paper cups from your plastic forks? Is that really the role of government?

Rather than trying to police, fine and reeducate people into respecting the environment, local governments could hire people to sort trash.  Specialization creates wealth.  A sorting center would allow some workers to specialize in sorting trash, lowering the cost of sorting.  With the time saved, household members would have more time to concentrate on their areas of expertise or better enjoy their leisure. 


  1. The government local and other wise should stay out of out homes and now out of our trash cans. The need for environmental stewardship is real but to police the recycle bins is too far off center. The attempted separation of recyclables and trash should not be an offense for which fines are levied. The next step down this slippery slope could be incarceration for not paying the fines. This seems to be be pushing the limits of constitutionality regarding punishment. Randy Vines

  2. The communities involved should consider creating a sorting center. As you point out, such a center would create jobs and allow others to continue to pursue their own specializations. The cost of building, furnishing, and staffing such a center would need to be determined so that a cost-benefit analysis could be done between using the chips and a sorting center.

  3. L Coronado19/9/10 3:22 PM

    As far as economics is concerned it appears these actions by municipalities could eventually end up influencing consumer demand in both positive and negative ways. People in those cities imposing fines for not meeting quotas could end up shifting their buying habits to more recyclable products. However these laws could also cause people who consume very little overall to increase consumption and trash output simply to avoid the fines. In a way the government is influencing consumer demand to the benefit of recyclable products producers to the detriment of others. If the cost benefit to the citizens such as lower utility bills are real, perhaps the measure are warranted. However doing these things for the mere benefit of political agendas is questionable.

  4. No government intervention needs to happen when coming to recycling. They should not be able to fine citizens if you do not recycle. The local government hiring government employees to sort trash does not create wealth for the public only the government. All aspects of waste management should be privatized. Giving these private companies motivation and incentives to make money. It would also make the companies want to find more and more ways to improve, to run efficiently and to make more money.

  5. Jennifer Townsend26/9/10 10:11 AM

    I think it is great that they want to help with recycling and waste management but do we really need to go as far as to putting chips in peoples trash? I do not believe so. I honestly believe that more people would be more willing to recycle if the government made it easier for us to recycle. There are some people that do not have the means to haul items to the junk yards or dumps so it just gets dumped in with normal trash. If we all worked together we could accomplish this goal.

  6. Katie Cawthon26/9/10 3:45 PM

    I understand that recycling is a big deal and that it should be enforced, but putting chips in peoples' trash cans is taking it one step too far. At most thay should supply each household with a recycling bin and be happy with whatever recycling the outputs that houselhold gives. I dont think people should br forced to seperate their trash.

  7. I agree with the fact the recycling is very improtant to "going green", but it is not the governments place to govern the citizens that closely we have to right to recycle or not. Also it would be smart to establish jobs for people to sort the trash and such. I believe that if the govenment paid for each household to have their city come get there recycables than more families would be willing to participate in this effort.

  8. Maddie Morris28/9/10 8:45 PM

    I do agree that recycling is a big part saving the environment, but I also think that the government has bigger problems they need to tackle first before they start sending out "trash police". The best idea out of it all is the idea of a sorting center. This center would provide numerous jobs for unemployed workers and would be two steps in the right direction; one having a positive effect on the economy and two, helping save Mother Earth.

  9. Erica Caffey30/9/10 6:41 PM

    I agree with the fact that recycling is very important in saving our enviroment, but fining residents who don't participate in it, is going a little over the egde. If a person is forced to do something against their will, they are most likely not going to do it. For this reason, the best idea for this issue is the idea of a sorting center. A sorting center would improve our economy and improve the Earth.

  10. Recycling is very beneficial to our environment, but I don't see how fining people who choose to do it is beneficial at all. Right now, it is not mandatory that every household recycles, so if the ones who do it voluntarily are going to be fined, they will probably stop doing it at all. At this point, it's almost like fining people who are trying to save the environment. If it were made a law that every household is required to recycle, we would waste our manpower and tax dollars trying to enforce the law, and even more so in trying to make sure that people are recycling "correctly." I do think that recycling is important, but it would not be beneficial to our econonmy for our government to step in and enforce recycling laws. -- Brandi Armstrong

  11. I agree with keeping the environment safe, but sending out "police" to enforce it is really not smart. Like it or not, we are in a rebellious nation, so if there are "policemen" going around telling people to recycle, then a majority will just say no and find a way around it. Making jobs out of it is a great idea because it'll help out with unemployment. The Government has to make sure they can RUN the country right before they worry about garbage in the wrong can!!!!
    -Zach Johnigan

  12. I agree with recycling, what I don't agree with is the government interfering in our trash cans and then fining those who don’t recycle “correctly”. If the government wants to really step in and enforce recycling then they should hire people to sort the trash accordingly. Yeah, this will definitely not be the best job wanted but for anyone who is in a need of a job will probably want to earn money, even if its sorting out trash from trash cans. ~Belinda Varela

  13. Taking a rather extreme view over pollution and our world's declining state of welfare, introducing a policing force might just be the firm, more immediate form of addressing the problem's that society's apathetic attitude towards recycling has created, in order to produce a more responsive result and as well as increasing the governments economic resources. The persons who genuinely have an interest in this matter have most likely already taken action. The problem seems lie with the quantity of persons sharing this common interest of preserving our ecosystem. Taking an economists view, along with our current economic standings and considering the 2010 Nobel Prize in Economics was awarded to three gentlemen over the study of how economic frictions affect unemployment, the option of a "sorting center" or a firm created to make up for the lack of environmental concern among our current society, would obviously be our best option. The creation of thousands of jobs should never be overlooked or underestimated, in these times. Option one ,however, appeals a great deal more to me, considering it eliminates the governments expenses of building these recycling centers, as well as paying overhead, and wages. Depending on how critical the matter of recycling may be to the government, I would suggest a mixture of government enforcement, and government incentives. For example, provided that people do recycle accordingly to the governments requests, an incentive would be provided to those who willingly comply with such requests. Incentives even in business opportunities; providing pay roll tax cuts to anyone starting an recycling center. This way the government stays away from overspending, while eliminating the problem of under-recylcing, and creating jobs.

    -Tim Elliott

  14. Austin Anderson26/10/10 9:30 PM

    I agree with Tim