Golden Wastebasket

You may have heard that there is gold in garbage. And there is, although it takes work to find it. Now, we have the golden wastebasket. It might not be golden, but it must be special to cost $2,200. According to a Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) report, Dennis Kozlowski, the former CEO of Tyco who has been indicted for his alleged financial misdeeds at the company, spent $2,200 corporate dollars on a “gilt metal” wastebasket. That's right, a golden trash can.

Most of us react to a $2,200 trash can with disbelief and maybe even laughter. We might wonder what Kozlowski put in his wastebasket or if he left it empty so that it wouldn't get dirty. For the most part, we believe that a person is free to spend his money however he wants to — it is his money. But if you were a Tyco investor, you would be outraged. It's your investment and money that is being trashed.

According to the SEC report, Kozlowski spent corporate money on other bizarre items, including a $15,000 French antique umbrella stand shaped like a three-foot high poodle. To some people, this is not wasteful spending. Kozlowski's interior decorator defended the trash can in The Wall Street Journal as a “perfectly normal accoutrement” in a luxury apartment. And I can sympathize with her. After all, who wants to put a $5 plastic wastebasket next to a 3-foot high poodle?

Our perception of wasteful spending depends on the eye — or wallet — of the beholder. Clearly, Kozlowski's other alleged financial shenanigans, totaling in the hundreds of millions of dollars, were far more serious than the wastebasket. Yet we glom onto the trash can and the poodle umbrella stand because they are graphic and memorable examples of out-of-control spending.

In the garbage world, we have similar examples of both bizarre and excessive spending. Many of the latter came from the bad-old-days of flow control. Probably the most outrageous example was the $70 million transfer station built by a solid waste authority in Bergen County, N.J.

Unfortunately, recycling may become the media's version of the $2,200 wastebasket. A recent NBC News segment, “Fleecing of America,” was the latest manifestation of the backlash against recycling. The three-minute piece was typical of television news — superficial, short on facts and misleading. It focused on Chicago's blue bag problems, while flashing banners announcing cutbacks in other urban programs. Briefly, almost as an afterthought, it praised San Francisco's recycling program. The thousands of recycling programs that operate quietly and effectively were ignored. NBC declared, “across the country, cities have found recycling does not pay for itself.” That's correct. Recycling costs money. Wait a minute, so does cable television. Maybe I should turn off the television and ignore Tom Brokaw.

Instead, we should continue to oppose excessive spending on solid waste and recycling, such as the flow control follies we endured in the past. And we should ensure that our recycling and composting programs are operated with ruthless financial efficiency. After all, doing well is the best revenge.

The columnist is state programs director for the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C.

Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect the National Solid Wastes Management Association or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at: [email protected]