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May 1, 1999
We need a new slogan for garbage. It isn't that I don't like reduce, reuse, recycle. The "3Rs" mantra is so simple a first grader can remember it easily. My problem with the 3Rs is that the phrase misses the point, and it causes tremendous problems when politicians debate how to manage our trash.
When we talk about garbage, we should focus on public health, cost efficiency and resource conservation, in that order. Granted those six words make for an unwieldy slogan, but let's concentrate on substance, not style.
First and foremost, managing garbage safely is a public health issue. If trash isn't collected, it piles up and starts to smell. Left uncollected for a few days, vectors (the sanitized term for rats and insects) start roaming in it. If it goes uncollected for a few weeks, the trash piles become breeding grounds for disease, causing a major public health menace.
Making trash collection as inexpensive as possible is next in importance. People pay for garbage services either as taxpayers or as residential or business customers who send their checks to private haulers. If collection costs are kept low, customers will have more money to spend elsewhere.
Finally, managing garbage is a resource conservation issue. Garbage can be sent to disposal facilities or it can be recycled. Recycling and waste reduction programs sometimes result in managing material and energy resources more wisely.
The public has forgotten about the health and cost savings imperatives of the solid waste system because garbage companies have been successful at meeting those needs. Uncollected trash piles are rare; open burning dumps illegal; and most Americans enjoy low cost garbage services.
Because our customers know their garbage will be collected on time for a reasonable cost, they focus on the third imperative - resource conservation. They want recycling and other waste programs at the same low cost as garbage collection.
I'm not saying we shouldn't practice the 3Rs. But we have to be realistic about the limits of reducing waste. We are an affluent culture that revels in its stuff. Most people are only willing to give lip service to waste reduction. That's why recycling programs are so popular. They allow people to have their stuff and use it again.
When politicians debate changes to local and federal solid waste laws, we must remind them that protecting the public health is the most important reason for collecting garbage. If a legislative proposal makes garbage collection more expensive, we need to ask if it also increases public health protections or conserves resources. If it doesn't, it should be rejected.
Politicians and the public need to stop talking about the 3Rs and start concentrating on public health, cost efficiency and resource conservation - or PH, CE and RC. That may not be as catchy a phrase as the 3Rs, but it's what solid waste management is really about.
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]
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