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My Waste, My Responsibility

A student group at a California university recently adopted the slogan, "My Waste, My Responsibility." I have not been able to contact these students about what their slogan means, but I suspect they are promoting waste reduction and the idea that "responsible" people create as little waste as possible.

But what if their slogan is applied to recycling and disposal? Recycling is simple. No doubt they want "responsible" people to recycle as much garbage as possible through drop-off or buyback centers, and curbside recycling.

Disposal is trickier. I don't think the students want people to "responsibly" dispose of their garbage in a hole or incinerator in their own backyard.

In the past, backyard disposal options were legal in some parts of this country. My grandparents burned garbage in their Denver backyard in the early 1950s. Eventually, local politicians realized that backyard garbage combustion was a major contributor to air pollution and banned it.

As for landfills, most of us don't have enough space in our backyards for personal landfills. Some Texans, however, have big backyards. Last year, Texas regulators approved semi-arid disposal regulations for these people. I call them YIMBY (Yes, In My Backyard!) regs because they allow Texans to bury their garbage on their property under certain circumstances. The YIMBY regs recognize the geographical and demographic conditions in the Lone Star state and place strict limits on how much and where garbage can be buried. At least in Texas YIMBY-ism is alive and well.

One of the most compelling arguments in the debate over interstate waste transportation is the belief that every state should be responsible for disposing of its own waste (although this always means solid waste and never means hazardous or nuclear waste). New York usually is the big villain in this debate because it is the biggest garbage exporter on a tonnage basis.

Yet, based on the percentage of a state's waste that is disposed of in other states, New York is overshadowed by nine other states and the District of Columbia. New York only exported 13 percent of its waste in 1997.

Higher exporters include Maryland, Vermont, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Delaware, Illinois, Missouri, Louisiana, Idaho and Washington, D.C., which export high percentages of garbage because they are small, lack suitable land for disposal facilities or have large population centers located on state borders.

Out-of-state disposal is a logical option for private and public sector haulers in these states, especially for haulers who want to use the most environmentally protective facilities and to offer lower cost service to their customers.

"Responsibility" - I'm all for it, as long as protecting public health and cost efficiency are its primary considerations. But if responsibility means drawing irrelevant lines in the sand, that's just irresponsible.