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Trashing Our Society

Last Sunday night, I was relaxing in my comfortable lounge chair studying Consumer Reports’ ratings of interior latex paints when …

Last Sunday night, I was relaxing in my comfortable lounge chair studying Consumer Reports’ ratings of interior latex paints when I stumbled upon a terrifying piece of information. I’d just finished reading CR ‘s fascinating comments on Behr Premium Plus Flat paint-which gives the consumer the best bang for his flat-paint buck-when the magazine accidentally fell out of my hands. Scooping it up, I found it had fallen open to the last page of that month’s feature report: “Recycling: Is It Worth the Effort?” These are the words I read:

“Some experts are now recommending that cities charge households different fees according to the amount of trash they generate. In most cities, residents now pay for municipal trash collection through their general property taxes, and pay the same amount whether they habitually fill one small trash can or four big ones. But some cities, such as Seattle, have started to bill households directly, with the price rising sharply for every additional trash can.”

Needless to say, Consumer Reports thought this was a wonderful idea. I, on the other hand, was aghast-not only for myself, dreading yet another situation in which I would have to kowtow to the local bureaucracy, but also fearful of such an innovation’s impact on society in general. I speak from the bottom of my heart when I say that making households pay for garbage disposal on the basis of the amount they generate could lead to a breakdown of society.

Ecologists will scoff at this suggestion, arguing that the innate American spirit of fair play will persuade most people that heavy trash producers should pay more for their curbside pickup than lighter trash producers.

However, this view overlooks the powerful economic incentive ordinary Americans now will feel to sneak out in the middle of the night, laden with heavy garbage bags, and dump them into the river. This inevitably will lead to beefed-up security at all public dumping places, garbage-disposal sting operations, and probably a large number of humiliating arrests. Otherwise-law-abiding citizens will be handcuffed and dragged off to the hoosegow in their pajamas, still clutching their gaping Hefty Bags.

Before long, a steering committee of vindictive environmentalists will argue that the best way to deal with such garbage scofflaws is to festoon telephone poles with their photographs and publish their pictures in newspapers so they will become objects of scorn at church and in the office. Meanwhile, their innocent children will be forced to endure the slings and arrows of outrageous ecological obloquy at school each day. A spate of suicides will ensue.

That will not be the end of it, though. Once excessive-garbage-generating citizens who cannot afford to pay for their slovenly habits realize it is unsafe to illegally dump their trash in the middle of the night-partially because of DWG (Driving With Garbage) units-they’ll start burning their garbage in their chimneys or basements or backyards. The next thing you know, highly trained EPA SWAT teams will swoop down on suburban homes in daring pre-dawn raids and haul the malefactors off to court. More obloquy, more fines, more suicides.

At this point, resourceful generators of excessive waste will resort to more cunning stratagems. Some will creep out at 3 a.m. and dump their trash in their neighbors’ receptacles, vastly increasing their household outlays for garbage pickup. After a few hundred scofflaws are blown away by neighbors armed with shotguns who have concealed themselves behind the shrubbery, renegade garbage producers will start carrying their refuse to work and clumping it in the mail room. Others will load up gym bags and drop off six pounds of trash a day at the YMCA. More upscale types will jam the garbage inside their golf bags and toss it into the sand trap on the 14th hole.

Before long, the police will completely lose control of the situation, as neighborhoods become armed camps, pitting one household against the next. Generational feuds will erupt, triggered by the accidental shooting of a young man who was suspected of dumping 20 pounds of used kitty litter onto his neighbor’s front step when he was really dropping off Toys for Tots. Roving gangs of garbage vigilantes will lynch suspicious individuals apprehended with anything that even vaguely resembles trash on their persons. Poorly trained private security forces will open fire on Aunt Ediths and Uncle Jerrys all across the country as the poor retirees neglectfully toss potato chip hags out car windows while pulling into the driveway where dear little Tiffany is having her first birthday party. Before long, as the government shows itself incapable of dealing with the crisis, open civil war will erupt.

Is there any way this horrible scenario can be avoided? Yes: Accept excessive generators of garbage for what they are and leave them in peace. While it may be true that in the best of all possible worlds those who produce more garbage should pay more to have it picked up, there is no plausible mechanism to facilitate such a system without tearing this country to pieces. Garbage scofflaws should be treated as socially dysfunctional people who cannot help themselves. They should be taught to reduce their household waste through a judicious mixture of group therapy and hands-on garbage-disposal re-orientation by seasoned ecologists. Any other approach is certain to end in civil disobedience, an epidemic of senseless violence, and, inexorably, the decline and fall of civilization as we know it.

Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron’s and The Wall Street Journal. 

About Joe Queenan

Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron's and The Wall Street Journal.