Friday, August 2, 2013

Picking Through the Garbage in Belgrade

The politics and economics of garbage and recycling are fascinating, and it's always interesting to see what a moral issue the latter has become. The truth is that it's a lot more complicated than recycling good; trash bad. At least I think it is. I do believe that the environmental costs of garbage and disposal are not properly factored into the cost of things, but I also believe that the other side has a point, and that there are good things about landfills, styrofoam cups, burning garbage and other pursuits that do not seem to be so environmentally friendly, at first blush.

I enjoyed Steven Landsburg's The Armchair Economist a year or two ago, although I found it a bit strident at times. He made some good points about recycling, but he took it too far, in my view, when he dashed off a screed to his daughter's elementary school teacher explaining why his family would never recycle anything, and that she should stop proclaiming its virtues to her impressionable students.

His basic position is that if something has economic value, the market will extract it. And that's a good point, although I think it ignores a couple of issues regarding public goods and environmental costs. I'm not sure, but I think it does. He has a fascinating article on the subject that I came across a month ago. Whatever your position, I suspect that it will change marginally if you read it.

Anyway, when we lived in Egypt, the Copts had some kind of agreement with the city to pick up trash in return for the right to feed it to their pigs. That fell apart when the Brotherhood took over and ordered the slaughter of the animals. I think the actual mathematics of the deal are unknowable, but the story of extracting the waste from Cairo's trash and feeding it to pigs is a great yarn.

In Belgrade, it works like this: every block has a dumpster on it, and every day people bring their ubiquitous plastic bags and toss them into it. A truck comes around every day and empties the dumpsters. It seems to work pretty well, and they appear to have managed the problem of stray cats browsing the dumpsters quite, er, efficiently.

Some blocks also have a more modern take on the dumpster, a sort of chute that puts the trash in an underground container. This makes for a neater looking street, and also protects against vermin, I imagine, although I have yet to see any. They are assuredly there nonetheless.

It also frustrates (I think) the many people who spend their days picking through the dumpsters, mostly it seems, in search of cardboard, but really for anything of value. I snapped this photo this morning. I felt a little furtive doing it, but there she was, and I had been thinking about this post on my way to work, so I couldn't resist.

There's something both sad and wonderful about people picking through garbage. It's great that all economic value is being extracted from consumer goods, but, then again, I don't think anyone would wish that profession for their children.

It's complicated, and I am skeptic of anyone who claims otherwise.


  1. I read the Stephen Landsburg article. I think what he would categorize as casting something as a "moral issue", I would consider "recognizing that actions have negative externalities and accepting the responsibility to reduce them." But libertarians have never been comfortable recognizing externalities.

    He seems dreadfully concerned that people might be recycling more than what would be dictated by the optimal market equilibrium. Horrors!

    The Swedes have figured out a thing or two about recycling, and about producing energy from waste. They've become so good at it that they now import trash from neighboring countries. But they didn't get there through fealty to market forces. Instead, they took some pain early on, made the needed investments, created efficient systems and technology, and now they have moved their market equilibrium to the point where trash is now a profit center. I don't think that could have happened if they had been listening to Steven Landsburg.

  2. Good point, especially about the externalities. One thing I read somewhere, is that the EU makes manufacturers pay the disposal costs of their packaging, and that consequently, toothpaste doesn't come in boxes, for example.

    The thing I'm struggling with now is the idea that sucking a bunch of oil out of the ground, filling the hole up with plastic bags, covering it with grass and moving on isn't as awful as it sounds.

  3. The problem with plastic bags isn't so much when they get buried in the ground. It's when they don't get buried in the ground. Instead, they escape into the environment and get hung up in trees, clog up drains, and go down through the watershed where they end up smothering marine life. I think that recent municipal taxes on plastic bags have helped reduce this problem.