20 June 2007

Natural Recycling

Here on Galiano Island, it is really quite easy to recycle. True, we have a wonderful recycling depot that accepts not only the usual suspects such as hard plastic, glass bottles, tin cans and newspapers, but also aluminum foil, plastic bags, corks, and more. All that is required is to bring your recyclables in on Thursday or Friday, and the nice folks at Galiano Island Recycling take it away for you.

But what really sets Galiano Island apart from other places is that essentially everyone recycles here. No, the people on Galiano are not saints. And while we have our fair share of true blue Greens, this rural island's population consists of people just the same as everywhere else. The reason everyone recycles here is because there is no garbage dump on Galiano. If you live on Galiano and have garbage that needs to end up in a landfill, there is a guy with a truck who will take your green garbage bag away for five bucks. When he collects enough bags he takes a trip on the ferry to a neighboring municipality and pays to dump our garbage in someone else's backyard. Eventually, nearly everyone here ends paying to have a bag of garbage taken away. But it is easier and cheaper to recycle. So people do.

The natural recycling that takes place on Galiano Island is arguably unique, but it illustrates one of the central challenges of the Green movement. People recycle, or take the bus, or reduce their carbon footprint, because they know it is the right thing to do, but reliance on altruistic behavior is insufficient. What is needed is convergence of incentive and action. Here is an example, drawn once again from the universe of recycling, that lends further supports to this idea.

A paltry 32 percent of people in the US recycle. In Philadelphia, a clever company called RecycleBank started paying people an average of $8 per week for recycling; rather than pay in cash, RecycleBank gives people coupons that are redeemable at various local shops. Not only do they pay people, but they take the headache out of recycling: they collect it at curbside and do all the sorting. They make their money by receiving the refundable deposit that accompanies bottles and cans, and they are paid a fee by the municipality for reducing garbage that would otherwise end up in the landfill. Six months after the program was rolled out, the percentage of people who recycled shot up to 90 percent. [For a more extensive report on how their business works, you can read the New York Times article here, but a paid subscription is required.]

That is why a proposal from Richard Stuebi over at Cleantech Blog makes sense. He argues that the price of gas should include all of the costs associated with its production, including defense spending in the Persian Gulf. He calculates that this would bring the price to roughly $6/gallon. His proposal would really make sense if income taxes were reduced commensurately. This is precisely what Elizabeth May, the head of the Green Party in Canada had in mind when she recently proposed a $.12/litre carbon tax.

Aligning actions with consequences makes sense. It may not save us from Kunstler's Long Emergency, but it is a step in the right direction.

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