Compost Conserved, Lifetime Wasted

The Devil finds work for idle hands. San Franciscans must be truly idle, and ruled by a devilishly cunning imp, to be hoodwinked into squandering any of their existence rooting around in their own garbage.

A more intrusive regime for the simple act of discarding something could hardly be devised. There will be - count ‘em - three color-coded bins into which garbage must be classified, as it is assessed for compostability and recyclability. This is more than enough to flummox the average left-coast high school grad. Since this is merely an interim goal, it's a forlorn hope that they won't find more ways to categorize your trash.

This government-in-your-garbage ordinance is in response to a self-inflicted wound. It is deemed necessary in order to comply with the city's self-imposed goal of 75% recycling by 2010, as a waypoint to zero waste by 2020. It would be much cheaper to just dig a hole.

One consequence that was apparently not intended is how much more expedient it is to throw garbage onto the street instead of into the correct aperture in your suite of trash receptacles. Already 80% of the millions of pounds of trash on the beaches, in storm drains and rivers, is washed off the land. Punishing people who put trash in a bin, but the wrong bin, is not going to improve the beaches. There is a goal for that too - zero trash runoff by 2022 - but this must remain incompatible with fining people for trying to do the right thing. That is, unless they also adopt a zero-people-by-2018 goal and chase everyone out of the state.

How big is the landfill problem they are trying to solve? It would be better to ask how small a problem. Bjorn Lomborg tackles landfill size anxiety in his classic "The Skeptical Environmentalist". Dr Lomborg calculates that all the trash generated by the entire United States, for the entire twenty-first century, "could be deposited in a single square landfill, less than 18 miles on a side - or 26% of Woodward County, Oklahoma" (which is chosen as an ordinary county right in the middle of the US). Since landfill land is purchased in competition with other land uses, it might seem reasonable to let the economic system work out the details. But no, the green lobby prefers government powers of coercion for so important a question.

Not even Californians in their earthly paradise live forever. Bay Area residents get the same three score and ten as the rest of us. A third is spent sleeping, a third working, and the other third is spent in the pursuit of happiness. Now a portion of that happiness time must instead be in pursuit of a new hole-in-your-life, garbage compliance.

How many heartbeats from each strictly finite lifetime will be wasted? More than you might think. For starters, there is a $100 fine if you choose the wrong bin for your piece of trash -- ten hours of hard labor for many of lower income. Since the penalty for getting it wrong is so high, this increases the marginal value of rifling your refuse to get it accurately sorted. Or you can toss it onto the street.

Actually, there is a lot of government-mandated compliance activity that you are required to find time for. That giant sucking sound is the sound of happiness being siphoned off, the ultimate unfunded obligation.