Trash policy: Rising waste disposal fees are a growing threat to the environment

By John Klar

I expect most of us agree that pollution is a bad thing, especially garbage. Before I was born, my family (like most) dumped their garbage over the bank across the road from the family dairy farm here in Vermont. To this day, the steep bank is strewn with 1940s and 1950s vehicles, bottles and rusted cans. My great-grandfather’s pipe tobacco tins are a signature Stoddard (my mother’s side of the family, and my middle name) trademark.

John Klar

The human population of America has roughly tripled in the last century, but the amount of manufactured junk we consume and discard is exponentially greater than a mere tripling — our grandparents lacked the ability to pollute on the scale now available. The wealth generated during that time has allowed us to be “wealthy” in the detritus that clutters our landscape. By the 1980s, this had created a crisis in our landfills.

Garbage Mountains

In the last two decades I have watched one landfill, in Coventry, Vermont, become a massive mountain. Garbage is trucked there (in the far north of Vermont) from New Jersey and other points south. The magnitude of the pile is almost unfathomable, but that mountain has replaced the widespread dispersion of old cars and cans down stream banks. This provides an illusion that we humans are somehow neat and clean: “out of sight, out of mind.” Just so long as that garbage is “not in my backyard.”

The effluent that leaked out of landfills turned out to be quite toxic, and found its way into wells and groundwater. Leachate is carcinogenic, a soup of chemicals and toxins cast away with household trash for decades. By the 1980s this had become obvious, and Superfund status was afforded to numerous landfills around the nation. In addition to managing this outflow of chemical soup with very costly clean-up projects, new landfills were lined with clay and designed to trap leachate, and landfills were placed in less hazardous areas where they were less likely to contaminate fragile ecosystems and groundwater.

In tandem, efforts arose to clean up the garbage that increasingly scarred roadsides. One important initiative was returnable empty bottles and cans. People hesitate to throw those nickels out the car window when they toss their empty MacDonald’s bags and cigarette butts, and even when they do toss them there are those willing to scour roadsides to collect empties as (hard-won) tax-free income.

But that is starting to change, and I fear we will see more garbage on roadsides and streambeds. Government policy can only do so much, and sometimes it does harm. Vermont’s Legislature is epic in its delusional faith that it can alter human behavior effectively: it has passed unenforceable laws against car idling, pushed to impose a redemption fee on water bottles, and mandated that people compost their table scraps — while explaining that there would be no enforcement. This degrades both policy effectiveness and the legitimacy of the rule of law: a very bad mix, and a failure of government.

Today, a nickel isn’t worth what it once was, and inflation will ensure that trend continues: increasingly there will be less incentive for people to invest in gasoline to drive around retrieving empty bottles and cans from roadsides. For the same reason, people will more lightly toss out those empties — they aren’t worth washing and returning (and some places, like my waste handler, now also charge for recycled materials). But meanwhile, a problem is growing from the opposite direction — increased disposal fees. I will use baling plastic as an illustration of this unfolding problem.

Plastic Bale Wrap: a Case Study

Baling wrap is plastic used to wrap round bales of hay to protect against rot and rain. This allows dry round bales to be stored outside without a barn, as is often seen along Vermont roadways. But in the case of “baleage,” which is hay harvested while still containing a significant amount of moisture, the plastic is necessary to keep the hay from rotting — it ferments instead. The environmental cost of this plastic is justifiable for grass-fed animals, because it is offset by eliminating grain from their diets, together with the fossil fuels, chemicals, and other environmental costs associated with growing and processing that grain.

John Klar

Feeding cows a round bale at John Klar’s Vermont farm

In the last two years, the cost of baling plastic has skyrocketed. But so too have fees for disposing of garbage, including all that plastic. My local dump in Vermont now charges $9 per contractor bag for disposal. I want to protect the environment and always have, but at what point do dump fees become so high that people leave their household trash and old couch on the side of the road? — especially if they are feeding their children (or feeding an addiction). Affordable garbage disposal incentivizes people to properly dispose of their trash; costly fees at some point tip the incentive to roadside dumping.

Lightly-wrapping the round bales with plastic is more cost-effective, but preserves the hay less effectively. The amount of plastic on a bale varies. In some cases, I can only cram the plastic from about five round bales into a single contractor bag, and so this adds nearly $2 per bale to the cost of feeding my cows. This disposal cost may well exceed the cost of buying the plastic new. These costs can’t be passed on to customers, so they eat into farmers’ already-anemic profit margins.

Less conscientious farmers will be easily tempted to burn their plastic bale wrap, or bury it, or leave it in a pile for a future generation — much like my grandparents dumped their waste over the bank 70 years ago. This is not a good thing for anyone. At some point the same principle applies to all household garbage: many low-income people will have to choose between eating, and dumping. The costlier the disposal fees, the greater the incentive to risk throwing garbage bags at a roadside pull-off. It’s that simple.

It’s all well and good to pass nobly-intentioned laws to protect the environment, but human behavior and economics are ever-present realities that cannot be bypassed. It would be a lot less costly for society if the government subsidized rising waste disposal fees rather than dispatched road crews to pick up ubiquitous garbage. Otherwise, the classic “tragedy of the commons” will rule, and taxpayers will be compelled to absorb the costs of garbage, either monetarily or environmentally, for those who dump or burn their refuse to avoid escalating disposal fees.

A Growing Problem

Raising bottle deposits to a dime will not correct this problem, and lower-income neighborhoods will begin to be fouled with piles of vermin-attracting waste while wealthier areas maintain health and appearance. That is neither equitable, nor sensible.

Future trash policy must reckon with on-the-ground realities, and with the natural tendencies of human nature. Expensive waste disposal is a great threat to the environment: solutions are going to be necessary soon.

John Klar is an attorney and farmer residing in Brookfield. This commentary is republished from Small Farm Republic.

Images courtesy of John Klar and

3 thoughts on “Trash policy: Rising waste disposal fees are a growing threat to the environment

  1. We didn’t just wake up here in this place.. we’ve been being brainwashed and re-programmed for a good 50 years now and this is where that has taken us too.

    We’ve been taught to be Consumers.
    We’ve been taught that consuming and taking on debt is good for the country, we are participating in our economy and this is all good stuff- they say, so keep on buying the Chinese crap- it feels good they say.

    But in reality, it’s led to our enslavement and piles of trash that are actually mountains now.
    We have lots of stuff but very low quality lives– says the rates of addiction, depression and suicides.

    Just yesterday on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show there was a man promoting his book about farming that was reminding us that Farming was not always a money making venture.
    You farmed to survive, to feed your family. What the payoff was back then was that you were FREE, you were self sufficient, you were feeding your family. You were not a government wage slave feeding your babies food made in factories of chemicals.
    The payoff was not in cash dollars per se, it was a free and healthy life of self sufficiency.

    THEN our friends on the Left decided that Farming needed to be elevated into a money making venture.. and look at where this has all led us too.
    Today, we need to really think about what the value of money really even is anymore.
    Do you own it- or does it own you?
    Ask yourself those questions.
    Think about how many hours of your life it will take to buy that thing.. do you really want a new pocketbook that it takes a week of wages just to pay for?

    It costs 30 bucks to get rid of a couch at my dump.
    I can buy three hunks of meat for that money to feed my family for most of the week.
    So the last time I paid this to ditch a cheap crappy couch, I decided it was my last time.
    I bought an old wood framed couch from the 70s at a second hand store, it’s hand made and solid as a rock (Made in Vermont actually) I’m making cushions for this thing myself and when they are no good or dated looking- I’ll recover them again.
    It’s my goal to not buy another couch again for a damned long time because I don’t want to get rid of a couch for a damned long time.
    THIS is how we need to change.

    We need to make things that last forever again.. we should not be throwing away 3 year old appliances that cost us over a thousand dollars.
    We should be creating packaging that can be reused again.
    I bought “Classico” spaghetti sauce for one whole winter because I wanted those jars for a project I was doing. That was a lot of jars not going to the dump simply because that brand chose to use a nice looking jar that has many uses. Now imagine if many places did this.
    Why is soap all individually wrapped in boxes?
    There is a lot of stuff that is over packaged.. why are we letting them do that?

    Getting rid of trash is not a singular thing, it’s a Lifestyle of reducing, of re-using, of buying things very conscientiously as we think of the entire lifespan of the item..

    In Europe, they don’t have disposable couches. You buy a handcrafted, hardwood high quality couch that may cost a few thousand dollars, but it’s the only couch you’ll ever buy- plus you are paying the craftsmen that make these works of art.
    When it’s old and worn you have it re-upholstered. This is a couch you’ll hand down to your kids and they may possibly never throw a couch in the dump in their entire lifespans.
    Yes this is possible.

    My grandmother has a Maytag washer she bought brand new in 1969.
    She’s replaced parts and still uses it to this day. She’s lived almost 100 years now and thrown only a single washer to the dump in her entire lifetime. One of us will happily take that old Maytag and keep right on using it- the thing may never die!
    Yes, we can do this.. but we need to get back to that mentality and we need to create high quality products here again that stand the test of time.

    The Consumerism Economy needs to be gone now because it’s why we are not longer free, we’re all enslaved by debt and stuff and mountains of trash.
    Shopping is not supposed to fill your emotional voids and we were not supposed to be forced to work like dogs to be forced into a position of needing to replace everything we own every 4 or 5 years because we only have such low quality junk now to buy.
    The low quality of the lives we are living today has every bit to do with the mountains of trash we have and when when large amounts of people get this, we’ll really start seeing progress on both issues.

    When we get what ‘American Exceptionalism’ means and return to that- we’ll produce a whole lot less garbage and live happier lives..
    I think it’s worth it- because I’ve lived long enough now to have seen what it was before- and what we are doing today is not better at all.

  2. This is true because if disposing of trash legally gets too expensive then people will either burn it wherever and whenever they can or just throw it out wherever they can when no one is looking.

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