Yes, most plastic waste in the ocean comes from monsoon flooding of Asian rivers / cities that washes trash out into the ocean. Yes, plastic drinking straws are a trivial percentage of the waste stream. So yes, plastic drinking straw bans will have little effect on cleanliness of the environment.
BUT, this effort does seem to be occupying environmentalists and satisfying millennial needs for social media virtue signalling, all people who have many MUCH worse ideas for "improving" the world. In other words, every day spent by these folks pushing for and preening over this lame plastic straw effort is one less day they can spend pushing for things that would be much more destructive. It's like getting the termites around your yard to focus on easting the dead log in the back rather than eating the rafters in your house.
I write on this blog a lot on those days in my job that get me down. That only makes sense because I write about government regulatory policy vis a vis business and it is government interventions that often cause me the most heartache.
But there are good days too. I have been putting together a new division and really need someone with b2b sales and marketing experience to run it and get it going. I was just trying to figure out how I wanted to do a search when a resume came to me unsolicited from a current employee who has done a great job for us. Basically they were applying for our manager training program (all our campground managers start in front-line service jobs). Well, it turns out this guy who is currently cleaning bathrooms and doing landscaping for us in a campground is recently retired from over 10 years running a sales force for a $80 million industrial company and more recently running the whole division for that company for 2 years. Talk about just finding a $100 bill lying on the sidewalk!
The trash crunch is compounded by the fact that many cities across the country are already pursuing ambitious recycling goals. Washington D.C., for example, wants to see 80% of household waste recycled, up from 23%.
D.C. already pays $75 a ton for recycling vs. $46 for waste burned to generate electricity.
"There was a time a few years ago when it was cheaper to recycle. It's just not the case anymore," said Christopher Shorter, director of public works for the city of Washington.
"It will be more and more expensive for us to recycle," he said.
Which raises the obvious question: If it is more expensive, why do you do it? The one word answer would be "sustainability" -- but does that really make sense?
Sustainability is about using resources in a way that can be reasonably maintained into the future. This is pretty much impossible to really model, but that is not necessary for a decision at the margin such as recycling in Washington DC. When people say "sustainable" at the margin, they generally mean that fewer scarce resources are used, whether those resources be petroleum or landfill space.
Gosh, if only we had some sort of simple metric that summarized the value of the time and resources that go into a service like recycling or garbage disposal. Wait, we do! This metric is called "price". Now, we could have a nice long conversation about pricing theory and whether or not prices always mirror costs. But in a free competitive market, most prices will be a good proxy for the relative scarcity (or projected scarcity) of resources. Now, I am going to assume the numbers for DC are correct and are worked out intelligently (ie the cost of recycling should be net of the value of materials recovered, and the cost of burning the trash should be net of the value of the electricity generated). Given this, recycling at $75 a ton HAS to be less "sustainable" than burning trash at $46 since it either consumes more resources or it consumes resources with a higher relative scarcity or both.
Postscript: I have had students object to this by saying, well, those costs include a lot of labor and that doesn't count, sustainability is just about materials. If this is really how sustainability is defined, then it is an insane definition. NOTHING is more scarce or valuable than human time. We have no idea, really, how much recoverable iron or oil there is in the world (and in fact history shows we systematically always tend to underestimate the amount). But we do know for an absolute fact that there are 182.4 billion human hours lived in a given day. Period. Labor is if anything more important than material in any sustainability question (after all, would you be willing to die a year earlier in exchange for there being more iron in the world? I thought not.)
In fact, it is probably the changing scarcity and value of labor in China that is driving the issues in this article in the first place. China can't afford the labor any more to re-sort badly sorted American recyclables, likely because the economic boom in China has created much more useful and valuable things for Chinese workers to do than separate cardboard boxes from foam peanuts. Another way to think of the market wage rate is as the opportunity cost for labor, ie if you use an hour of labor for to do X, what is the value of production you are giving up somewhere else by their no longer having access to this hour of labor.
For 15 years I have been a customer of El Dorado bank in a small town in California, just depositing our weekly revenues in the account and sweeping it out from time to time. When Bank of America closed a few locations we use in other California small towns, it seemed easier to just add additional El Dorado accounts. WRONG. I was told today that because we might possibly maybe make three simultaneous deposits at the three banks that total to more than $10,000 in cash in one day, we suddenly are subject to all sorts of disclosure requirements. I am used to having my privacy raped as a business owner to set up even a simple banking relationship, but now apparently any employee of mine who might make the weekly deposit is going to have to submit all sorts of personal information, including social security number, to the bank just for the ability to deposit money. We have been doing the same business with El Dorado for nearly 20 years, and suddenly in the little town of Lone Pine, CA, population 2035, we are now treated as presumptive drug dealers and tax evaders. It aggravates me that I have to put my employees in this position.
It used to be that it was easier to have fewer banking relationships to manage, but now I am thinking the costs may be running the other way, encouraging more smaller banking relationships that don't trigger whatever limits are set for treating customers as presumptive criminals.
“This is, without any doubt, a positive catalyst for Whirlpool,” he said on an investor conference call.
Nearly six months later, the company’s share price is down 15%. One factor is a separate set of tariffs on steel and aluminum, imposed by the U.S. in March and later expanded, that helped drive up Whirlpool’s raw-materials costs. Net income, even with the added benefit of a lower tax bill, was down $64 million in the first quarter compared with a year earlier.
Unfortunately, as is always true in protectionism, consumers are being hurt as well. This chart on the left is amazing:
One reason politicians do this sort of thing is that there really is not any sort of organized consumer groups in this country, other than groups on the Left like Ralph Nader's PIRG groups that often actually support protectionism -- these groups always seem more beholden to traditional Democratic groups (especially unions) than they are to consumers. Elizabeth Warren, who styles herself a consumer advocate and who created the CFPB almost single-handedly, actually supports Trump's tariffs. Since the link above is gated, I will give an excerpt of Senator Warren advocating for higher consumer prices:
But the support of key Democrats—including Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts—for Mr. Trump’s “America first” approach to trade stands to complicate any GOP effort to tie the president’s hands.
The awkward political divisions over trade matters were on display Sunday as Ms. Warren backed Mr. Trump’s policy while Republican senators rebuked the president.
“When President Trump says he’s putting tariffs on the table, I think tariffs are one part of reworking our trade policy overall,” Ms. Warren said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Some Democratic lawmakers have found fault with the implementation or scope of the steel and aluminum tariffs. But Ms. Warren, to whom Mr. Trump derisively referred as “Pocahontas” again on Saturday, declined to criticize the president’s policy and said previous approaches to trade boosted profits at multinational corporations.
I don't and I am not. But this sort of reaction, which you can find in the comments of this and other similar articles, is typical of how public policy discussion is broken nowadays. When I grew up, public policy discussion meant projecting the benefits of a policy and balancing them against the costs and unintended consequences. In this context, I am merely attempting to air some of the costs of these regulations for unskilled workers that are not often discussed. Nowadays, however, public policy is judged solely on its intentions. If a law is intended to help workers, then it is good (whether or not it will every reasonably achieve its objectives), and anyone who opposed this law has bad intentions. This is what you see in public policy debates all the time -- not arguments about the logic of a law itself but arguments that the opposition are bad people with bad intentions. For example, just look in the comments of this and other posts I have linked -- because Coyote points out underappreciated costs to laws that are intended to help workers, his intentions must be to harm workers. It is grossly illogical but characteristic of our post-modernistic age.
I will retell a story about Obamacare or the PPACA. Most of my employees are over 60 and qualify for Medicare. As such, no private insurer will write a policy for them -- why should they? Well, along comes Obamacare, and it says that my business has to pay a $2000-$3000 penalty for every employee who is not offered health insurance, and Medicare does not count! I was in a position of paying nearly a million dollars in fines (many times my annual profits) for not providing insurance coverage to my over-60 employees that was impossible to obtain -- we were facing bankruptcy and the loss of everything I own. The only way out we had was that this penalty only applied to full-time workers, so we were forced to reduce everyone's hours to make them all part-time. It is a real flaw in the PPACA that caused real harm to our workers. Do I hate workers and hope they all get sick and die just because I point out this flaw with the PPACA and its unintended consequence?
This is yet another in a series of posts on the value of branding (previous iterations include here and here). Socialists and anti-capitalists often deride branding as, at best, a complete waste of resources and at worst a huge value destruction in that the marketing associated with branding tricks consumers into buying products they don't want or need. This argument that consumers effectively lack agency in the face of corporate marketing is characteristic of a broader class of capitalist critiques that assume the powerlessness of individuals to make good choices.
I don't buy into these critiques because I think individuals are hugely powerful in a capitalist system, far more powerful in fact than they are in any more authoritarian system (just ask Toys R Us and Pontiac). Brands are obviously useful to producers as they help create barriers to entry and a potential basis for obtaining a price premium. But they also have benefits to consumers. I ran into one this morning.
My 21-year-old daughter is in another city and called to say that she thought she had a bad tire on her car and was not sure what to do. Every dad worries about his daughter when she is on her own (I know, patriarchy, but I am not apologizing) and this is particularly true in car repair because women have historically been taken advantage of in many car repair situations. But I sent her without hesitation to the local Discount Tire store. That's because I knew from past experience with several of the stores in this chain that the stores were clean and safe and the people who worked there were fair -- they have never tried to charge us for something we don't need. My wife goes there all the time because she is kind of panicky about her tires and most of the time they tell her the tires are fine and fill them with a bit of air and send her on her way with no charge. They easily could have sold her a crapload of tires she didn't need but have never done so. So it was with relief that I saw Discount Tire had a store near her. Sure enough, she just needed air (is this sort of tire-related behavior genetic?) and they were very nice to her and filled up the tire and told her she was fine.
This is the power of branding. From a distance, without any chance to inspect or check out the establishment, I knew exactly what the store would look like and was pretty confident how their employees would treat my daughter. That has real value.
When my company screws up, one of the steps we take to try to make customers happy is to give them a refund or some free future services. For example, last weekend we had a customer who reserved a boat and apparently our staff in the rush of the holiday weekend lost the reservation, so that when the customer showed up there was no boat ready for him. He was understandably angry and we offered him a free boat rental any time in the future and he felt that we had done our best to make things right.
Unfortunately, we have one campground were word has gotten around that if you make up complaints and threaten bad reviews, you can get free camping. It started a few years ago when I offered a customer there a couple days free camping to ameliorate a complaint that frankly I don't even remember. Apparently, this person told all their friends that complaining was a path to free goodies. This morning, I had a call that one customer from this friend group was not even pretending any more. They were fine with their stay but were essentially holding us hostage by saying that she wanted free days of camping or she and her friends would cover Trip Advisor with bad reviews. Obviously we had to bring a halt to this whole thing so we told her to bring it on. Now we have a policy that no one in that campground gets free camping for any reason, and thus in this one location, at least for a while, I have lost one of my best tools for resolving customer satisfaction problems.
This is obviously frustrating, since the folks involved clearly have no personal honor in the matter, and they are taking advantage of my sense of honor in wanting customers to leave satisfied when they have paid me money.