Safe Enough to Eat

I recently had a strange experience at our local craft store. I needed an especially strong glue for a project, and as I pondered the many choices, I found myself skipping past the ones labelled ‘non-toxic.’ This was curious behavior for a person who usually tries to buy products that are not hazardous.

Why, indeed, would anyone in her right mind choose a more toxic item when a ‘non-toxic’ one is close at hand? I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that less harmful products often don’t perform as well as their nastier counterparts. Certainly there are cases where this bias is correct. Bleach, for example, is a great stain remover, but it’s also a strong and dangerous chemical. Ordinary laundry detergent, while less harmful to people and the environment, simply doesn’t pack the same punch.

Yet, it’s also clear that there are many products for which added toxicity does nothing to improve functioning. Take the latest brouhaha about flame retardants. These chemicals, purported to reduce flammability, were added to a range of items, such as bedding, children’s pajamas, and couches.

As evidence mounted that the chemicals were quite poisonous they were voluntarily removed from children’s pajamas, but remained in mattresses and furniture. And in staggering quantities. A recent expose by the Chicago Tribune found that a large couch can contain 2 pounds of flame retardants. The real kicker is that testing shows these chemicals do virtually nothing to retard the spread of fire.

You may wonder why we didn’t know such products were dangerous before they wound up in our homes. The answer is that government oversight of chemical use and manufacturing is astoundingly lax.

The business of regulating chemicals got off on the wrong foot in 1976, when the Toxic Substances Control Act grandfathered in more than 60,000 chemicals already on the market. Since then, only 200 of these chemicals have undergone significant safety testing by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and only 5 of the very most toxic have been restricted under this act. Although some of the chemicals currently in consumer products are governed by other sets of regulations and other agencies, those covered by the EPA represent a large fraction of what’s out there.

Equally disturbing, manufacturers are allowed to keep some ingredients secret, especially in additives such as ‘fragrance.’ How is anyone supposed to regulate the safety of a secret ingredient? Nor is there a requirement for manufacturers to prove that a chemical is safe before it appears in merchandise on store shelves. The premise is largely “innocent until proven guilty.”

One could make the argument that fully testing new chemicals for deleterious effects on human health and the environment would be so costly and onerous as to be nearly impossible. While this may or may not be true, it certainly behooves us consumers to be a little wary of, well, pretty much everything.

Just in the last few years, scientists have amassed compelling evidence that the linings of many food cans leach out a chemical called bisphenol A, which is linked to a host of bad health outcomes. They’ve also found lead in lipstick and raised alarms about anti-bacterial products. The list goes on and on.

I don’t try to assess the possible dangers lurking in every item I encounter. Sunscreen? A new computer? My cell phone? It’s simply too exhausting and sometimes you just have to have faith that you’ll dodge some of life’s bullets.

I do, however, try to opt for simpler items when I have the choice, such as buying fragrance-free soaps and shampoos. I usually avoid products with new-fangled claims such as the power to eliminate bacteria, straighten your hair, resist wrinkles, or whiten your teeth. All of these promises, true or not, are probably the result of some chemical(s) that I don’t feel a compelling need play the guinea pig for.

I also try not to let marketing messages get in the way of common sense. So, last month when I read on a blog that you can wash your hair with baking soda and vinegar, resulting in more shine, more body, less frizz, and more glory, I rushed to try it.

Well, actually I didn’t. I thought it sounded pretty weird, and even, I must say, a bit icky. What about that nice lathery experience I’ve come to associate with getting my hair clean? And the vinegar rinse? Did I really need to start my day smelling like a pickle?

But shampoos are known to harbor all sorts of potential health hazards and the promise of body and glory had piqued my curiosity. So I tried it. And… yes it really works, yes, my hair really is less tangled and shiner, and no, I don’t smell like a pickled herring.

At first I told people about my exciting discovery. But I quickly stopped doing this when even my back-to-the-land-grow-your-own-food-hunt-your-own-venison-friends looked at me as though I’d gone off the deep end.

In the end, I was struck by how far astray my instincts had lead me. A lifetime of hearing marketing claims for newer and better products, lathery shampoos, glues with super-powers, had distorted my ability to believe that low-tech, simple, non-toxic products could get the job done.

When you think about it, how hard can it be to reject the expensive chemical soup that we call shampoo in favor of two cheap ingredients that are safe enough to eat? It shouldn’t be hard at all.

In the early 1960s, when my young father-to-be wanted an adventure overseas, he lugged his trunk to a boat in the New York City harbor. No doubt the idea of backtracking the path of his immigrant parents held some appeal. But the choice of this long watery route over the grey Atlantic was also partly driven by the fact that flying was prohibitively expensive. This was about to change.

The first regularly scheduled transcontinental jet service began operation in 1959. Within the next 15 years half of all Americans, mostly business travelers, would experience flying. As tickets dropped in price, the doors were opened to families and recreational travelers.

In 1965, when my mother emigrated from the Old Country to marry my father in the New World, she did not worry that she would never see her family again. How strange, not to have this consequence, the bane of most world travelers for all of recorded history before her.

Today, it would be hard for many of us to imagine a world without air travel. To be sure, there are exotic, interesting places we might like to see, but more compellingly, air travel has made it possible for our families to sprinkle themselves willy nilly around the globe, and still be within reach.

My sister lives in Urbana, Illinois. Just a hundred years back, getting to her house would have been an epic journey. I’d need to cross the full length of Massachusetts, leaving the state through the low lying range of the Berkshire Mountains. From there, I’d climb a little north, to skirt New York’s finger lakes and most of the southern shore of Lake Eire, the 10th largest lake in the world. Then, still, I’d have to cut across a large chunk of Ohio and all of Indiana. It’s a 1,200 mile trip.

How many days would it take by horse-drawn wagon? How many days on foot? How many days, by bicycle? How long, even now, by train or car? Too long for a week of vacation. And so, we fly.

Writer William Burroughs once said that humans were living in the “gasoline crack of history.” This phrase has stayed with me. Are we, in fact, living in a thin sliver of time in which we can, with relative ease, see those we love, even when separated by thousands of miles, mountain ranges, tremendous lakes and vast plains? I take it for granted that I can simply fly over that whole rumpled, pitted mess down on the surface.

Why must it ever end? Air travel, it turns out, spews staggering volumes of climate changing greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. The New York Times recently reported that a single round trip flight across the country creates approximately 2-3 tons of carbon dioxide per passenger. Given that the average American generates about 19 tons of carbon dioxide annually, a few long flights a year could easily account for the largest chunk of an individual’s contribution to climate change. This is something to think about.

It’s something that regular people might want to think about, because our government, as usual, does not seem to be doing so. Indeed, while the European Union is planning to tax carbon emissions above a pre-determined amount on flights in and out of its airports, the US government has bowed to the airline industry and tried to block such measures.

I usually make about one long flight a year. And now I must admit that despite driving a hybrid and turning down the heat, this one flight undoes a lot of those efforts. What to do?

I will think about flying less. Although this will be hard, rising ticket prices and increasingly unpleasant flying experiences will help considerably.

I will think about buying carbon offsets; in fact I like the idea more and more. Here’s how it works: you do something which emits carbon – for example fly to California or drive to Frosty’s for a donut every morning for a entire year. The money you pay for a carbon offset funds a carbon-reducing project, such as a wind farm. You can visit any number of on-line sources and purchase an offset for each ton of carbon you’d like to have expunged from your conscience.

Native Energy, one popular carbon management company (did you even know there was such a thing?), charges about $15 per ton of carbon to be offset. Of course it’s still better to vacation in Maine and bike to Frosty’s every morning, but $15/ton is not a bad deal for saving your soul.

And finally, I will think about a polar bear, looking out across the dwindling ice pack wondering how she is going to feed her cubs this year. Does she care if the cause of her trouble is folks driving around in gas-guzzling Humvees or if it’s so-called environmentalists turning the heat down, driving hybrids, and then flying to Costa Rica for eco-tours of the vanishing rain forest? The answer is no, she doesn’t care; the ice is melting either way, and lunch will be hard to find.

Life in Eden

I have a friend who lives in Eden.  While I haul pricey bags of produce to my car, she complains about the persimmons and figs falling on her sidewalk.  The problem, you see, is that there are too many to eat so the walks get messy.

I worry about my kids getting hit by a car; her kids can run for blocks without crossing a single street.  This is because houses in her 70-acre development have small unfenced backyards which open onto car-free paths interconnecting the neighborhood.

I know perhaps a fifth of the people living in a two block radius of my house; she knows triple that number.  The more walkable a community, the more neighbors tend to know each other.

Storm culverts dot my street.  The paths behind my friend’s house are edged by charming streams filled with cattails and nesting birds.  So effective is this system that when surrounding neighborhoods flood, her streets are often dry.

On hot summer days our asphalt roads absorb heat and raise the temperature in town.  The streets in my friend’s neighborhood are tree-lined and unusually narrow, making her community up to 15 degrees cooler than surrounding urban areas.

Houses in her development, because of the narrower streets (less paving), very small lot sizes (less land purchased), natural water retention system (no storm drains), initially cost less than similarly sized houses elsewhere in her town.

Enough money was saved to enable the creation of wonderful community spaces including several parks, an artificial lake, a large sun-drenched garden area, a swimming pool, a daycare, and a big communal kitchen.

Not surprisingly, property in her development has increased in value far more than in the surrounding neighborhoods.  People love to live there.  Indeed, it is so pleasant, that folks from nearby developments come there to jog, walk their dogs, teach their kids to ride bikes, and sneak an occasional persimmon.  I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

It is important to note that the homes were sized and priced to be affordable for middle-class families.  The fact that the neighborhood is now highly desirable is a testament to good design rather than to a sky-high budget.

Is my friend a back-to-the-earth hippie living in a co-housing commune?  Not at all.  She works for chemical manufacturer, Monsanto, and her neighbors are regular people, living regular lives, with regular jobs.

You may wonder why builders are not falling over themselves to re-create this type of development elsewhere.  In large part it is because in most towns such development would not be allowed under current building and zoning codes.

The developers who built my friend’s neighborhood, called Village Homes in Davis, California, fought a long battle for exemptions from existing regulations.  For example, special permission was needed to build on smaller lots, at higher density, with narrower streets, and to use a natural water collection system.

There is a lot of inertia to changing ‘business as usual.’  Towns and builders believe that the regulations they have in place are working and it seems too risky to try anything else.

Yet by any number of measures, what we are building now is not working.  Our homes are not built to minimize heating and cooling costs, yet many people already have trouble affording heat and air-conditioning.  Most people live in car-dependent neighborhoods, yet the price of fuel is already a stretch.  Our cities and towns are not equipped to deal with the planet’s rising temperatures or to manage the regional effects of climate change such as increased precipitation, drought, and sea-level rise.  On that note, New England is predicted to experience a 74% increase in precipitation by the end of the century.

As the climate shifts under our feet, developments such as Village Homes are far better positioned than most to handle these upcoming changes.  Replace the figs and persimmons with blueberries and raspberries, and there is no reason we could not be creating this type of innovative development here in Maine.

With the redevelopment of the Brunswick Naval Air Station, we have an unprecedented opportunity to create something better than business as usual.  The possibilities are not limited to residential areas.  All development at the base will need to address issues such as storm-water management, street width, energy use, landscaping, building materials, lot sizes, transportation options, walkability, bikeability, and wildlife habitat.

We can build spaces that people love to use, that do less damage to the environment, and that are cheaper to maintain, heat, and cool.  We can build spaces that are more resilient to the changes in weather patterns that have already begun to affect us.  This type of development would position Brunswick to thrive into the future, come what may.

Recently my 12-year old asked me to sign her up for a weekly activity requiring a half hour car drive each way. I try the quick and easy rebuffs: she was plenty busy already, driving back and forth was expensive, the activity was expensive, when would she do her homework?

With more than a bit of adolescent attitude, she concludes, “You just don’t want to take the time to drive me.” I look at the clock. It’s past 7:00 PM, we haven’t eaten dinner and no one has finished their homework. There is never a perfect moment to get into the real nitty gritty of why and wherefore. Still, every now and again you have to try to give your kids an honest answer to their questions.

Yes, I tell her, (and her sister too, who has wandered into the kitchen) you’re partly right. It is true that I don’t cherish adding to the time I spend carting you around after school. But there is another reason I hesitate to drive more.

Every time we get in the car we contribute to climate change. By the end of this century–that is, you may still be around–conditions for life on earth are expected to be drastically different from what they are today.

I pause. It’s gloomy stuff, the state of the environment. In this column I generally try not to dwell too much on scientists’ pessimistic forecasts for the planet. After all, nobody, including me, really wants to hear it. Nobody wants to tell their kids about it. Nobody wants to read about it over morning coffee and a golden Frosty’s doughnut.

Yet, I take a deep breath and plunge ahead. I tell them that although no single bout of wild weather can be attributed to climate change, that nevertheless there appear to terrible changes already underway.

I tell them that they have just lived through the hottest years ever recorded (11 of the 12 warmest years were in the last 12 years).

I tell them about Hurricane Katrina. I tell them that in 2010 flooding submerged one fifth of the land surface of Pakistan, washing away 7,000 schools and 5,000 miles of roads. I tell them that extreme weather events such as these are becoming more frequent and stronger, just as predicted.

I tell them that ice in the poles is melting, not as fast as predicted but at rates that are alarmingly faster. I tell them that by the end of the century sea level could rise by 6 feet, or possibly a lot more, putting much of the world’s coastlines under water.

After a long pause, they ask if our house will be okay. On the surface, this question, in its innocent disregard either for the welfare of others or for the fact that if the world disintegrates around them it doesn’t matter if their house is okay, seems to reflect a child’s perspective. But really it’s what all of us adults are doing as well. We may expand our worries a little past the foundations of our own houses, but not much.

So, the winter was warm, so, we had an 80 degree day in March. If this is global warming, it might not be so bad for those of us living in Maine.

I ask them what good it will do to have a dry house high on a hill when everyone else is underwater. We’ve managed to conjure up a demon that will affect everyone, although, as always, wealthy countries have a larger margin of safety before hitting the bottom.

Well then, they say, shouldn’t we do something about it? I tell them they are already helping. I tell them they are contributing by not complaining about riding their bikes and walking whenever they can. They are helping by continuing to be delighted by bags of hand-me-downs rather than shopping trips. They are helping by eating local spinach rather than asking for processed foods from around the world.

Although this cheers them up a bit, they know as well as I do that eating a few leaves of spinach is not going to fix a whole lot. By the end of the conversation, they’re in tears and I’m confused. As does every parent, I want them to believe their futures are full of hope and promise. Yet at some point they also need to look with clear eyes at the world around them. Without this, where does the motivation come from to try to change the status quo? And without that motivation, how do we make anything better?

Our own family’s behavior is utterly riddled with inconsistencies. Save the planet by biking to school, but then drive to Sugarloaf to ski all weekend. Buy local greens at the farmer’s market and then wash them down with inexpensive Californian red wine, trucked from 3,000 miles away.

And yet, humans are uniquely able to live with inconsistency. I tell my kids what I tell myself. For today, pick one action where you can make an improvement. Maybe work on remembering to turn off the lights when you come downstairs. Nudge yourself. I’m a nudger.

But in my heart of hearts I’d like them to be world-changers, not nudgers, and I don’t know where to send them for training.

Scientists in Norway have just announced the discovery of a non-toxic high-tech building material with a host of economic and environmental benefits. Homes made from this substance are expected to use 10-50% less energy for heating and cooling than homes made from traditional materials.

The new substance was discovered by a team working to identify chemicals that could absorb carbon dioxide, a major cause of climate change.

A pilot home built in 2005 was found to absorb nearly 50 pounds of carbon dioxide every year. Projections show that if every house in Northern Europe was made from this material global carbon dioxide emissions could be cut by 5%. As a completely unexpected side benefit, the material also absorbed other air pollutants, including carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide. In every test the scientists ran, air quality was higher in and around the pilot home than in a traditional home.

Most amazingly, using this material was estimated to add only a few hundred dollars to the cost of a new home. However, based on the material’s beneficial effects, including significantly reduced energy costs for homeowners, it was projected that building with it may increase a home’s value by up to 20%.

If you were thinking this story is too good to be true, you’d only be partly right. On the one hand, there is no newly discovered health-promoting, planet-saving, dirt-cheap, inexpensive building material. In this, you were correct.

On the other hand, you can have all the benefits above, plus many more, and for the same price, by simply planting some trees next to your house. Well placed trees and shrubs can indeed save 10-50% on heating and cooling costs. Just one mature tree can indeed absorb 50 pounds of carbon dioxide a year, along with a long list of other air and soil pollutants. A single large oak, for example, can pull 40,000 gallons of water per year out of the ground and discharge it into the air, reducing flooding and soggy lawns.

For communities, the impacts are even more striking. Tree-lined streets are 10-15 degrees cooler in the summer. Pavement on these streets lasts far longer and the streets are far less likely to flood. Urban tree canopy can reduce stormwater runoff by up to 7%, and when combined with other natural landscaping, by up to 65%. This results in huge cost savings for towns and significant improvements in water quality in nearby streams, lakes and aquifers.

If the environmental and economic benefits of trees are not enough, the social benefits are equally compelling.

Studies from blighted urban Chicago housing developments show that residents who could see trees from their windows had stronger ties to their neighbors and engaged in less physical violence against their children than those without trees. These studies are striking because the residents were largely homeless families who were randomly assigned to apartments as their names came to the top of long wait lists. In other words, the people with greener views were no different to begin with than those without.

Green views have also been shown to enhance healing in hospital patients and concentration among college students. Children with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) had the fewest behavioral problems after being in green spaces with lots of trees when compared with any indoor activities, including sports, or outdoor activities in spaces lacking greenery, such as urban parking lots. This finding held true even for children who lived in green neighborhoods.

I’m intrigued by this last bit of data. It suggests that even if a child has trees outside her window and walks past trees to get to school, it may still matter that there are trees on the playground at recess. More natural settings may have more powerful healing effects than we realize.

This fall the town of Brunswick built a new school. Where possible, efforts were made to preserve older trees, and many new trees have been planted around the property, although none next to the children’s play areas.

Recently a little friend of mine who attends the new school told her mother how much she missed the playground at her old school. So they returned for a visit to the empty little playground, nestled into a grove of old pine trees.

With a huge smile on her face, the girl roamed about the play structures, sliding down slides, ducking under hideouts, trying out the swings. Many of these same features were present at the new space, so the mother asked her daughter what she’d missed so much.

It’s the trees, she replied.

Each garden has its own personality, distinct oddities that make it unlike any other patch of ground in the world. My current garden amuses itself by sending me a mystery vine every summer. It’s always in a different spot, it’s always something from the squash family, and it’s never the same species.

One year enormous yellow flowers turned into hard green balls which slowly resolved into pumpkins. Another year, the vine climbed around a wire bin in the shady northeast corner of my garden and by season’s end dripped with tiny jewel-like decorative gourds.

Two summers ago, as I awaited the huge sexy flowers typical of squashes and gourds, I was startled by spikes of white flowers poking out along my vine: it was a wild cucumber.

Last year, however, I could find nothing. June came and went. Maybe I missed some offering to the garden gnomes. But then, in mid-July I saw it beginning to creep along between the house and the garage. Just before the leaves dissolved into black mush this fall, I harvested two perfect acorn squash. Last night I baked them for dinner with apples and a touch of butter and brown sugar.

I had not left space for this squash (it grew into a path and we stepped over it all summer), I had not purchased the seed, I had not planted the vine, nor had I watered or weeded. The squash, all on its own, planted itself, harvested its own sunlight and extracted its share of limited rainfall. It was free in every sense of the word: no labor, no money, no planning, no time.

But, least you think that the “no free lunch” adage applies only to lunch, I have to tell you it applies to dinner too. It turns out there was a cost to my squash. It goes by the eye-glazing name of soil depletion. The squash took from the soil the nutrients it needed to grow–nutrients that will be gone from this patch of land for years to come unless someone returns them, perhaps via a handful of compost or some chicken droppings.

In the words of Lester Brown, founder of the Earth Policy Institute, “The thin layer of topsoil that covers the planet’s land surface is the foundation of civilization.” Looking back on world history is more often than not a study of soil productivity. Where soils were deep and life-giving, people flourished, when soils were over-tapped and over-grazed, civilizations fell.

Indeed, when we consider what is necessary to support life on earth, productive soil is right up there near the top of the list, close to sunshine and water.

Healthy soil is a world unto itself: a mix of minerals, organic matter, insects, bacteria, fungi, and animals, that provides both the critical nutrients plants require as well access to water and air.

Soil formation begins with a pocket of minerals such as sand, glacial grit, or lava, worn fine enough for a rugged pioneer plant to sneak in a few roots. When the plant dies it returns some of the nutrients it used as well as adding organic matter. As the soil becomes richer, more plant species are able to survive.

Insects and animals appear, contributing their droppings and eventually their bodies to the gradually deepening soils. Its a beautiful natural process, but unfortunately rather slow: a single inch of topsoil is approximately five hundred years in the making.

The planet is now losing topsoil 10-20 times faster than it is being replenished. Much of this erosion is due to farming and grazing practices that leave bare soils exposed to wind and rain.

As topsoils are washed into our waterways and blown into dust storms, so are vast quantities of carbon released. Scientists estimate that there is three times more carbon locked in soil than there is currently in the atmosphere. This carbon is released as soils are disturbed, and may contribute up to 30% to global warming.

If there were vast swaths of untapped agricultural land just waiting in the wings, none of this might be a problem. But farmland is in scarce supply in many places. A few years ago South Korea tried to purchase a 99 year lease to half of Madagascar’s arable land. South Korea and Madagascar are 6,500 miles apart.

Virtually all human food calories come from the land. Global food production has kept pace with population growth largely because of reliance on chemical fertilizers. However, overuse of fertilizer, along with many other modern farming practices eventually destroy soil structure and the soil ecosystems that maintain it. The result is that food production per acre of land is declining.

Although most people pay no attention to it, good dirt is a resource sorely in need of protection. Practices that protect soil fertility, soil structure, and retain soil carbon include low or no-till methods, leaving some of the crop behind after harvest to hold soil in place, and planting cover crops, windbreaks, and vegetative buffers along waterways.

On my quarter acre square of the planet, I try to minimize the amount of organic matter that leaves our property. We compost our food scraps, pile up our oak leaves, and allow our grass clippings to disappear back into the lawn.

The area where my acorn squash grew used to be a compacted beat up piece of grass. A few years ago I put down a thick layer of partially decomposed oak leaves to kill the grass, and topped it with pine needles swept up from Brunswick streets. The result was a lovely rusty golden path between the structures, edged with a few ferns, and other plants–and no need for mowing. It was here that my squash chose to grow, perhaps a thank you for giving something back to the soils.

A few days ago, in a dutiful contribution to the country’s economic recovery, I went out and bought something: a toasted coconut gelato. I decided that I’d rather savor dessert than save an extra few dollars. I came out happier than had I stayed home with my money. The gelato guys, for their part, preferred my cash to an unsold cup of gelato. Thus, the sale made them happier as well.

This “voluntary exchange” between buyers and sellers, in which both parties end up better off than they were before, is a key tenet of capitalism. It’s a simple, un-coerced, free-market swap of money for goods.

Who could argue with this efficient interaction, largely unsullied by government regulation (at least not in any obvious way)? Indeed, many economists, business people, and politicians believe that if more of our economy functioned on capitalist principals we would all be better off. The idea is that the less the government gets involved, the more people can go about their voluntary capitalist exchanges, sowing seeds of happiness and profit in their paths.

For a variety of complicated (and frequently erroneous) reasons it is often assumed that protecting the environment interferes with the above mentioned pursuit of money and well-being. There is something to this perspective. One of the government’s only tools for addressing environmental, social, or economic problems, is to pass new laws and create regulations. Unfortunately, new rules are often fraught with inefficiencies, weighed down with bureaucracy and spew forth a sea of unintended consequences in their wake.

Which is why I love Brunswick’s pay-per-bag garbage program: it’s completely capitalist in spirit and at the same time it does a spectacular job of helping the environment.

As most readers know, pay-per-bag refers to a system in which citizens pay to purchase each garbage bag they use. The more garbage a household generates, the more bags they use, and the more they pay.

Those who have whittled their garbage down to two cans a year, pay almost nothing. Yes, I do know several families who have achieved this feat. And yes, when I visit their houses, I find myself constantly peering around and making suspicious comments such as, “OK, what do you do with your toothpaste tubes?” and, “Where are you hiding the packaging for that new pot?”

Back in the old days, garbage collection was funded by tax revenue. Two families with the same taxes would, in effect, pay the same for garbage collection, even if one household lugged out six cans a week brimming with greasy pizza boxes, and the other had enlisted Harry Potter to shrink their weekly garbage into a dense pea-sized lump (which, I’ve concluded, is the only way to get to two bags a year).

Without delving into economic jargon or quibbling about the details, having the amount homeowners pay for garbage be independent of the amount of garbage they actually use is closer to a socialist system than a capitalist one. Light users subsidize heavy users, all for the greater common good of getting the garbage collected. It is not a voluntary exchange of money for services: everyone pays irrespective of the services received.

Yet, it is also a system subject to the unintended consequences that inevitably crop up when markets are run by regulations rather than a free exchange of goods and services. Importantly, the motivation citizens might have to throw out less–an action clearly beneficial for the environment as well as for the life of the landfill and consequently the town’s bottom line–is largely removed. When everyone pays the same amount, there is limited motivation for individuals to toss less stuff.

Enter good old capitalist pay-per-bag in January of 2007. The town of Brunswick charges $1.00 for large bags and just $0.50 for bags about half the size. For some, absorbing this cost represents a financial challenge, for most others it’s a small nudge to figure out how to produce less garbage. The less we throw out, the more we save.

And throw out less we certainly did. Before pay-per-bag, Brunswick residents tossed out approximately 6-7,000 tons of garbage a year. Today, we are down to just 4,000 tons a year: nearly a 40% drop.

This tremendous decrease in trash volume was not only attributable to the pay-per-bag program. At the same time the new rules were implemented, Brunswick also switched to single stream recycling (in which all recyclables can be put in one container) and increased the types of materials that could be collected for recycling.

The town has just passed the five-year anniversary of pay-per-bag’s inception. During this time the reduction in trash tonnage has added over 2 years to the estimated life of the landfill. The longer the landfill lasts, the longer the town has before it has to take on the high costs associated with closing it, and with finding a new place for our garbage. This is a huge cost-saver for the town.

For most people, protecting the environment frequently does not appear to be aligned with their own self interests. At the same time it’s clear that we all depend on a healthy environment for basic needs such as our food supply, and clean water and air. Using free market forces to link environmental protection with
individual self interest, is one of our most powerful tools for moving forward.