Among the most entrenched and divisive recurring political battles during the past few decades have been those over environmental degradation, pollution, and waste. It has pitted environmentalists and "grass roots" groups fighting to limit these by-products of our economic structure against business interests whose production and distribution activities generate them. In each instance where materials are extracted, processed, or transported, there is a natural conflict between those engaged in such activities, whereby emissions and waste are often inevitable, and others protecting against the adverse consequences of the activities.
Companies put to use whatever resource is available, including edible and inedible types of vegetation, virtually every mineral on the molecular chart, petroleum and its myriad derivatives, and practically anything else found on the planet in sufficient supply to rely on its use for a period of time. Toward such ends, anything deemed to be a resource is molded, distilled, melted, formed, transformed, re-formed, cut, attached, detached, liquefied, solidified, augmented, combined, separated, purified, tainted, or otherwise processed, manufactured, or industrialized until a marketable product results.
While these activities, and the jobs and revenues they generate, are the cornerstone of most economies and lifestyles worldwide, it is increasingly clear that these activities cannot be engaged without addressing their consequences. Whether it is called waste, emissions, pollution, effluvium, or contamination, some type of by-product always results. This fact of physics can be recognized in the case of just about any machine, from a fish to the Space Shuttle, and just about any process, from the making of an artificial heart valve out of petroleum products to the making of corn oil out of corn. A taco is not born; a toaster is not hatched. Each has a history, and each history is replete with events that impact the environment.
What we do to treat, store, and eliminate the full range of by-products, and minimize the generation of them in the first place, are matters of vital importance. They impact directly on our quality of life, can limit the sustainability of our economy, and reveal much about our character -- and future -- as a society.
Do we care enough to act responsibly? How can we preserve our lifestyles, our economies, and our public health for limitless future generations? Don't all of us, and each of us, have an obligation to leave Planet Home as neat as we found it?
Despite many of these points seeming incontrovertible, as soon as their implementation requires actions -- and, heaven forbid, expenditures -- controversy arises as quickly as an eight-year old on Christmas morning. Prior to the onset of the Industrial Age, no attention (and no money) was paid to by-product management, nor to resource preservation. No concern was given for one reason: they didn't need to. Today, bizarre as it is, many commercial interests operate from that same pre-industrial mindset. But our resources are, in fact, not limitless, and there are harsh consequences for violating the sanctity of our environment and our ecosystem.
Some suggest that we return to the good ole' days of minimal regulation in the 1930s, or even the 1830s. But in 1930, we had a lot fewer people in our cities, cars on our streets, and products on our shelves. To those who object to the efforts to regulate the generation and disposal of municipal solid waste, they should be challenged to find even one piece of styrofoam packaging that was used to safely transport a television back in 1930.
We have more potential problems than we did in the past. Laws are born out of the need to protect someone or something. If chain saws had existed in the 1500s in England, then King Henry VIII might have established guidelines for safe manufacturing and use of them. Frozen pizzas, mutual funds, and computer software all pose potential hazards that Julius Caesar would likely have addressed if they had arisen during his tenure. The violation of regulations on airborne toxic chemicals from manufacturing, oil and gas wastes from drilling, discarded paper from lawyering, and water tainted by pesticides from farming might all have resulted in offenders being thrown into the Coliseum with the lions.
Ideas / Solutions
The role of government is not to stand by idly, with fingers crossed, hoping for Ben And Jerry Inc.-type smart corporate environmental policies to spread like goodwill at a retreat of clerics. Once risks become apparent, the government must protect against the creation of a disaster, rather than await the disaster and then do the equivalent of repairing broken levees. Any decent physician prefers preventive health measures over open-heart surgery.
One of the first steps we should take is to enlist our people as an ally in this effort. It is impractical -- and cost prohibitive -- to limit enforcement only to hired professional enforcers. Private citizens should be encouraged to communicate information of likely environmental offenses to authorities just as they are encouraged to report information of violent crimes. If a car or bus is seen billowing clouds of gray smoke, the air quality authorities should want to hear about it. If a commercial fishing boat is throwing its trash overboard, the water quality authorities should want to check into it. If a company is placing tons of high-grade white office paper in a dumpster bound for a landfill, the solid waste authorities should want to know about it and talk with the company's managers.
Each state should establish a toll-free telephone number or website to receive information about likely or apparent gross infringements against our environment. It need not be limited to unlawful activities, and, should not necessarily trigger legal measures, because of the need to protect due process rights of those accused of infringements. Indeed, to protect the due process rights of the accused, criminal penalties should be established as a deterrent against someone misusing this program for malicious purposes.
Upon receiving information of a possible environmental infringement, the information should be dispensed to whatever authorities are involved in the particular type of activity or product that gave rise to the call. Those authorities could determine the type of response that is appropriate: from doing nothing, to further investigating, to pursuing immediate legal action. A free phone line in each state can dramatically increase the flow of information to authorities which they can then use in accordance with their official functions.
A second important step in the area of environmental preservation would be to place the burden for the cost of such activities where they truly exist, and do so in a way that benefits taxpayers, too. Currently, consumers who purchase fewer goods subsidize those who buy more, when it comes to environmental costs. Families and businesses that purchase and use more goods than others also discard more waste and cause more waste to be generated through the production of the goods. Yet, they do not pay proportionately more for the waste management system and infrastructure which all consumers share.
What is needed is a Federal waste management system user fee. Such a fee would pay for proper resource and by-product management in accordance with the amount that the item necessitates. These fees could be applied toward Federal deficit reduction efforts, creating a win-win situation for taxpayers, as it has become increasingly difficult to find anything else that the electorate is willing to have taxed. Alternatively, some of the proceeds could be applied to finance all types of environmental quality services that are necessitated by the items that generate the fees. Some of the proceeds could even be rebated back to consumers for proper recycling of goods and packaging.
Critics might argue that this would impose a chilling effect on commerce by dint of its increase in costs to the consumer. But this sophomoric suggestion ignores the current situation whereby city and county governments -- which are already financially strapped, in part due to such costs -- pay for waste management and recycling services. For them to afford the increasing costs of waste processing, they need to raise local taxes and fees. It brings to mind the commercial for Fram oil filters in the 1970s: "You can pay me now….or you can pay me later".
A responsible waste system will also advance long-term economic and environmental sustainability, and boost jobs in environmental technology. Enhancing short-term sales is cataclysmic if done without regard for manufacturing, sales, and high quality-of-life standards in years to come.
Having a national party is of no value if it leaves us in dire straits down the road. If the prices of every commodity were cut in half, sure, we would all have more consumer goods at home, and sales would skyrocket. But the by-products, unchecked under such a circumstance, would leave the next generation with an economic and environmental disaster that defies sustainability.