Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Protecting our Social Environment

I earlier reported that the city is forcing Houstonians to use biodegradable bags for lawn clippings and leaves. Originally, this coercive measure was set to begin on January 1 of this year, but retailers did not have sufficient stock and the city delayed the start of the program to February 1. In mid-January the city pushed the start back once again, to April 5.

The city's web site says these bags are available at numerous retailers, including Home Depot and Lowe's. Lowe's however, has something entirely different to say about the matter. A search of the Lowe's web site tells me that the bags are not available at any of the stores near me.

Apparently the city anticipated this. The web site advises us that, "In the event that City of Houston approved Compostable Bags cannot be found in the grocery or lawn care sections of retail stores, residents should contact store management." While the city is leading us around by the nose, it isn't telling us exactly what to say to the store management upon making contact. I suppose that the city wants us to harass the store management into carrying city approved bags.

The city has demanded--under the threat of significant fines--that Houstonians use biodegradable bags. While city officials can impose their wishes on the citizenry, they can't make the bags magically appear on store shelves. They can however, do "magic" with the numbers.

When the city announced the biodegradable bag mandate in September, it told us that the program would save the city up to $2 million per year. Yet, in a press release on January 13 the city claims that the savings will be $1.5 million per year. In a matter of 4 months, the city has downgraded the projected savings by 25%. And it is likely that, like most government projections, the reality will be considerably less.

But this isn't about cost savings, no matter what the city says. This is about control. We are simply being prepared for the city to expand its power over our lives. In September, Solid Waste department director Harry Hayes told us how lucky we are:
Twenty-one states have already banned yard trimmings from landfills. Houston’s move is a step in the right direction to preserve valuable landfill airspace.
Hayes implies that we should be happy that we can still put yard trimmings in landfills. But I doubt that this will last for long. At some future time, we will be told that further measures are necessary to save landfill space, and mandatory recycling or similar measures will be jammed down our throats.

In an attempt to hide the coercive nature of this particular mandate, the city's web site tells us that we have options: We can allow our yard clippings to lay on the ground, we can compost the material, or we can use city approved bags for disposal. Superficially, these are options--options imposed upon us by the city. I suppose the city would also tell us that we have options when a robber holds a gun to our head and demands our money. "Your life or your money" is an option to city officials, but to those of us who live in the real world it isn't.

If the city is really concerned about saving money it should simply get out of the trash collection business and return to its sole legitimate function--protecting individual rights. The city should be protecting us from force, rather than using coercion to control and regulate our behavior. Protecting the environment is not a proper function of government; protecting the social environment that individuals to live their lives and pursue their happiness is.

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