Saturday, January 26, 2008

Both Courses: A Pollution Problem Solved?

When I was a kid, Saturday morning cartoons were inundated with anti-littering commercials. Like this one featuring Woodsy the Owl (someone you all may not even know, a casualty of the spotted owl wars -- tragic):

Or the classic "Crying Indian" PSA (which actually predates me, but I've heard it referenced often):

Today, though, anti-litter PSAs aren't common. In fact, they may not even exist (I certainly don't recall seeing any). In spite of its private efficiency (from the individuals perspective littering is a cheap way to get rid of your trash), people really don't litter intentionally anymore. This article describes the change in litter in the US and argues (perhaps correctly) that it is the result of changing the social norms (about both litter and recycling) plus increasing enforcement of litter laws. It's an interesting lesson in the power of social (as opposed to monetary) incentives as a means of solving pollution problems (by internalizing externalities).

(Random aside to illustrate how strong the "don't litter" mindset is (at least for me). 10 years ago, I was in Paris. At the time, Parisians were concerned about bombs in their garbage cans, so all the garbage cans had been sealed up. You were just supposed to throw your garbage on the ground and an army of street cleaners cleaned it up. I couldn't do it. I literally carried garbage for miles until I found a Burger King where I could go inside and throw it away.)

While the social norms which contributed to littering have changed, this might only be for urban areas. In the city not only is it more noticeable there are also more people around to socially enforce not littering. Think though of rural areas where not only is legal or social enforcement difficult, not littering or illegally dumping household waste is exorbitantly costly.

First in any wilderness areas arguably the cost of littering is much higher, ie. habitat/scenic pollution, and so enforcement from a legal agency should be more prevalent. But when considering the agency's budgets which handle wilderness area this probably hasn't occurred. Whereas in cities the idea of proactive policing to remove any signs of urban decay supposedly reduces crime.

Secondly illegal dump sites are still the norm for many areas where "out of sight, out of mind" is the ruling motto. But then I guess this becomes a debate about the most efficient way to prevent illegal dumping as opposed to acts of littering.

p.s. Considering the DoE's Energy Hog mascot, it might not be such a bad thing for some government programs to fade away. Poor owl though.
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