Several companies have been discovered to have benefited from what is in effect slave labor in certain countries. I have never had a problem with folks in poor countries freely opting to take jobs at factories for less money than our privileged middle class attitudes think to be "fair." But there have been examples of governments using their coercive power in a cozy relationship with certain companies, forcing people to provide their labor to companies for wages below what they would freely accept. It is an obscene form of modern slavery.
Today's example, though, does not come from Myanmar or China, but from San Francisco, California, USA, where the government is forcing its citizens to work for free to benefit itself and a few favored corporations to produce products for export.
The resale of recycled materials is apparently big business for a few government contractors:
"When we look at garbage, we don't see garbage, O.K.?" said Robert
Reed, a spokesman for Norcal Waste Systems, the parent company of
Sunset Scavenger and Golden Gate Disposal and Recycling Company, the
main garbage collectors in the city. "We see food, we see paper, we see
metal, we see glass."...
Jared Blumenfeld, the director of the city's environmental programs,
addressed one of the main reasons the city keeps up the pressure to
recycle. "The No. 1 export for the West Coast of the United States is
scrap paper," Mr. Blumenfeld said, explaining that the paper is sent to
China and returns as packaging that holds the sneakers, electronics and
toys sold in big-box stores.
This "No. 1 export product" is wholly a product of major government subsidies. Reading the article, you get a sense for the enormous amount of extra capital and operating expenses the city pours into the recycling program. Here is just one example:
San Francisco can charge more for its scrap paper, he said, because of
its low levels of glass contamination. That is because about 15 percent
of the city's 1,200 garbage trucks have two compartments, one for
recyclables. That side has a compactor that can compress mixed loads of
paper, cans and bottles without breaking the bottles. (These specially
designed trucks, which run on biodiesel, cost about $300,000 apiece, at
least $25,000 more than a standard truck, said Benny Anselmo, who
manages the fleet for Norcal.)
Anyone really think they are making enough extra money on scrap paper to cover this (at least) $4.5 million incremental investment ($25k x 15% x 1200)? Suspiciously absent from the article is any mention of costs or budgets. City recycling guys have given up trying to defend recycling on the basis of it being cheaper than just burying the material. The city is subsidizing this material a lot.
But it's not enough. Even with these enormous subsidies, the city is not producing as much recycled materials to meet its goals. So it is going to make its citizenry provide it more labor. For free.
...the city wants more.
So Mr. Newsom will soon be sending the
city's Board of Supervisors a proposal that would make the recycling of
cans, bottles, paper, yard waste and food scraps mandatory instead of
voluntary, on the pain of having garbage pickups suspended.
The city is going to coerce every single resident to labor for them each week, just so San Francisco and Norcal Waste Systems can have more scrap paper for export. This is a labor tax of immense proportions. I know, whenever I make this point about recycling, everyone wants to poo-poo it. "Oh, its not much time, really." Really? Lets use the following numbers: Five minutes per day of labor. One million residents. $20 per hour labor value (low in San Francisco). That is $608 million if forced labor. I'm not sure even Nike has been accused of using this much forced labor.
Anticipated Rejoinder: Yeah, I know, the response will be "It's not for the exports, it's to save the environment." OK, here is my counter:
- Nowhere in the article does it really say how this program, or going from 70 to 75% recycling, is specifically going to help the environment. I took the article at its face value, where it justifies the program on the basis of exports and hitting an arbitrary numerical target and beating out San Jose. I am tired of unthinking acceptance of recycling as a net benefit. Every study has shown that aluminum recycling creates a net energy benefit, but every other material represents a net loss. It makes us feel good, though, I guess.
- Should proponents support the direct subsidy by government and the labor tax, there is still some burden to show that this is the best possible environmental use of 30 million San Francisco man-hours of coerced labor in the course of a year.
- For those really worked up about CO2, explain to me why we shouldn't bury every scrap of waste paper as a carbon sink.
- The last time I visited, San Francisco was one of the grubbier US cities I have seen of late, with trash everywhere on the streets and sidewalks. It may just have been a bad data point, but are residents really happy the city trash department focusing on scrap paper pricing yield rather than picking up the trash?
- I class battery and motor oil recycling programs differently. These substances have unique disposal needs and high costs of incorrect disposal.