John E. Sununu, former U.S. Senator from New Hampshire, wrote an Op-Ed that appeared in the June 5 Boston Globe in which he touted last week’s private launch of a rocket into space as heralding the dawn of private investment in a domain that was previously solely that of government. Why then can’t the post office be privatized, he asks.
I wonder the same thing. The U.S. Postal Service did not respond well to the writing on the wall over the past 20 years, as the need for their letter carrier services gave way to faxes and the Internet. I tried to get USPS representatives interested in becoming a reverse distribution network for collecting used products for recycling, but they couldn’t grasp the concept. Their most common function now is to pass on costs to local governments to recycle or dispose of unwanted marketing queries and catalogues.
But I also wonder why those who support the private sector taking over the responsibility for government functions have such a hard time when it comes to trash or, should I say, the products that ultimately become trash. Companies derive profits from making and selling products, and it is accepted that these companies should internalize these profits. Why then should the costs of managing those products after they are consumed be externalized to society? Why should these costs become government’s costs? After all, we (all taxpayers) pay for this, not the companies that make or sell the products. In most places in the country, there is no differentiation between a computer, a piece of paper, an aluminum can, or a sofa. Stick it on the curb or bring it to the dump and you pay the same price. Government has little influence over product design to make a couch that weighs half as much but still performs the same. But the private sector does…if only given the incentive.
Government’s role traditionally has been to clear the streets of trash to protect public health and safety. However, over the past 40 years, government has also invested billions of dollars nationally in creating an infrastructure to collect and recycle used products, resulting in millions of dollars of private sector profits. This, too, is government’s traditional role. In his new book, Time to Start Thinking, Edward Luce recounts how government paved the way for the private sector to profit from the Internet through billions of dollars of taxpayer investment. Thomas Friedman, in his new book, That Used to be Us, laments the lack of government investment now in new energy efficient technologies that can pave the way for private sector investments in the next generation of clean energy technology.
Government paves the way by investing in the future of the country. But there is a time when it should step aside for the private sector to take over. State and local governments have invested enough in developing the infrastructure that is now serviced by waste management and recycling companies. This public sector investment has yielded millions of recycling jobs, a reduction in environmental impacts, and cost savings. The investment has paid off.
But we are at a critical juncture. Government does not have the funds to invest any more. It is time for the private sector to internalize post-consumer product costs and to invest in sustainable products and collection systems that recover valuable materials for the manufacture of new products. This transition to a more sustainable economy is rooted in our ability to forge a lasting partnership between the private sector and government.
I am with John Sununu on this one. He forecasts a person’s typical response to change by clinging to the status quo. Look at it this way. Everything that we buy will be transformed to some degree. We change the things we buy by using them. Therefore, we are all agents of change. It is time to change how waste is managed in this country.
Calling all private sector small government advocates – we are ready for you.