One of the most important issues in any given human society, is the management of its waste disposal. And space settlements will be no exception. Of course space colonists could simply dump their waste into outer space, but this will be inefficient since this also means the loss of valuable resources. Waste management of space colonies should be based on reduce, reuse and recycling. In this post we will discuss several policies which could be implemented to achieve these 3 R’s.
Reducing the amount of waste produced sounds simple, but it’s actually quite difficult. A large part of wast consist of packages and plastic bags. One way to reduce this kind of waste, is to impose a pigovian tax on packages and plastic bags. The rationale behind this option is that making packages and plastic bags more expensive, people or more precisely the manufacturers of those products, will be motivated to reduce the amount of packages of their products. The revenues of this tax should be used for funding the waste management industry.
Many goods are disposed, not because they are broken, but because their owners do not want to have these goods any longer. Or because the owner has died, and his or her heirs do not want to keep this stuff. Stuff like furniture, clothing or toys are often disposed of for these reasons. Often these commodities are in a good state, and could therefore be used by someone else.
In the Netherlands resale shops, kringloopwinkels or kringloopcentra in Dutch, are a common phenomenon in the larger cities and town. These shops often pick up old stuff for free at your home. This is a win-win situation since people do not have to pay of the disposal of their goods. The resale shops sell the product for low prices, which has the additional benefit of allowing people from lower-income groups to buy high quality stuff.
The governments of space settlements should run a similar system of resale shops. Some goods will need a (small) repair before they can be resold. It is also possible to run these stores as give-away shops, where the goods are given away for free.
However often waste is degenerated to such degree that reuse is no option, then we need to switch to recycling. The difference between reuse and recycling is simple, the latter process involves breaking down a disposed items into raw material.
Because different materials require different procedures for recycling, proper sorting of waste is essential. This sorting can be either done by the person who dispose their waste, or by the processor of the collected waste. In order to pursue citizens to sort their waste, the government should make public garbage cans multi-unit: e.g. one entry for paper, one for plastic, etcetera. This would make sorting waste convenient for the good-willing citizen.
An interesting approach to waste management is the so-called cradle-to-cradle model. Under this model, producers will design their products in such way that these goods can be recycled as efficiently as possible.
The problem with this approach is simple: how to ensure that discarded products will return to the manufacturer? For many durable goods, such as consumer electronics, the answer is quite simple: instead of buying these goods, consumers should lease these. By leasing durable goods, these will remain property of the manufacturer. At the end of the contract the goods will be returned to the manufacturer for reprocessing.
Leasing durable goods has besides waste management, several additional advantages. For the producer it ensures a steady flow of income. If for instance a company sells refrigerators with an average lifespan of ten years to consumer, this company will have peaks of income. At moment zero, when no one has a refrigerator, the company can sell many products. But once every household as a refrigerator, the market has become satisfied, and our company cannot sell any new unit for the next decade. And hence it cannot make any money. But when the consumer would lease the refrigerators, they would pay small amounts of money at regular intervals to the company.
This also leads to a benefit for the consumers. Because of the regular payments, the company has an incentive to make high quality products. If the product leased by the consumer, would break down within the term of the lease-contract, the supplier is obliged to repair or to replace the broken item. Nowadays, manufacturers have an incentive to make low quality products with a short life-time, in order to ensure regular income.
Leasing durable goods instead of buying them is both an effective strategy to deal with waste management, and a good way to stabilize the economy by smoothing out business cycles.