Compost, the Nanny State and Collective Action

By Mike Dorf

NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg's plan for New Yorkers to separate their food waste for composting has, predictably, led to condemnations from the usual quarters.   For example, a New York Post editorial  worries that while initially voluntary, composting will eventually become mandatory, comparing composting to other supposed horrors such as the smoking ban, trans fat ban and failed plan to ban (some) sales of sugary drinks in large containers.  Since the end of communism a generation ago, people opposed to government regulation have had to shift their comparisons from warning about the gulag to warning about the nanny state.  Not every regulatory proposal is cost-justified, of course, but much of the reflexive opposition is not well thought out.

To stick for a moment with the Post piece, its authors ask rhetorically:  "If there’s really $100 million in savings to be had" from composting, "wouldn’t some clever entrepreneur be tempted to offer a solution?"  The short answer is it depends.  The financial benefits of composting are two-fold: 1) The city saves on garbage disposal costs; and 2) the compost is then turned into a valuable commodity for fertilizer or fuel.  A private contractor would only pay the city for the privilege of collecting food waste if the value of the compost as a commodity exceeds the cost of collecting and processing the compost; the city's savings on hauling garbage and paying for landfill don't enter the calculation.  Moreover, even if we assume that the value of the compost pays for its collection and processing, a contract for it is worth more if people compost more.

Will mandating composting lead to more composting?  In general, one would think so but mandates sometimes have perverse effects.  Under a phenomenon known in the psych literature as "crowding out," formal rules can have the effect of reducing people's internal and/or social motivation for engaging in some particular behavior.  Whether the crowding-out effect is larger than the effect of compliance due to fear of sanction plus rule-following from those people who internalize formal rules is an empirical question in each domain, but there are reasons to think that the crowding-out effect would be smaller than the mandate effect in this context. 

In NYC, there is currently no widespread pre-existing norm of composting that would be crowded out.  When I lived in NYC, no one ever asked me where my compost container was.  Then I moved to Ithaca and guests routinely did.  The first few times, I sheepishly admitted that I didn't compost.  Then I bought a compost bin and began composting, at first to comply with the social norm, but now I have internalized it.  The same thing could happen in NYC.  New Yorkers didn't used to have a recycling norm.  Now they mostly do.  But that's a bad example for crowding out because recycling in NYC is mandatory.  As with smoking bans, here we have an example of a mandate helping to create and strengthen a social norm, rather than undermining it.

Why would that be?  Again, it 's complicated and context-dependent but the clearest reason is that mandatory composting or recycling solves a collective action problem.  One person recycling, composting or refraining from smoking in a restaurant won't have much of an impact; she will bear the cost (in inconvenience or, for a smoker, cravings) but not reap the benefits.  But regulation is the classic solution to collective action problems.  And because people don't like to feel like suckers, legal requirements can build solidarity.

Complaints about the nanny state frequently miss the fact that many of the regulations at which the complainers take aim are geared to solving collective action problems.  Mostly that's the fault of the complainers, but not entirely.  The libertarian strain of our culture leads regulators to defend some regulations that are chiefly aimed at protecting people from themselves--e.g., trans fat ban, failed large sugary drink ban--in social terms.  We are told that obesity exacts social costs in terms of larger health care bills for everyone (because we pay for health care through private and social insurance).  Those claims are not wrong, but they tend to obfuscate.  Most people are not Ayn-Randian libertarians and so most people prefer not to think about helping people avoid harming themselves as chiefly about preventing those people from imposing costs on the rest of us.  We should forbid people from harming themselves (if we should) because we want to protect them; the social benefits should be regarded as a beneficial side effect.

To return to composting, I want to note finally that I am not necessarily endorsing the Bloomberg plan.  Legitimate concerns have been raised about implementation, including the added burden on residential building staff and the impact of providing a new concentrated food source for rats and bugs.  My point here is simply that it's overly simplistic to lump together all of the Bloomberg agenda under the "nanny state" umbrella.