Universal Trash-In, Trash-Out for a Cleaner R.I.

By TIM FAULKNER

Here's a wild idea. How about taking the carry-in, carry-out — also called trash-in, trash-out or pack-it-in, pack-it-out — concept a step further, better yet how about taking it all the way?

If you're not familiar with the practice, carry-in, carry-out is a widely used policy for reducing trash — and presumably municipal spending — by removing waste bins from public places. Instead of conveniently located receptacles, the concept requires visitors to public parks, playgrounds or beaches to cart around their own litter. In other words, dispose of your Dunkin' Donuts coffee cups, plastic bags and cigarette packs in your trash can at home.

It's been the rule at Rhode Island beaches and parks since 1992, and saves some $500,000 in annual waste costs. The state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) claims it also cuts down on litter and unsightly barrels that attract bugs, raccoons and sea gulls.

So why not apply the trash-in, trash-out concept to everything? Outlaw all public trash cans from streets, shopping centers and fast-food joints. End curbside pickup, and close the Central Landfill — only about 22 years until it's full anyway. Simply make consumers responsible for getting rid of their own litter.

It's an extreme proposition, of course. Naysayers would warn of trash heaps akin to an endless New York City sanitation strike, and you can bet your bacon wrappers the Teamsters, wastehaulers and American Chemistry Council — it loves anything made of disposable plastic — would storm the Statehouse in protest.

But consumer-responsible waste disposal would certainly prompt the public to pay attention to the trash they get saddled with each day — much after just minutes of use. Universal carry-in, carry-out would forcefully raise awareness about needless waste that comes with every purchase, dinner or trip to McCoy or the Dunk.  

In short order, paper and plastic bags for things like prescription drugs, disposable coffee cups, Styrofoam to-go containers and soda cans would finally register with consumers as burdensome excess with not-so-hidden expenses. Costs that we already pay directly through municipal trash services or the added cost of packaging and trash disposal from the places we shop.

Enlightened consumers might also see the benefits of producer responsibility laws, which have been resisted vigorously by lobbyists and thwarted in committee by the General Assembly.

Carry-in, carry-home waste policy would replace trash pickup with home composting. And hazardous packaging that can't be reused or recycled such as Styrofoam and plastic wrap would be left on the shelves as consumers would finally start buying products based on something other than price. Eventually, consumer preferences for less take-home waste would pressure retailers and manufactures to take responsibility for the waste they sell us.

Why not think big Rhode Island? It's an idea that's already working right here.

Tim Faulkner is the senior reporter for ecoRI News.