Twenty years ago the principal Irish export was its people. A whopping 20 percent unemployment rate forced the Irish to leave in search of opportunity. Today, while many of its neighbors restrict immigration, Ireland has opened its labor markets; and English, Polish, Latvian, Lithuanian, Chinese and Nigerian workers are helping power the Irish economic boom. The Celtic Tiger has been the envy of Europe. A fine educational system and high productivity rates attract substantial foreign direct investment.
But as economic growth rates, employment and prosperity have soared in Ireland, so have consumption, construction and environmental degradation. Municipal waste increased 65 percent since 1995. Urban development grew 31 percent between 1990 and 2000. Water quality in coastal areas suffered. Suddenly the Emerald Isle was not so green.
In a country with a vibrant tourism sector, environmental downturns have economic as well as health and ascetic consequences. So the Irish got busy not only managing the mountains of waste but trying to prevent them. In the United States we focus on recycling, while the Irish focus on reduction. The Irish Environmental Protection Agency declared waste prevention a top priority and currently is developing a National Waste Prevention Program. As Tony Killeen, minister of state with special responsibility for environment and energy, explained on Feb. 7, Ireland aims “at changing existing waste disposal practices, reducing unnecessary volumes of waste, whether it be food waste, farm, plastics or packaging materials as well as encouraging reuse.”
A practical example of waste prevention is the so-called plastax. Five years ago Ireland began taxing that symbol and scourge of modern consumer life, the omnipresent plastic carrier bag. Around the world over a billion of these “free” plastic bags are given away in shops and markets every day, over a million a minute according to reusablebags.com. Only 1 percent to 3 percent of these are recycled.
Recycling does not work because the bags are made of such low-quality plastic that it costs more to recycle them than they are worth. Thus many of those collected for recycling contribute instead to pollution. The bags end up dumped and/or incinerated in developing countries with lax environmental laws. The bags take more than 1,000 years to break down. In the meantime they litter the landscape, choke streams and sewer systems, causing flooding, and kill the animals and marine life who eat either the whole bags or the small pieces they break into, which are mistaken for food.
These “free” bags are not free, but their costs are shifted and borne by the public and the environment. Ireland imposed a tax equivalent to 33 cents per bag, with dramatic and immediate results. Usage dropped 94 percent within months, and approximately 10 million euros a year are generated for environmental clean-up programs.
Other countries and municipalities have followed suit, with mixed results. In Bombay the police raid manufacturing factories and shops that use them. Bangladesh, Taiwan and Singapore also ban the bags. But because of poor enforcement and low public support, not all of these measures have worked.
The success in Ireland was due to several key factors. Government capacity was in place to monitor and enforce the measure. Stores already had structures in place to calculate and collect taxes (computers and cash registers), so implementing the plastax was easy. A successful advertising and public education campaign changed people’s ideas about the bags. While the bags are not banned, they are now shunned as “uncool,” like fur coats. A tough Environmental Secretary was committed to the process and closed potential loopholes, making it illegal for stores to pay the tax for customers, and threatening the same tax if stores switched to paper rather than decreasing waste. Even recycled paper bags are not environmentally friendly.
Contrary to the common impression, free markets are not free. They work only in a system of law and price incentives that shape behavior. In the United States we use the tax code to encourage home ownership, but we are slow to use the tax code or other incentives to protect the environment. The process is called environmental accounting, and it is controversial. Many economists argue that it is too difficult to factor the costs of environmental damage into prices or accounting measures like the G.N.P., so they would rather not try. Some environmentalists object that “green taxes” legitimate destructive environmental practices, allowing the rich to pollute for a fee, and insist that some values, like a clean planet, are priceless. Americans seem to feel driving gas-guzzling cars is a natural right, so we do not follow the example of other countries and impose stiff gasoline taxes or taxes on Hummers that would more accurately reflect the costs to the public and the planet.
St. Patrick’s Day is big business in the United States. Americans spend almost $4 billion on green gear and decorations, according to the National Retail Federa-tion. Instead of consuming more, let’s follow the Irish example, and not just wear green but be green.