Piss, Plumbers, Trash and Libertarianism

Two stories caught my eye while perusing the interwebs this week.

The first comes from Wired Magazine, and it’s a featurette on a new waterless urinal. In short, it’s a potty minus the pipes, which uses a special cartridge containing a liquid sealant that lets pee-pee flow through but keeps the gases sealed in. There’s no flushing involved, so no water is wasted. Not only that, but it saves energy that would have been spent pumping, processing, and cleaning the wastewater.

It’s basically a revolutionary breakthrough in tinkling technology.

Falcon Waterfree Technologies, the company that manufactures the urinals, decided on keeping the actual urinal costs low so they can make money from the replacement cartridges, which cost about $40 each and have to be replaced every 7,000 leaks. Pretty solid business model, if I may say so.

As is the case with nearly every innovation in any particular field, not everyone is a fan:

Mike Massey didn’t like Krug’s urinal. As head of PIPE, a plumbing union advocacy group in Southern California, Massey looks out for plumbers’ interests. And as far as he was concerned, the waterless urinal was a threat to public health. Diseases might fester because the urinals weren’t being washed down with every use. Sewer gasses might leak through the cartridge. “People take plumbing for granted,” Massey says. “But the reality is that plumbers protect the health of the nation. That’s how we think of our job.”

Plumbing codes never contemplated a urinal without water. As a result, Falcon’s fixtures couldn’t be installed legally in most parts of the country. Krug assumed it would be a routine matter to amend the model codes on which most state and city codes are based, but Massey and other plumbers began to argue vehemently against it. The reason the urinal hadn’t changed in decades was because it worked, they argued. Urine could be dangerous, Massey said, and the urinal was not something to trifle with. As a result, in 2003 the organizations that administer the two dominant model codes in the US rejected Falcon’s request to permit installation of waterless urinals. “The plumbers blindsided us,” Krug says. “We didn’t understand what we were up against.”

So plumbers don’t like waterless urinals. That’s to be expected, if business owners with Falcon waterless urinals wouldn’t have to pay a plumber to maintain those archaic traditional johns. But rather than saying, “we don’t like these urinals, cause they’re going to put us out of business,” they made the mistake of making a scientific claim that’s testable and falsifiable.

Did these claims stand up to scientific scrutiny?

To test the plumbers’ assertions, [environmental microbiologist Charles Gerba] compared a traditional flush urinal with the Falcon waterless. He found that the Falcon urinal presented a less hospitable environment for germs than constantly moistened conventional bowls. The process of flushing could actually eject those germs into the air. “If it’s a traditional urinal, you should flush and run,” Gerba says.

In short… no, the plumbers’ union doesn’t have a scientific leg to stand on.

The problem is, plumbing and health codes never considered the possibility of a waterless urinal, so the Falcon urinals can’t be installed in most parts of the country. And any attempts to have health codes amended have been blocked by the government under pressure from these plumbers’ unions.

So let me get this straight. A guy makes a urinal that is safer, cheaper, easier to maintain, and better for the environment than traditional toilets… but the government won’t let him install them because one particular group stands to lose financially from the widespread acceptance of a better product.

Does anyone hear a broken window?

Government action leading to unintended consequences is also the theme of our next story, from Freakonomics, which goes into some of the absurd ways people avoid paying local “trash taxes.”

What are trash taxes? Well, sometimes, to recoup the costs of running a solid waste management and collection system, a city or county will charge residents a tax based on how much trash is left out for collectors. This is done to increase personal environmental responsibility and encourage recycling, composting and waste reduction.

Sounds okay, in theory. But lawmakers are rarely a step ahead of their constituents. What usually results are a whole new set of environmental hazards. In Ireland, for instance, some folks have resorted to burning trash in their backyards to avoid paying the fees, while in Germany, trash dumped in the sewers has led to an infestation of New-York-sized rats.

But the most interesting (and disgusting) instance of all comes from Sharon Township, Ohio, where a family moved out of the neighborhood and left behind a house full of waste.

This quote from a neighbor pretty much says it all.

Jim Smith lives just down the street.

“When I opened the garage door, there was a year’s worth of garbage stacked in the garage, and on top of that garbage was a rat that looked like a small cat to me,” Smith said.

Yikes.

If it were me making the law (and it never is), I’d say scrap the trash tax altogether, and if you absolutely must offer some kind of monetary incentive as a way of recouping costs, it’d be a better idea to merely tax consumer goods relative to the cost of their proper disposal. Granted, this would be a more complicated matter (which is why my ideal policy would be to scrap monetary trash incentives altogether), but at least it would avoid the environmental harm and carry fewer externalities.

But what do I know?

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