If it costs to dispose of waste, there is the danger that people may resort to fly-tipping – the illegal dumping of waste in the countryside or on the streets. But several local authorities have indeed been charging for the disposal of building/DIY waste, with the inevitable consequences of huge quantities of dumped rubbish.
Apart from being an eyesore and damaging the environment, fly-tipped waste can be a health hazard, often containing toxic materials, such as asbestos and chemicals. According to the UK government, in 2020/21 there were over 60 000 incidents of fly-tipping of construction, demolition and excavation material, costing an estimated £392 million. In addition, people leave black bags of household waste and single items, such as mattresses, on the roadside.
The external costs are considerably greater than the benefits to those doing the dumping, but because the costs are largely external, people are encouraged to fly-tip, especially if they think that they are unlikely to be caught. Many householders are happy to pay low rates to have their DIY waste disposed of and ‘ask no questions’ about what will happen to it.
It is clearly socially efficient to stop fly-tipping. One solution is to enforce the law more rigorously and to introduce stiffer penalties. Increasingly, local authorities and private landowners are installing CCTV cameras to identify people doing the tipping. To be effective, the cameras must be out of reach. Also, the police must then follow up any cases and arrest and charge the culprits.
An alternative is to provide free disposal at council tips. The UK government has launched a consultation on a proposal to prevent local authorities from charging for the disposal of DIY waste. This still involves an externality in that the costs of disposal are not being borne by the person creating the waste, but clearly the size of the negative externality is considerably less than if the waste had been fly-tipped.
Selected local authorities can apply for new grants totalling £450 000 to help fund the provision of free DIY waste disposal and to install systems, such as CCTV and automatic number-plate recognition, to catch fly-tippers in action.
Devising policies to reduce externalities often involves understanding the incentive mechanisms which encourage people to engage in such activities in the first place and then making it in people’s interests not to engage in them in the future.
- Draw a diagram to illustrate how the consumption of products with large negative externalities is considerably above the socially efficient level.
- Compare the relative advantages and disadvantages of the various policy alternatives to tackle fly-tipping that are discussed in the articles.
- Are there any ‘nudges’ that could be used to prevent fly-tipping?
This rather strange question has been central to a storm that has been brewing between various celebrity chefs, including Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and the supermarkets. Supermarkets say that consumers don’t want irregular shaped vegetables, such as carrots, parsnips and potatoes. ‘Nonsense’, say their critics.
At the centre of the storm are the farmers, who find a large proportion of their vegetables are rejected by the supermarkets. And these are vegetables which are not damaged or bad – simply not of the required shape. Although these rejected vegetables have been described as ‘wonky’, in fact many are not wonky at all, but simply a little too large or too small, or too short or too long. Most of these vegetables are simply wasted – ploughed back into the ground, or at best used for animal feed.
And it’s not just shape; it’s colour too. Many producers of apples find a large proportion being rejected because they are too red or not red enough.
But do consumers really want standardised fruit vegetables? Are the supermarkets correct? Are they responding to demand? Or are they attempting to manipulate demand?
Supermarkets claim that they are just responding to what consumers want. Their critics say that they are setting ludicrously rigid cosmetic standards which are of little concern to consumers. As Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall states:
‘It’s only when you see the process of selection on the farm, how it has been honed and intensified, it just looks mad. There are many factory line systems where you have people looking for faults on the production line; in this system you’re looking for the good ones.
What we’re asking supermarkets to do is to relax their cosmetic standards for the vegetables that all get bagged up and sold together. It’s about slipping a few more of the not-so-perfect ones into the bag.’
In return, consumers must be prepared to let the supermarkets know that they are against these cosmetic standards and are perfectly happy to buy slightly more irregular fruit and vegetables. Indeed, this is beginning to happen through social media. The pressure group 38 degrees has already taken up the cause.
But perhaps consumers ‘voting with their feet’ is what will change supermarkets’ behaviour. With the rise of small independent greengrocers, many from Eastern Europe, there is now intense competition in the fruit and vegetables market in many towns and cities. Perhaps supermarkets will be forced to sell slightly less cosmetically ‘perfect’ produce at a lower price to meet this competition.
Hugh’s War on Waste Episode 1 BBC on YouTube, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (2/11/15)
Hugh’s War on Waste Episode 2 BBC on YouTube, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (9/11/15)
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall rejects Morrisons’ ‘pathetic’ wonky veg trial The Guardian, Adam Vaughan (9/11/15)
Jamie Oliver leads drive to buy misshapen fruit and vegetables The Guardian, Rebecca Smithers (1/1/15)
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s war over wonky parsnips The Telegraph, Patrick Foster (30/10/15)
Asda extends ‘wonky’ fruit and veg range Resource, Edward Perchard (4/11/15)
Wearne’s last farmer shares memories and laments loss of farming community in Langport area Western Gazette, WGD Mumby (8/11/15)
Viewpoint: The rejected vegetables that aren’t even wonky BBC News Magazine (28/10/15)
Viewpoint: The supermarkets’ guilty secret about unsold food BBC News Magazine (6/11/15)
- What market failures are there is the market for fresh fruit and vegetables?
- Supermarkets are oligopsonists in the wholesale market for fruit and vegetables. What is the implication of this for (a) farmers; (b) consumers?
- Is there anything that (a) consumers and (b) the government can do to stop the waste of fruit and vegetables grown for supermarkets?
- How might supermarkets estimate the demand for fresh fruit and vegetables and its price elasticity?
- What can supermarkets do with unsold food? What incentives are there for supermarkets not to throw it away but to make good use of it?
- Could appropriate marketing persuade people to be less concerned about the appearance of fruit and vegetables? What form might this marketing take?
A significant illegal trade in ‘e-waste’ has developed with thousands of discarded computers arriving every day in the ports of West Africa. Once there, children are often used to dismantle them and extract metals . However, this has resulted in huge toxic dumps and serious health problems for resident in the surrounding area.
Breeding toxins from dead PCs Guardian (6/5/08)
||Identify the principal external costs resulting from this illegal trade in e-waste.
||Using diagrams as appropriate, show the impact of this market failure on the market for new computers.
||Evaluate two policies that the international community could adopt to reduce this illegal trade in e-waste.