What I've found is that to really make environmental improvements that will last, there has to be an increase in prices of the things that pollute. We can try to educate the public, but in the end people will do what's cheap.
Professor of Economics Thomas Kinnaman is always looking for the tipping point that makes consumers change behaviors that affect the environment.
If the price of oil goes up, for example, do people drive less? If residents have to buy special trash bags from their city or town, will they recycle more? Or, if they knew their discarded computers were shipped to China for recycling, would they pay to have the parts salvaged close to home?
"Economists are forever interested in how price changes behavior," says Kinnaman. "What I've found is that to really make environmental improvements that will last, there has to be an increase in prices of the things that pollute. We can try to educate the public, but in the end people will do what's cheap."
Kinnaman became intrigued by the economics of waste while a graduate student at the University of Virginia, and he wrote his dissertation on the effectiveness of various municipal policies to promote recycling. He found that charging people for bags for trash was the best way to increase recycling participation.
More recently, he has investigated e-waste, or what happens when you throw away your computer, cell phone or flat-screen television. The answer: Many of these products are shipped to China and Africa, where residents desperate for work burn the circuit boards to salvage heavy metals, gold and silver. The process releases powerful toxins, which, in turn, pollute soil and water and cause cancer and other diseases.
"There are other ways of recycling computers, but they are more expensive," Kinnaman said. "Computers can be shredded into small pieces, then magnets are used to extract and salvage the metal. But people are doing what's easy: going to the landfill."
A member of the steering committee for the interdisciplinary environmental studies program at Bucknell, Kinnaman has begun focusing on another pressing sustainability issue: natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale region. Kinnaman argues that the economic benefits and job creation claims purported by the gas drilling industry have been overstated. He has also examined how a severance tax would affect the price of natural gas and found that the effects on price and quantity from the severance tax are estimated to be relatively small.
He hopes his research informs local governments in setting policy and establishing regulations. Unlike the federal and state governments, smaller entities usually have no economic advisers. "I've always liked when my research has real impact in the community," he says.
Posted Sept. 13, 2011