Ballot questions empower voters to speak the most glorious word in the English language: No.
It’s efficient. Using just two letters it nevertheless possesses more power than any four-letter word. It’s easy to remember with its components falling sequentially in the alphabet. It’s direct. There’s no “on the other hand” or “maybe” ambiguity in “no.”
“No means no,” public-service announcements thankfully remind fraternity brothers and roofie-wielding last-call vultures. The catchphrase merits repeating on political adverts.
Denizens of Massachusetts, displeased with the state legislature repeatedly balking at expanding the bottle bill to apply to flimsy water containers, have taken their campaign directly to the people. Question 2 seeks to compel consumers to pay an extra tax when purchasing a Gatorade, Snapple, or other non-carbonated beverage not currently requiring a deposit charge. The state now charges a nickel. The initiative directs increases automatically tied to inflation.
The campaign recently provided the catharsis of saying “no” not by the mere marking of a piece of paper but by voicing the wonderful word to the faces of a pair of enthusiasts at my front door.
They presented returning a plastic bottle to the supermarket as an act akin to saving the planet. I explained that this conflicted with my more modest aims of saving time and space. They take “Redemption Center” too literally.
The effort of collecting containers presents a sticky hassle. And with curbside recycling, encouraged by a $1 surcharge on the city-approved trash bags required for garbage pickup, returning containers to the supermarket proves a redundancy that serves to put more money in the coffers of the state. Since the deposits paid to stores with the initial purchase of the cans inevitably exceeds the money dispensed by stores to customers redeeming the cans, the state makes a tidy profit.
The canvassers countered that the money from the unredeemed cans would go not to the state but to cleanse Mother Earth. Indeed, the language of the ballot initiative says something of the kind: “There shall be established on the books of the commonwealth a separate fund to be known as the clean environment fund. All abandoned deposits collected…shall be deposited into the clean environment fund.”
I queried my guests, “Who will administer the fund?” One meekly replied, “The government.”
That ended our polite exchange, neither side convinced or even convincible.
An early-’80s, educator-engineered letter-writing campaign had earlier persuaded me of the wisdom of a bottle bill. But a few years later, as I graduated from paperboy to supermarket bagger, the bottle bill appeared more pest than godsend. While working at a Stop & Shop in high school—in the days before machines collected the containers—sorting the brands of cans and bottles, and tabulating the redemption totals, encroached upon productive duties such as bagging groceries and retrieving orphan carriages. Surely everyone, including unskilled teenagers, have something better to do with their time than sort through the garbage.
“Americans have embraced recycling as a transcendental experience, an act of moral redemption,” John Tierney wrote 18 years ago in the New York Times Magazine. “We’re not just reusing our garbage; we’re performing a rite of atonement for the sin of excess.” In studying the costs of New York City’s recycling program, Tierney—who allegedly broke the paper’s “hate mail” record, felling trees and further infuriating his antagonists—concluded that recycling just might be “the most wasteful activity in modern America.”
A ballot initiative that compels citizens to model their behavior on the subjects of A&E’s Hoarders surely speaks of widespread collective insanity. Bad television often makes for bad public policy. Instead of more effectively stewarding resources, recycling squanders space and time by forcing homemakers into sorting and storing; it drains gasoline and manpower by employing armies of “green” garbagemen; it tasks stores that sell useful goods into collecting worthless material. Never has so much waste gone in to preventing waste.
But it makes people feel that they do their part. Perhaps playing along by performing nonproductive labor as though a world-saving endeavor serves as a small price to satiate the delusions of our would-be redeemers. But a more therapeutic activity for the sane remains saying a stern but civil “no.”