Virginia’s Child-Immigrant Non-Scandal

 The Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center

In the fall of 2017, three migrant children detained by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) at the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center filed a class action lawsuit alleging abuse by guards. This June, amidst national media coverage of the separation of children from parents on the U.S. border, news media discovered the lawsuit and reported on the allegations.

As I summarized the charges in a blog post: “Allegedly, teenagers were restrained, handcuffed, and made to sit with bags over their heads. Some were stripped of their clothes. Some were locked in solitary confinement, some beaten, left with bruises and broken bones and kept shivering in concrete cells.” I added: “The claims, if true, are shocking and must be addressed immediately.”

Well, the Northam administration promptly looked into the issue and has published its report. The findings? As I should have surmised from the hysterical, almost apocalyptic nature of the immigrant-children coverage by the national media, the state Department of Juvenile Justice “found that there was no evidence of abuse or neglect.”

DJJ staff interviewed all of the federal residents of SVJC. The team was unable to substantiate the conditions described in the lawsuit concerning the operations of SVJC or the mistreatment of residents. After obtaining permission from ORR, the team returned on June 25 and reviewed case files, medical files, room confinement forms, and other documentation to assess compliance with regulations relating to the quality of care.

The immigrant children held at SVJC aren’t toddlers separated from their parents. They are unaccompanied minors under the age of 18 with no parent or legal guardian in the U.S. Many have suffered trauma; some belong to gangs such as the infamous MS-13. Many display behavioral issues presenting disciplinary challenges.

One technique used by SVJC is “room confinement” to “ensure the safety and security of residents, staff, and the facility.” The DJJ found no incidents where residents were confined longer than 24 hours. With the exception of one 23-hour incident, confinements typically lasted four hours.

SVJC staff also used, though rarely, a “restraint chair” for out-of-control residents “who cannot be safely restrained by less intrusive methods. While in the chair, a mesh spit guard can be placed on the resident’s head to prevent spitting or biting.”

In sum, the center faced difficult conditions. “Young people who have been frequently exposed to high levels of trauma, who are separated from their families, and who confront numerous language and cultural barriers” comprise a “uniquely challenging group,” the DJJ report says. The center should provide staff with professional development “in the areas of positive youth development, cognitive behavioral interventions and trauma informed care” and should increase “understanding and sensitivity toward the unique cultural backgrounds of the youth in the federal program.” DJJ also recommended more training in the use of physical and mechanical restraints, and in the effective use of de-escalation techniques.

Bacon’s bottom line: In other words, while the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center could benefit from some tweaks, investigators found no real problem there. What this story highlights — although you’ll never see a mainstream media outlet framing the issue this way — is an endemic feature of illegal immigration. Many children are unaccompanied by parents or relatives. Many suffered trauma — not at the hands of Americans but of their fellow countrymen (or perhaps Mexicans, which many had to pass through to get to the U.S.). And many pose special behavioral problems requiring their confinement and costing U.S. taxpayers.

The national media is largely uninterested in such issues, of course, so I anticipate zero follow-up. If U.S. immigration policy cannot be blamed, there’s nothing worth writing about.

Here’s what I would like to know. Who were the children who made the allegations and had a suit filed in their name? More importantly, who were the attorneys filing the suit on their behalf? How did those attorneys gain access to the children? Are they just random lawyers off the streets of Staunton, or are they part of a nonprofit organization? If they were part of a nonprofit, what is that organization’s aims and who is funding it? Could there have been political motivations behind the lawsuits? None of that information, as I recall, was reported by the media. What a surprise.

Bacon Bits, Your Tasty Morning Info Treat

More hidden deficit spending. Virginia devoted 33% less to capital spending on K-12 schools (inflation-adjusted) in 2016 than in 2008, according to the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. That compared to a 26% reduction nationally. The cuts, say CBPP, “mean less money to build new schools, renovate and expand facilities, and equip schools with more modern technologies, further diminishing the environment in which teachers educate and children learn.”

The CBPP made no effort to correlate the capital spending with K-12 enrollment, which has increased only modestly nationally since 2008 after years of strong growth. Presumably, stable enrollment limits the need to build new schools. However, it should surprise no one if school systems were engaging in hidden deficit spending by deferring maintenance and repairs.

Best colleges for the money. From Money magazine, which considered graduation rates, tuition charges, family borrowing, alumni earnings, and 22 other data points to rate educational value: University of Virginia, 10th best in the country; Washington & Lee University, 24th; Virginia Tech, 29th; James Madison University, 39th. Four Virginia colleges in the top 50. Not bad.

What if there aren’t any fascists to fight? When there weren’t any fascists to be found at weekend rallies in Washington, D.C., and Charlottesville, Antifa, the so-called anti-fascists, found someone else to fight. Yesterday, I noted how they turned on the police. Today, the Washington Post’s Avi Selk details how they turned on the media. “Videos show Antifa members accosting reporters specifically because they’re reporters.” Antifa uses the cause of anti-racism to shield the fact that they are enemies of a free society.

Coal mines and methane. Three hundred active and 200 inactive coal mines identified by Climate Home News account for one-tenth of all U.S. methane emissions into the atmosphere. Methane has 34 times the global warming effect of carbon dioxide.

Environmentalists have criticized natural gas as an electric power source. Although natural gas combustion produces less CO2 than coal combustion, the argument goes, when methane leakage from gas pipes and wells is taken into account, the natural gas supply chain is just as bad for global warming. I responded that the argument failed to take into account the massive outpouring of gas from coal mines, but I had no hard data. Now I do. Thanks Climate Home News!

Solar, Location-Variable Costs, and the 21st-Century Grid

California is pushing solar energy more aggressively than any other state in the union, and the debates unfolding there may presage controversies likely to occur in Virginia. One of those debates is the relative value of utility-scale versus community versus individual rooftop solar, which is intimately tied to the issue of location-variable costs.

Building so-called utility-scale solar — essentially vast solar farms — allows economies of scale in installation and generates electricity at the lowest cost per kilowatt. Power companies like them because they typically own the utility-scale production and get to generate a profit off them. One drawback is that utility-scale production consumes vast swaths of land. Another is that solar farms rely upon high-capacity transmission lines to move their electricity to distant locations, while local generation can feed into local distribution grids.

Utility-scale solar is going gangbusters in Virginia, but opportunities for communal and rooftop generation are limited by state law. A huge sticking point here, as it is in California, is how much utilities should reimburse small-scale producers for the electricity they generate. To what degree should small-scale producers share in the cost of maintaining the larger distribution and transmission grid they rely upon when the sun isn’t shining?

Steven Sexton, an associate professor of public policy and economics at Duke University, is skeptical of the numbers that California officials are using to justify a mandate requiring all new houses built in the state to be equipped with solar panels. In a Wall Street Journal column today, he introduces an element into the debate that I haven’t heard discussed here in the Old Dominion: grid congestion. He writes:

Regulators should tailor policy to reflect routine variation in the value of solar generation across the state’s congested electricity grid. Solar panels are most effective when installed where transmission constraints make supply relatively scarce — not on every roof in California.

In other words, the value of rooftop/community solar generation varies depending upon its location on the electric grid. The value is greater where grid congestion is worse and the alternative is spending tens of millions of dollars upgrading the transmission system — often adding to visual blight in the process. The value of rooftop/community solar is less where grid congestion is not an issue.

I would add a corollary to that observation: Rooftop/community solar generation has greater value in remote, hard-to-serve areas where new development would require the installation of additional sub-stations and distribution lines. Back in the days when I wrote about land use, I advocated the principle that all property owners should pay the location-variable costs of their decisions about where to build. The biggest of those location-variable costs is transportation infrastructure, but a not-insignificant one is the supply of electricity. Why should city dwellers, who require less electric infrastructure per-capita, pay extra to subsidize rural dwellers? Conversely, why shouldn’t rural dwellers who generate some or all of their own electricity, receive some benefit when they avoid some of the cost of building rural electric infrastructure?

The root of the problem is that electric utilities charge a flat rate for all customers within the same class (residential, commercial and industrial) regardless of the variations in cost of serving those customers. I haven’t heard anyone in Virginia challenge that premise, but charging location-variable rates may be a necessary step for building an electric grid for the 21st century.

Fizzle

Jason Kessler defiled the American flag yesterday by associating it with racism. With his latest rally a pathetic bust, Virginians can only hope we have seen the last of him.

So much for the Alt-Right.

Denied a permit to hold a really in Charlottesville, Alt-Right agitator and provocateur Jason Kessler organized a rally in Washington, D.C., on the anniversary of last year’s Unite the Right rally that resulted in widespread violence and the death of a counter-protester. Thousands came — but they were almost all counter-protesters. The Washington Post reports that Kessler attracted only 40 to his “white civil rights rally.”

Other than Kessler and the media, which still hews to the philosophy that if it bleeds, it leads, the group most disappointed by the pathetic Alt-Right showing likely was the radical left.

Antifa members vented their frustration at not being able to confront the rallygoers by lighting smoke bombs and firecrackers and throwing eggs in the direction of police. By then, a steady rain was falling, however, and the protest was fizzling. Most began heading home, but police kept a watchful eye as the black-clad group carrying umbrellas wandered about knocking over trash cans, chanting “Bust a window!” and yelling at police to get out of their cars and “meet us in the streets.”

Meanwhile, in Charlottesville, counter-protesters gathered despite the absence of any white supremacists at all. Last year, lefties criticized the police for letting the situation spiral out of control. This year, they criticized the police for their excessive presence. Reports the Washington Post:

Protesters screamed at police officers, whom some demonstrators had all weekend tried to associate with racism and fascism.

The night before, protesters had gathered at the steps of the Rotunda at the University of Virginia, before a giant banner that said, “Last year they came with torches; this year they come with badges,” and then marched through the streets for hours. On Sunday, the protesters, who had come out to combat absent white supremacists, were trying to combat the police, too. They cursed them. Insulted their looks. “Blue lives don’t matter,” the crowd chanted. And: “We don’t need cops.”

The radical left desperately needs a radical right to give itself meaning and legitimacy in the eyes of the broader public. Take the radical right out of the equation, and the radical left has to find new enemies — and it looks like the police are the most likely candidates. Unlike the Alt-Right, which appears to be imploding, the radical left isn’t going away.

Trailing Spouse Benefit Proving of Minimal Impact

Results of the first 40 months paying unemployment benefits to military spouses leaving Virginia jobs due to family transfer. Source: VEC

Virginia’s unemployment insurance (UI) trust fund continues to show improved balances despite dropping tax rates, reflecting a strengthening economy.   The most recent semi-annual report, released at a legislative meeting yesterday, projects half as many initial claims during 2018 as there were five years ago: 134,000 this year versus the earlier 276,000.

It the trend holds that would be a 45-year low, the Daily Press reported, quoting Virginia Employment Commissioner Ellen Marie Hess.

The trust fund balance probably peaked at $1.35 billion June 30, with slight declines expected in coming months.  With the lower unemployment and higher workforce participation rates, the system is working as designed.   More than 68 percent of the almost 215,000 Virginia employers paying into the fund pay at the lowest possible tax rate, which works out to $88 per employee.

The tax rates go up with a history of layoffs or other successful claims and are higher on new employers or employers based outside of Virginia.  In general Virginia has some of the lowest taxes in the region, in part because it also has less generous payments.

The various charts track many other signs of economic improvement:  More employers registered with the system, fewer of them paying elevated taxes due to past layoffs, lower general unemployment rates, and a labor force participation rate (66.2 percent) higher than the national average.

The report also tracks the impact of a controversial recent change in the system, allowing unemployment benefit payments to the spouses of military personnel who get reassigned outside Virginia.  Prior to 2015 that was considered a voluntary termination, not a layoff, and thus not eligible for benefits.

Over the first 40 months 766 people have claimed benefits costing about $2.3 million.

Business groups, including the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, opposed giving this benefit to so-called “trailing spouses” because of fear it would be a major drain on the fund.  The employer ultimately responsible for the move, the Department of Defense, pays zero into the state UI fund, but taxes are collected from whatever employer had the departing spouse on the payroll.

So far, the number of claimants has been so small there has been no measurable effect on the fund balance or tax rates. The military spouse benefit was passed with a sunset clause and has two more years to run before the General Assembly must end or extend it.  It was advocated as another way to demonstrate Virginia’s commitment to the military, for economic as much as patriotic reasons.

Having the benefit may give Virginia some positive points should there ever be another round of base closures, but if there is and Virginia is on the losing end, the number of claims under this provision would spike.

Is Charlottesville Governable?

Charlottesville Police Chief RaShall Brackney. Good luck, you’re going to need it.

The city of Charlottesville arguably has the most left-wing city council of any local government in Virginia. Some of the local left’s fixations are harmless. Advancing the goals of energy efficiency and renewable power in the cause of combating climate change may or may not represent a good return on investment of public dollars, but at least the results — incremental improvements to the environment — are benign. However, the implementation of progressive doctrine can have pernicious effects in such areas as K-12 schools and public safety.

Public safety has become a polarizing flash point in the aftermath of the Unite the Right rally a year ago. Local leftists declared the racist rhetoric of assorted Nazis and Klansmen so heinous that they forfeited the freedom of speech and assembly. Ned Oliver with the Virginia Mercury describes how the debate rages still:

Anti-racist activists in Charlottesville say they’re fed up with calls for civility as groups peddling violent hate speech cloak their rallies in the constitutional rhetoric of free speech, often framing their gatherings literally as “free speech rallies” rather than letting the speech itself — support for the KKK for instance — serve as the headliner.

And a year later, Charlottesville residents remain outraged that the city granted white supremacist groups a permit to hold their infamous Aug. 12 rally in the city.

It’s not surprising in such an environment that law enforcement has become highly politicized. Former Police Chief Alfred S. Thomas Jr. lost his job after a July rally last year in which the police tear gassed rioting leftists and then the August rally in which Charlottesville police allowed leftist and rightest demonstrators to clash violently. After an interim chief served briefly, RaShall M. Brackney, a black woman, has been appointed to run the department.

I know nothing about Ms. Brackney’s professional background or philosophy of law enforcement, but she will not have an easy job. She will be contending with a leftist movement, emboldened and radicalized by the United the Right rally, that deems much of what Charlottesville police officers do as illegitimate. The city has created a Police Civilian Review Board. One sign of things to come: According to this Daily Progress article, progressives are targeting what one defense attorney describes as the department’s stop-and-frisk policy. The broader Black Lives Matter agenda likely will receive full consideration.

Ms. Brackney speaks optimistically of how the police will forge bonds with the community. “In Charlottesville, we have the opportunity to implement best practices and shape the narrative for police-community relations,” she said. “In order to do so, we must collectively define what does a healthy relationship look like between law enforcement professionals and the communities we serve. We then need to identify pathways moving forward to achieve those goals and finally build on successful outcomes.”

My question: Is the left interested in civility and better police-community relations, or will it work to inflame minorities’ sense of grievance and injustice as a way to advance their radical agenda? Without a sense of continual outrage, the left has nothing to offer. I worry that the leftists will continually “move the goalposts” until the police are so bound and handcuffed that the city becomes ungovernable. Moderate liberals (there are virtually no conservatives to speak of in the city) will have to push back. If they don’t, Charlottesville will become synonymous not  only with racial confrontation but anarchy.

Love Is A Juicy Tomato, A Ripe Melon

“We as a country have fallen out of love with healthy fruits and vegetables.”

Dominic Barrett said that while sitting at a picnic table a few feet from an acre of healthy fruits and vegetables, a new urban garden in the heart of Northside Richmond created by Shalom Farms.  The location is in my neighborhood beside my normal walking path.  Looking for a story I asked Barrett to meet me there and talk.

Turns out the story is there is no big story, and it’s told from time to time.  This is another example of Richmonders (Virginians, Americans) seeing a problem and doing something about it.  No fuss, no muss, no parade permits, no angry tweets.  The non-profit farm was stared a decade ago as a United Methodist urban mission, has spun off and is now approaching $1 million in annual budget, its staff supplemented by thousands of volunteer hours.

Dominic Barrett, Executive Director Shalom Farms

While official statistics indicate that only one in ten of us eats enough healthy fruits and vegetables, Barrett and his group have plenty of customers for their produce.  Nobody has fallen out of love with fresh-picked tomatoes or corn. Shalom Farms sells product at discounted prices from a “Grown to Go” truck which stops at 11 locations in the city (the stop I saw was bustling), through Richmond Healthy Corner Stores, and give much of it away through a network of other distribution points.

They measure their 2017 output as about 550,000 “servings.”  They also offer food preparation classes, have visitors out to their larger 12-acre farm off Virginia 288 in Powhatan County, and for a few people offer a personalized prescription produce plan to restore health.  A key partner is Health Brigade, formally known as the Fan Free Clinic.

Click on Image for Annual Report

The stories about “food deserts” often fail to mention that decades ago home or neighborhood vegetable gardens or fruit trees were common, even in the city, supplementing purchased food.  This time of year, people were awash with produce grown, given or traded.  At least some of the bounty was then canned or preserved in some other way.  Modern distractions, growing incomes, sprawling supermarkets – all have had a hand in the decline of home gardens.

And of course, as Barrett lists as his biggest lesson from his time in the work, farming is hard and risky.  Why risk a failure from weather or insects when stores have abundant supplies?  But big stores are rare in parts of the city, while cheap and attractive unhealthy food choices are everywhere.  Barrett reported that the group has strong relationships with grocery chains in the area, who do not see Shalom as competition.

The farm on the Westwood Tract inside the city has generated no controversy, Barrett reported.  Five acres are rented from Union Theological Seminary and sit on the edge of a large park-like expanse which is actually at risk for future development.  Many neighbors would prefer the farm to 300 more apartments.

Shalom Farms follows organic practices and has been certified as a natural grower but has not taken the steps (which can be expensive) for official organic certification.  Nor does it preach the Gospel of Organic that discourages people from commercially-grown or even canned or frozen vegetables or fruits.   Fresh is great, local is great, but it’s all better than most prepared foods, so enjoy.

There are aspects of the nutrition challenge Shalom Farms leaves to others, despite what Barrett called “the temptation to be all things.”  The mission is not to rekindle the practice of home gardening, or to feed mass numbers of people.  Like millions of other Americans, they do what they can for those they can reach.  As I said, no big story, nothing new here, but a welcome reminder that more good is being done daily than most realize, and we don’t celebrate that enough.

Media reaction to Goodlatte’s 2018 Chesapeake Bay Amendment

Background: Republican Rep Bob Goodlatte (Va – 6th) has proposed an amendment to an appropriations package which would forbid the EPA from using federal funds to take action against bay states that fail to meet pollution-reduction targets set by the EPA and agreed-to by the states.  The amendment is to the 2019 Interior, Environment, Financial Services and General Appropriations Act.  The amended bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives 213 to 202.  The same bill (without the Goodlatte Amendment) was passed by the US Senate 92 to 6.

Goodlatte’s rationale. Rep Goodlatte previously explained his rationale for restricting the EPA’s authority over the Chesapeake Bay cleanup on his website.  You can view that explanation here and here. (Hat Tip: Jim Bacon). However, it should be noted that the first link was from 2014 and the second from 2016. One would think that Goodlatte’s most recent attempts to curtail the EPA’s enforcement of the TDML Blueprint would require an updated explanation of intent … especially in light of the continued success of the Bay cleanup effort since EPA enforcement began.

Media reaction to the 2018 amendment. In order to get the essence of the media reaction to Bob Goodlatte’s proposed amendment I performed an internet search with the argument “Goodlatte & Chesapeake Bay Cleanup.”  There were 42,800 results. Here are the top 10 written in 2018 pertaining to Goodlatte’s latest attempt to restrict the EPA from enforcing the TDML Blueprint:

  1. Measure to weaken EPA enforcement of bay cleanup is up for House vote – again (Daily Press)
  2.  US House again votes to restrict federal enforcement of Chesapeake Bay Cleanup (Baltimore Sun)
  3. Editorial: Goodlatte once again targets the bay cleanup (Fredricksburg.Com)
  4. Senators vow to fight stripping funds to enforce Chesapeake Bay cleanup (LA Times)
  5. Environmentalists claim measure will set back Chesapeake Bay (13 News Now)
  6. Virginia GOP Congressman Again Tries to Gut Accountability For Chesapeake Bay Cleanup (PA Environment Digest Blog)
  7. Goodbye and Good Riddance to Goodlatte (Bacon’s Rebellion) (LOL)
  8. Harris backs Bay cleanup (The Star Democrat)
  9. Bay Journal: Hogan urges US Senate to reject curb on EPA role in Bay cleanup (Maryland.gov)
  10. House Republicans Advance Bill that Would Derail Chesapeake Cleanup (NPR)

Methodology reminder. Bob Goodlatte has made many failed attempts over the years to prevent the EPA from regulating the Chesapeake Bay’s TDML Blueprint. Interspersed with articles relating to his most recent attempt were articles referencing his prior attempts. Those prior articles were omitted from this list.

Conclusion. Goodlatte seems to have very little support for his latest attempt to restrict the EPA’s authority over the Chesapeake Bay. Beyond the dearth of media articles in support of Goodlatte, seven of Virginia’s eleven U.S. House of Representative members voted against Goodlatte’s amendment. Both Virginia U.S. Senators committed to blocking the amendment in the Senate. Even Maryland’s Republican governor came out publicly against the Goodlatte amendment. I also quickly scanned the next 10 articles (numbers 11 – 20) on the sorted list of responses to my internet search. All were opposed to Goodlatte’s latest attempt to restrict EPA enforcement of the TDML Blueprint.

— Don Rippert

Hospital Collections Are Ugly but Not the Real Problem

Source: The Virginia Mercury

I have big issues with the way hospitals conduct business in Virginia, especially the highly profitable nonprofit hospitals, as I have repeatedly made clear on this blog. But there’s one thing I don’t have a problem with — the fact that they try to collect their bills. Some observers find that practice problematic. Witness the recent story published in the Virginia Mercury, which kicks off this way:

Annie Washington is 60 years old, has diabetes and no insurance. If she needs to see a doctor, she winds up in the emergency room. But while hospitals can’t turn indigent patients away, they can still bill them. And when patients can’t afford those bills, collection lawsuits often follow.

“I work at McDonald’s,” the Henrico County resident said after a recent hearing over an $860 lawsuit filed by the doctors group that staffs VCU Medical Center. “There’s no insurance there.”

Virginia medical providers filed more than 400,000 lawsuits over the past five years, netting more than $587 million in legal judgments against their patients, an analysis of state court records by the Virginia Mercury has found. The review relied on data collected by virginiacourtdata.org, which aggregates online state court records.

Virginia Mercury deserves credit for plumbing a data source which heretofore has gone unreported upon. I appreciate the reporters’ enterprise. But I take issue with the implication that there is something disreputable about making an effort to collect unpaid bills. The capitalist system is based upon the premise people pay for the things they buy. The underlying problem with Virginia’s health care system is not that hospitals ask people to pay their bills but the insane way — insane, as in utterly disconnected from reality — that they calculate the bills in the first place.

Hospital charges, which are deeply discounted for Medicare, Medicaid and private insurers but not for individuals, are obscenely and unconscionably high. Many people, perhaps most people, are unable to pay the charges. But what are hospitals supposed to do? Not bill people without insurance? Or, if they don’t pay, make no effort to collect? If it is widely known that there are no repercussions for failure to pay, what incentive is there for anyone to pay?

Hospitals routinely provide charity care and write off unpaid bills. But how are they supposed to know who has the capacity to pay and who doesn’t unless they try to collect?

Sentara Health System, according to Virginia Mercury, uses predictive data analytics like credit scores to surmise who might be able to may and who might not. Bon Secours has adopted a policy of forgiving the debt of anyone whose income is 200% of the federal poverty level. That’s all very admirable, but there’s always a cut-off at which the people just below the line (whether credit score or income) get off free and people just above the line get stuck. A precept of the welfare state is that no matter where you set the line, there is always someone who draws the wrong side of it and there’s always someone deserving of compassion. Because there is always a victim, there is always a reason to draw a new, more forgiving line. That is not a sustainable model for a health care system.

If we want to address root causes, we must address the skyrocketing price of healthcare — both the cost of providing the care, caused by the cartelization of the industry, and the setting of insanely high nominal prices, the sole purpose of which is to establish a starting position for negotiating with insurance companies.

I Want to Say Two Words to You: Plastic Reycling!

Reportedly, 90% of the plastic that reaches the world’s oceans gets flushed through just 10 rivers: The Yangtze, the Indus, Yellow River, Hai River, the Nile, the Ganges, Pearl River, Amur River, the Niger, and the Mekong (in that order).

by Bill Tracy

I  want to say one word to you: plastics!”

That’s the famous 1967 quote from “The Graduate,” which ranks #42 in the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 movie quotations. Evidently, it was good career advice, because it now seems like just about everything in our homes and vehicles is made from plastic.

But plastics leave society with a number of waste problems including litter and ocean contamination. I have had some personal experience with plastics recycling, so here are some of my thoughts.

Misconception #1: Americans are disposing a lot of consumer plastics in the ocean. Answer: Not true.

As an affluent country, the United States has many landfills, incinerators, recycling centers, water treatment plants, and weekly trash pick-ups. The horrific videos we are seeing — oceans and beaches literally buried in tons of plastic waste — is originating from developing countries. In some parts of the world, unfortunately, dumping trash in the nearest river is the best waste disposal option.

How does America handle its waste problem? One way is to export it to less affluent parts of the world with cheap labor and weak environmental regulations. However, 90% of the waste plastics sent to China comes from Europe. This suggests that recycling works better than the U.S. is usually given credit for.

Misconception #2: Land-filling of plastics is a serious problem due to the non-biodegradability of the plastics. Answer: Not true

Even a hot dog will last for decades in a landfill. Worse, a hot dog will biodegrade creating methane,which eventually leaks to the atmosphere. Some environmentalists contend methane is the greatest threat to mankind, worse even than the greenhouse gas CO2, which is paradoxically non-toxic.

Additionally, some feel strongly that hydrocarbons (fossil fuels) should be left in the ground to prevent release of CO2. If you believe that, what’s wrong with carbon sequestration by putting plastics in a landfill? Apparently eternal hot dogs are morally OK, but plastics are immoral. Alternatively we could switch to biodegradable plastic silverware made from corn. But then, what’s going to happen in the landfill? A corn-derived hot dog will degrade eventually… and release methane. (Admittedly, some of the methane is in fact recovered.)

Solutions: Let’s move on to discuss potential solutions to the problems of plastic wastes. As a former “waste min” engineer, I know there is much merit in the Environmental Protection Agency’s classic waste minimization hierarchy.

  1. Reduce
  2. Reuse/Recycle
  3. Treat
  4. Dispose of Residuals

Many recycling and treatment technologies are under-utilized. One of many technically feasible treatments is energy recover, e.g.; trash incineration,  as practiced by Fairfax County. Plastics have enormous energy content which can be recovered to generate electricity and play a significant role in the alternate energy picture.

But recycling and treatment require tax dollars to help solve the waste problem.  Enter American Conservatives and their staunch anti-tax views.  The unworkable Conservative view is partially supported by the backwards Liberals who feel treatment (incineration) represents an unacceptable pollution source. Liberals believe the ultimate solution is not making any waste at all. While waiting for this utopia, Liberals and Conservatives both like landfills.

Who gets the landfills? Virginia loves landfills. I assume the infamous trash train still hauls trash from New York and New Jersey through Washington, D.C., and then on into southern Virginia. Hampton Roads has Mount Trashmore Park as a testament to our support of making new mountains from imported trash. If we account for all the trash we bury, we can say that Virginia has accomplished more for carbon sequestration than any other state in the nation!

Whichever strategy we pursue, we’d better get cracking. China has recently stopped importing contaminated waste plastics from the U.S. and Europe, which  in my view is a valid attempt to take control of their boundaries and concentrate on solving its internal waste problems. Meanwhile, developed countries are under greater pressure to solve their own waste-handling problems, and within their own boundaries.

Bill Tracy, a retired engineer, lives in Northern Virginia.