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The United States of Stuff

More and more, government must deal with the mountains of things that overflow from our houses and garages. Better policies could help.

Full shelves of vintage electronics, boxes and sports equipment in typical suburban garage.
During the day, I'm a public official. At night, I'm an unpaid, bitter housekeeper. I'm the father of a 7- and a 3-year-old, and my wife and I spend at least an hour every night picking up Legos, balls, dolls, backpacks and clothes.

I never imagined that two little human beings could generate so much stuff. Loving grandparents, aunts and even trips to the dentist spawn little plastic or stuffed toys that my wife and I will eventually spend significant parts of our leisure time moving from place to place in our house, until I lose my patience and donate it so that the stuff can clutter some other families' homes. The daily management of piles of plastic stuff is not what I expected from fatherhood.

Now, my day job is starting to feel like my night job. I ran for office to help people and protect our open spaces. Yet it's occurring to me that much of what government is now doing is managing the consumption, impact and disposal of stuff.

Economic development staff recruits stuff makers and providers to our community. Our transportation system moves stuff from one place to the next. Our land use reckons with bigger and bigger houses being built or remodeled to contain stuff, not to mention acres of offsite storage units. Neighborhood disputes arise from hoarding, people owning too many cars or, more often, garages that are filled with stuff instead of cars and making street parking more difficult. Courts are inundated with people arrested for stealing stuff. Legions of government workers spend their days inspecting and taxing stuff. And, of course, our waste streams are overwhelmed with the disposal of stuff.

When did we allow stuff to hijack our lives and government? What can we do about it?

The first step is admitting we have a problem. And, we do. Consider the following:

• The average size of the American home has nearly tripled over the past 50 years, even though the number of people living in those homes has shrunk.

• One out of every 10 Americans rents offsite storage. It has been the fastest-growing segment of the commercial real-estate industry over the past 40 years. The United States now has more than 50,000 storage facilities, more than five times the number of Starbucks. Currently there is 7.3 square feet of self-storage space for every man, woman and child in the nation.

• Although only 3.1 percent of the world's children live in America, they consume 40 percent of the world's toys.

• The average American throws away 65 pounds of clothing per year. Each pair of jeans requires 7,000 liters of water to make (that's how much water someone drinks in five to six years).

• Shopping malls outnumber high schools.

Study after study convincingly demonstrates that all that stuff make us more stressed, less happy and more financially at risk. It's a big problem and therefore requires many approaches, but some promising policies should be considered, including:

• Incentives, such as lower fees and faster permitting, for smaller homes as well as moratoriums and limits on large homes and storage facilities.

• Replacing the sales tax with a services tax and a carbon tax to make local governments less biased toward siting big-box retailers and emphasizing consumption.

• Tax incentives for repair shops and the purchase of used goods.

• Packaging reductions and bans on unnecessary plastics.

• Establishment of college, health and retirement savings-account programs with matches to reward saving rather than spending

• Financial literacy education programs for both adults and children.

It took decades for super-efficient supply chains, incessant marketing and bad policies to fill our lives with stuff. We can reverse course, but it has to start with creating values and norms that put people and the environment ahead of stuff. I'm going to start working on it, but first I have to clean up my stuff. …

A Santa Cruz County, Calif., supervisor and former mayor of the city of Santa Cruz
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