U.S. Army Sgt. David Smitt maintains over watch during an air assault patrol with U.S. soldiers and British gunners in Afghanistan's Kandahar province on Feb. 10, 2011. Smitt is assigned to 101st Combat Aviation Brigade and the gunners are assigned to the Royal Air Force Regiment's 15th Squadron. DoD photo by Sadie Bleistein, U.S. Army.

From Econundrums reader Holly comes this question:

City recycling instructs you to put clean containers in the recycle bins. But I've become increasingly frustrated trying to get certain pet-food cans, yogurt containers, and margarine containers cleaned without using a lot of water. I feel that the water I use, the gas to heat the water, the dish soap, and the paper towels are wasting natural resources as well as costing me money. So how clean is clean enough?

This question irks me every time I throw a take-out salad container into the recycling. Will my leftover vinaigrette contaminate the whole bin? And if it does, will the recycling plant decide it's not worth the effort to clean and simply throw it into the trash instead?

I decided to call Recology, the company that runs San Francisco's recycling program, to ask about the fate of dirty food containers. According to Recology spokesman Robert Reed, most facilities won't throw away a container simply because it's dirty. And it's not a giant deal if containers have little food residue on them (say, the yogurt your spoon couldn't extract from the plastic cup).

But here's the interesting part: The cleaner your containers, the more they're worth on the recyclables market. Municipal facilities first sort recycling by type (paper, several kinds of plastic, tin, etc.), and then by quality. Workers separate clean recyclables from soiled ones, into bales. "If the bale is lower quality, there is less revenue coming back into the system from the sale of recyclables, which helps pay for the program," says Reed. The takeaway: By providing clean recyclables, you can actually save your city (and ultimately, taxpayers) money. 

Jennifer Berry, a spokeswoman for the recycling experts over at Earth 911, agrees. "It's a consistent refrain that I hear from recyclers that the 'cleaner' the product, the more it's worth and the more desirable it is."

Soiled containers are particularly problematic in communities where plastic and paper are transported together, since paper can easily absorb oil and other residue. But dirty plastic-only streams decrease cities' revenue, too. To wit: Frank Cvetovac is the operations manager at Epic Plastics, a manufacturer of plastic goods that buys its materials from municipal recycling facilities. One of Epic's regular suppliers doesn't have a very clean stream. "We offer them 25 or 30 percent less than market value, since we have to do so much work on our end to get it into usable shape," says Cvetovac.

That said, Berry and Reed agree that you should follow your city's guidelines on cleaning out containers, since facilities' equipment and capacity vary widely. But in general, you don't have to get all Lady MacBeth about it. "Remember that you don't have to get items clean enough to store food or eat from—so you don't necessarily have to use so much water that they are sterilized or completely grime free," says Berry. You might consider running containers through the dishwasher if you have one. If not, use a spatula to get most of the gunk out before you chuck it in the bin.


E.J. Dionne today:

Lori Montgomery reported in The Post last week that a bipartisan group of senators thinks a sensible deficit reduction package would involve lifting the Social Security retirement age to 69 and reforming taxes, purportedly to raise revenue, in a way that would cut the top income tax rate for the wealthy from 35 percent to 29 percent.

Only a body dominated by millionaires could define "shared sacrifice" as telling nurses' aides and coal miners they have to work until age 69 while sharply cutting tax rates on wealthy people. I see why conservative Republicans like this. I honestly don't get why Democrats — "the party of the people," I've heard — would come near such an idea.

Good question. Anybody know any Democrats who might be able to answer this?

By Sunday evening, the fighting in Libya was spreading to Tripoli, and the nation’s second largest city, Benghazi, appeared to be in the hands of the protestors. Over 200 people had been killed and hundreds more wounded by security forces, and Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s son, Sayf al-Islam, was warning of civil war, and pledging that the government would "fight to the last bullet" to stay in office.’

The Libyan protests have been inspired by the wave of uprisings across North Africa, but they grow out of deep-seated poverty, unemployment, and political repression at the hands of yet another entrenched despot. Whether they will result in Libya achieving the sort of change experienced by Tunisia and Egypt is impossible to say, but early signs indicate that whatever the outcome, a high price is likely to be paid in human life.

Complicating matters is Libya’s unusual position in world affairs. Not long ago it was a pariah nation. But since 9/11, it has wormed its way back into favor with the United States and Europe because Qaddafi joined the war on terror, cooperating in the Lockerbie bomb investigation, coming down hard on al Qaeda, and kicking out terrorists he had once sheltered. At the same time, he has steered Libya into an increasingly powerful position in world politics because of its vast oil reserves. Libya has an especially close relationship with its former colonial master, Italy. It now provides about 20 percent of all Italy’s oil imports and has invested in sizeable amounts in that country’s energy infrastructure including the transnational energy giant ENI.

Along with their energy deals, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Qaddafi have agreed to work together to stem the increasing numbers of migrants seeking a better life in Europe. In addition to those leaving from North Africa, thousands more have been moving up the Red Sea from Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia and other countries. Their point of entry is Italy–specifically, the small Italian island of Lampedusa, which lies in the Mediterranean midway between Libya and Sicily. 

In 2009, Qaddafi and Berlusconi made an agreement that became part of an open and often vicious campaign against migrants: Libya would try to keep them from leaving in the first place; if they got out, Italy would send them back to Libya without providing them a chance to make asylum claims.

Human Rights Watch has documented the attacks on migrants in a detailed report called Pushed Back, Pushed Around: Italy’s Forced Return of Boat Migrants and Asylum Seekers, Libya’s Mistreatment of Migrants and Asylum Seekers. Here is but a brief account of the two nations in action:

Last year, Mark Williams was tossed out of the Tea Party Express for his racially insensitive NAACP parody. (Three weeks later, he took the helm of an upstart tea party group.) Now, he wants to sow mayhem among "the union goons in Wisconsin" and elsewhere. According to a post on his blog today, Williams is seeking volunteers to pose with him as members of the Service Employees International Union at a Sacramento, California, rally, to act like angry fools and get the union workers bad publicity from "lazy reporters":

we are going to target the many TV cameras and reporters looking for comments from the members there  (5) we will approach the cameras to make good pictures… signs under our shirts that say things like “screw the taxpayer!”  and “you OWE me!” to be pulled out for the camera (timing is important because the signs will be taken away from us) (6) we will echo those slogans in angry sounding tones to the cameras and the reporters.

Williams later updated the post to report that tea partiers in multiple states, including Iowa, Colorado, and Massachusetts, were calling in to plan "their own creative ruses" for embarrasing the union demonstrators. "Several have also reminded me that we have a distinct advantage in that the SEIU primarily represents non-English speaking illegal aliens so we will be the ones whose comments will make air!!!!" he wrote:

Our goal is to make the gathering look as greedy and goonish as we know that it is, ding their credibility with the media and exploit the lazy reporters who just want dramatic shots and outrageous quotes for headlines.  Even if it becomes known that we are plants the quotes and pictures will linger as defacto truth.

Thus far, demonstrations and counterdemonstrations in Madison, Wisconsin, have been peaceful, according to reporting by MJ's own Andy Kroll. Anti-union protesters, led by media mogul Andrew Breitbart, GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain, and "Joe the Plumber," largely fizzled after a rally on Saturday. And the image of union workers that Williams seeks to portray seems to run uphill against the images of the employees' leaders seen thus far. But as labor disputes spread to other states, it remains to be seen whether tactics like those proposed by Williams will be effective in embarassing the public employees...or embarrasing the tea party "plants" themselves.

A couple of years ago Pew Research surveyed news coverage of the economy during the first half of 2009. Who drove stories? Who got quoted in stories? The answer was pretty much what you'd expect: the president, the White House, business leaders, academics, politicians, and ordinary citizens. Do you notice anyone missing from this list? Pew did:

One subset of the American workforce was virtually shut out of the coverage entirely. Representatives of organized labor unions were sources in a mere 2% of all the economy stories studied.

But that was reporting about a financial crisis. Surely things would be different if the story dominating the news was specifically about a state governor's attempt to gut a union and the union's attempt to fight back? Eddie Vale, AFL-CIO political communications director, sets us straight:

While we appreciate coverage of this impt issue quite odd not a single union member or officer invited on any of the Sunday shows

Actually, not so odd at all. In fact, it's par for the course. Unless it's a story about how unions are ruining American education or destroying state pension funds, today's press isn't much interested in what they have to say.

More about this on Tuesday morning, when my piece in the current issue of MoJo about the decline of unions and the not-so-coincidental decline of American liberalism goes online.

Flickr/Peter Gorman

MJ reporter Andy Kroll has been working on the ground in Madison, Wisconsin, with media colleagues from the Uptake to collect the latest on the ongoing labor dispute there. Just a few hours ago, Uptake's Oliver Dykstra scored an interview in the capitol with Mahlon Mitchell, president of the Professional Firefighters of Wisconsin, who pledged solidarity with his fellow state workers, even though firefighters and police were spared from Gov. Scott Walker's attempt to bust state unions' bargaining power. Among Mitchell's pledges: The state's safety workers would agree to forgo some of their privileges and benefits to preserve collective bargaining for all the state's union workers. "We have a unique job," he said, "but so does the snow-plow driver, so does the janitor, so does a nurse, so does a teacher at UW college.

Full video is below. Highlights:

  • "The reason that we are here is because it's important that labor sticks together. There was a message from the governor's office to conquer and divide...collective bargaining is not just for us, police and fire, it's good for all involved. It's a middle-class upbringing."
  • "When firefighters see an emergency, one thing we do is respond. And we see an emergency in the house of labor, so that's why we're here."
  • "Every day, if you notice, we lead the AFSCME employees, the SEIU employees, all the public sector employees into the building, because we are here to fight with them."
  • "Collective bargaining is not about union rights; it's about rights of workers...We ask Gov. Walker to come back and negotiate with the people, negotiatie with the state workers' unions, and get things worked out, as opposed to just putting out this bill and we don't hear from him again."
  • "Us as firefighters, we have been exempted from this bill...There's a 5.8 percent pay into the pension, there's a 12.4 percent pay into the health care premium benefits...For the betterment of the government, for the betterment of the state, we don't mind helping to pay for that. We don't want to price ourselves out of a job. Ever. What we want to do is have a fair and equitable treatment among our members."


[For up-to-the-minute updates on the situation in Madison, Wisconsin, check out Mother Jones' Explainer article.]

It's well-known among Wisconsinites that their embattled, union-busting governor, Republican Scott Walker, never graduated from college. But in four years at Milwaukee's Marquette University, he got plenty of campaigning practice—running for student body president and confessing (eventually) to multiple electioneering violations, according to the school's paper. "For Walker, a questionable campaigning strategy is apparently nothing new," the Marquette Tribune reported at the height of Walker's contentious campaign for governor last October.

According to the Tribune, when Walker was a student from 1986 to 1990—a period in which he earned a GPA of 2.59 and left at least 36 credits shy of a degree—he spent much of his sophomore year running for president of the university's student government—and amassing campaign violations left and right, reminiscent of Reese Witherspoon's Tracy Flick character in the 1999 film Election:

  • He "was found guilty of illegal campaigning two weeks before his candidacy became official."
  • Later, one of his campaign workers was caught stuffing brochures under doors at the school's YMCA, violating the school's ban on door-to-door campaigning.
  • He initially denied the brochure-stuffing allegations, then admitted to them, losing campaigning privileges at the Y.
  • The school paper initially endorsed Walker's opponent, John Quigley, but said either candidate would be a good president. The paper rescinded that editorial the following day, however, calling Walker "unfit for presidency" based on his mudslinging brochures against Quigley...and the fact that Walker's campaign workers were seen snatching up and trashing copies of the previous day's Tribune that had included the Quigley endorsement.

Now, it's easy to make too much of this. School elections are just that, and mature adults shouldn't be judged solely by their adolescent character. But the Tribune's story took place in the midst of another Walker campaign in which dirty tactics abounded. And when the paper interviewed a Marquette campus supporter of Walker's, Stephanie Marecki, her defense sounded anything but certain: 

Marecki also said the most important thing to remember is Walker's plans to solve economic problems in Wisconsin.

"I cannot say how this information will affect the public," Marecki said. "I would just urge voters to pay attention to the issues at hand."

Given the current backlash surrounding his economic plans for the state, Walker might just prefer that people start talking about his college years again. Marecki said something else on that subject: "Anything that happened, he undoubtedly learned a lot from it." True, no doubt; but as Walker holds his ground against state workers, it remains to be seen just how he'll apply the lessons that he took away from that bumpy campaign back at Marquette.

NOTE TO WISCONSIN GOV. SCOTT WALKER: If you're going to pursue a political agenda that alienates state workers and college students, and your capital's in a big ol' state college town, maybe you should at least wait till summer. Or the middle of a hot Big 10 football championship race. But no, you had to announce your plan to effectively end state employees' collective bargaining in mid-February, when classes are in, snow is on the ground, and the Packers are celebrating their title-year offseason. In other words, you gave the kids something to do. Like making and distribuin' the three five Wisconsin-related music videos below:

1) "Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill Protest," by Matt Wisniewski (with Arcade Fire). Don't let the long name fool you: This moving chronicle of the protests and their organizers is destined for viraldom—in fact, it's a lot better than anything to come out of the '08 Obama campaign, and that's saying something. Matt's a 22-year-old student at the University of Wisconsin with a penchant for photo, video, and apparently, Arcade Fire.


1.5) "Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill Protest, Part II" by Matt Wisniewski (with Mumford & Sons). Spurred by the success of his first film, Matt came back Feb. 18 and 19 with an HD camera and the saccharine track "The Cave."


2) "Firefighters at the Capitol," by YouTube user Jessarp24.
 OK, it's not exactly a music video; rather, it's a minute-plus of pipe-and-drum awesomeness from a protester chronicling the action inside the statehouse. Why's it important? Besides the fact that you can't have a good rebellion with bagpipes, it reminds viewers that Wisconsin's keepers of law, order, and public safety—the cops and the firefighters—are behind the unions and the protesters. Total number of arrests by Madison police at 5 p.m. Saturday: zero. What happened to all those lawless union thugs we'd heard all about?

3) "This Is What Democracy Looks Like," by Peter Patau (with Twisted Sister). A simple short chronicle of one Madison march, set to the tune of "We're Not Gonna Take it Anymore." As Patau says, democracy doesn't look like "your typical short network news montage headlined "State of Chaos" (NBC Evening News tonight) and giving the pro-union demonstrators and the Tea Party counter-protesters equal time, even though there were 70,000+ of the former and maybe 2,000 of the latter at best."

4) "This Party Took a Turn for the Douche," by Garfunkel & Oates.
On its face, this rollicking, hilarious video from the L.A.-based comedy duo might not appear to relate to the labor dispute in Mad City. But ever since Andrew Breitbart, Joe the Plumber, and the Koch-financed professional right-wing took advantage of the situation to bus in their own counter-protesters, there's been a certain something in the air...not unlike that douchy nightclub, which hours before seemed so promising, when last call comes around. Keep your eyes peeled for a Sarah Silverman cameo. Also referenced: Jim Croce, Von Dutch hats, Ed Hardy, Axe body spray, Golda Meir, Truman Capote, spray-on tanner, John Donne, Margaret Sanger. Ludicrously NSFW, but capable of producing uncontrollable chortles, nonetheless.


Readers: Got more videos we should add? Link 'em in the comments and we'll update the post with the best ones!

So how big is Wisconsin's budget problem? And did Gov. Scott Walker help create it? Politifact takes a look at the numbers here and tells us.

Nickel version: the projections from the legislative analyst are necessarily subject to a bit of guesswork, but he estimates that Wisconsin will probably have a modest shortfall in the current fiscal year, amounting to about 1% of the total budget. In the two-year cycle after that, the legislative analyst estimates that tax collections will run $190 million below previous estimates. Nearly two-thirds of this revenue deterioration is due to legislation supported and signed by Walker during a special session he called last month.

Bottom line: Wisconsin's budget problems are fairly modest this year, but substantially larger in the two years after that despite the fact that tax revenues are projected to increase about 4% in both 2012 and 2013. However, whatever the size of the future deficit (which is still a point of dispute), revenues for 2012 are about 1% less than previously estimated thanks to Walker's special session bills. Walker isn't at fault for the current year's shortfall, but he is at fault for making the shortfall worse over the next two-year cycle.

Wisconsin's public sector workers have already taken a 3% cut in wages over the past two years. Maybe that's enough, maybe it isn't. But Walker has taken an already pressing problem, made it incrementally worse, and then used it not just as an excuse to bargain hard on wages and benefits, but as an excuse to gut Wisconsin's public unions entirely. (The Democratic-leaning ones, anyway.) It's just not a good faith exercise.

For more, check out Andy Kroll's explainer here, and be sure to scroll down for the updates. Andy's on the ground in Madison right now and you can follow his Twitter feed here.

UPDATE: The original draft of this post underestimated the size of Wisconsin's future deficits. I've corrected the text to more accurately reflect the legislative analyst's estimates. The most recent estimates from the state budget director are here.