September 21, 1999
Private collection offers savings for government, choice for consumers.
Wouldn’t it be nice if our aging population– not to mention people with bad backs and the infirm — could have their garbage collected from their back yards instead of the street curbs? People would become more independent, with one small load lifted from them as they face the growing number of tasks that become difficult with disabilities.
Wouldn’t it be nice if people who will be out of town on their regularly scheduled garbage pickup day could call to have their trash removed a day or two early? Or if streets or neighbourhoods that disliked seeing — and smelling — empty trash cans strewn along sidewalks until evening, when people came home from work, could decide to pay the little extra required to have the garbage collectors return the cans to their proper place?
"You almost never see garbage cans on the street corner here," says Tony Raduazo, the attorney for the City of Jackson, Mich., where citizens wanted cans out of sight, and where any hauler whose trucks pass annual health and safety inspections can compete on price and service for the public’s favour. One of the largest, Emmons Service Inc., an 80-year-old family-owned firm, equips its trucks with two-way radios and its collectors with pagers. If a resident’s garbage isn’t picked up just the way the customer likes it, Emmons makes good by dispatching the nearest truck. Customers who want special pickups — to clear out garden wastes before a garden party, say, or at spring clean-up, can have them. Those on tight budgets, or conscientious recyclers who don’t generate enough trash to fill a garbage can, often share a can with a next-door neighbour, making collection more efficient and urban life more affordable. Residents on some streets decide to limit themselves to one or two haulers, to minimize traffic in their neighbourhood.
"It’s a system that has worked extremely well," says Mr. Raduazo, because no hauler wants to upset a customer. The city, which can refuse to reissue a licence to any irresponsible hauler, has exercised that power only once.
Similar consumer-driven systems also work well in hundreds of other communities — most of them small — throughout Canada and the U.S. Yet big city governments tend to keep a tight lid on the garbage collection services they offer, either by running the collection systems themselves or by contracting them out to private haulers. Contracting out usually doesn’t give consumers any choice, but it does keep costs down: According to the University of Victoria’s Local Government Institute, municipally run garbage collection service costs 42% more.
Even the threat of contracting out helps city budgets. The City of Toronto — which narrowly averted a potentially crippling garbage strike last week — credits the threat of privatization with greatly increasing its staff’s productivity. When in-house staff compete with the private sector for the right to service different residential areas, their performance improves. For example, Indianapolis offered its unionized employees a say in decision-making and a cut of the savings; productivity soared, while costs and complaints from the public dropped. "Our employees have probably done better than any other government employees in the country," enthused Stephan Fantauzzo, executive director of Council No. 62 of the American Federation of State, Country, and Municipal Employees. Accident rates among city garbage staff dropped, and morale increased through the "empowerment of workers, incentives rather than threats and an attempt to be a real partner in the process," explained Steven Quick, president of an Indianapolis AFSCME local.
In contrast, City of Toronto garbage workers, with their history of sky-high absenteeism and morale that’s down in the dumps, will soon vote on a pay package that would give them — after eight years of no wage increases — a mere 2% raise this year. To help finance this meagre increase, areas of the city that once received two weekly pickups have been reduced to one.
Mel Lastman, Toronto’s mayor, and union leader Brian Cochrane both consider this agreement a win, and for them — because a crippling strike would have soiled their reputations — it is. But for those they represent — the citizens of the city who will get less service instead of more, and the city workers who rate a more rewarding work environment — it’s a loss.
People live in cities, above all, because of the quality of life they offer, which in turn depends on tremendous choices in work, play and services. By rejecting diversity in garbage collection, a service every citizen requires, the city becomes that much less inviting to the healthy and accommodating to the frail. In the process, it denies itself the extra jobs those services would entail, and its residents and workers the dignity they deserve.