Efficiency, affordability and convenience are the building blocks upon which exceptional recycling programs are constructed. Many elements are intertwined with these three components, but they stand out as the essential ingredients for success.
Recycling professionals understand and advocate for such collection and processing, but it is sometimes difficult to get elected officials to make the changes necessary to improve efficiency. While many elected officials understand the importance of efficiency, public pressure from residents and the hauling community make it a difficult political issue.
Sidetracked by subscription model
For instance, more than 90 percent of residents in my local program in a Central Pennsylvania municipality are part of individual subscription collection programs. Nearly 25,000 households must choose one of 20 haulers for waste and recycling services.
This is the exact type of collection paradigm the waste and recycling industry should avoid. Beyond being less efficient and more expensive, the system also opens up the possibility of some residents not electing any service, allowing waste to pile up in basements and backyards.
When asked if they would like to change the local collection system if there was even a modest cost savings, a majority of our residents preferred an efficient, less-expensive option. A vocal minority, however, believe municipal or contracted collection is an infringement on their rights. The government should not be telling residents who should pick up their trash any more than they should be telling them where to buy their bread (or so the logic goes).
This argument does not resonate in many communities, however, because waste and recycling collection in those locales is seen as a public utility. In those communities, collection is a service that government provides or facilitates, with the community and elected officials having decided that it makes sense to have one provider instead of 20 – or to have a number of haulers but each assigned to a distinct zone.
This mode of thinking holds that waste and recycling collection, disposal and processing should be no different than water or sewage service. It would be dreadfully inefficient and expensive to have 20 systems of pipes underneath our streets, and it is similarly inefficient to have 20 hauling companies collecting our trash.
Trust in local governments
Additionally, most residents don’t really care about the details of how it gets done. They trust their local governments to make decisions regarding the handling of a wide variety of things. This doesn’t pertain to just waste, recycling, water, sewage and stormwater; we regularly hand leadership and decision-making to government in realms such as transportation infrastructure, schools, police and fire protection.
Particularly in a time when so many struggle to deal with the host of issues life presents, most don’t want to be bothered by details surrounding the provision waste and recycling collection. When they turn on a switch, they expect the light to come on. When they flush, they expect it to go down the drain. When they set materials out at the curbside, they expect them to be picked up and recycled. And along with these expectations is the demand that tasks be done affordably and in the proper manner so as to minimize environmental damage.
While many cringe at the thought of socializing our entire economy, most of our public utilities and services are, in fact, socialist programs. This is not and should not be seen as a social shortcoming, a conspiracy to put local companies out of business, a “commie” plot to undermine our way of living or a ploy to allow “Big Brother” to micromanage our lives (for one thing, all these arguments have been made at public meetings).
Having a city exert control of a collection system is none of these things. It’s a sensible strategy to improve efficiency, lower price and assure everyone has hauling service. In the process, it reduces trash accumulation and illegal use of commercial dumpsters and dumping (since everyone has service). Everyone sets out material on the same day and time, enabling easier curbside inspections and collection oversight to improve compliance. It provides the opportunity to bundle all waste services, including for electronics recycling, hazardous waste and bulky items, so all waste streams are addressed.
Some states and regions cannot fathom that individual subscription systems still exist on a widespread basis. Yet it remains an issue in many parts of the United States. As long as the misperceptions regarding the alternatives persist, it seems likely to remain entrenched in many communities. And recycling and special waste programs will continue to struggle where these inefficient systems hang on.
John Frederick is a board member of the National Recycling Coalition (NRC) and also serves as chair of the National Certification Standards Board of NRC. After 11 years as executive director of the Professional Recyclers of Pennsylvania (PROP), Frederick returned to his local recycling program in Altoona, Pa., the Intermunicipal Relations Committee (IRC). IRC oversees curbside programs in four municipalities and operates two composting facilities.
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The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not imply endorsement by Resource Recycling, Inc. If you have a subject you wish to cover in a future Op-Ed, please send a short proposal to [email protected] for consideration.