Guest Commentary: Garbage-collection inefficiency

Guest Commentary: Garbage-collection inefficiency

By DAN McCOLLUM

The Champaign City Council has approached and backed away from the question of garbage collection more times than I can remember. And there is little expectation that the current council can do any better than those of the past, although there is always hope.

My first encounter with the problem was when I lived on Arlington Court, from 1965 until 1982. On this narrow, one-block-long street, eight different haulers served the 18 households. It occurred to me that the economics might dictate a solution. If all of the residents could agree to contract with one hauler, there would be less congestion and pollution as well as the probability that we could bargain for a reduction in hauling charges.

I called a meeting of my neighbors to see if they shared my concerns. To some extent, most of them recognized the problem, lamenting the noise and excess traffic. Pursuing the issue, I contacted several haulers. Most of them, feeling threatened, backed away from my inquiries, although one was quite interested. In follow-up contacts with my neighbors, to my considerable disappointment, most seemed more inclined to give up their first-born than to switch garbage haulers.

Upon joining the city council in 1983 and then regularly thereafter, I brought up the issue. Each effort met a wall of opposition. There was considerable concern for the livelihoods of the various individual haulers. I could understand that. But the problems created by the continuing inefficiency remained. These included the damage to the streets by the overloaded trucks as they make multiple trips serving their scattered customers, as well as many haulers who have to start early to serve their widespread routes, with the resulting noisy, early wake-ups for residents. Added to that, there are many people who, to avoid the cost of trash collection, dispose of their garbage by using the dumpsters of others or outright dumping.

With virtually no regulation or coordination of garbage services, there also is a significant loss of opportunity to promote waste reduction. Recycling is dealt with as a part of the current system, if it could be called that. While haulers are required to offer recycling services, it is left up to the individual customer to pursue it. Many, if not most, fail to do so. Also missing from the current system is the opportunity to pursue volume-based pricing. Customers who realize the environmental problem of excessive solid waste generation and seek to minimize their waste are lumped in with those who could care less with one-rate fits all rather than being rewarded for their efforts.

It seems ironic that Champaign and Urbana, seemingly enlightened communities, in contrast to most neighboring cities that offer consolidated waste collection either with public sector employees or with private contractors, retain such an inefficient approach to the problem. Progress is inevitable, though change is always difficult; jobs are lost, although others are created. Doing nothing, kicking the can down the road, is the immediate, easy way out, but it does not resolve any of the problems; it just leaves the problem for others to solve. Even temporary patches, such as zoning of garbage pickup areas, do not make all of the problems go away and only prolong other inefficiencies and lost opportunities. Effective leaders, those who step up to the mark by facing and dealing with serious problems, may risk the loss of some friends, but in the end, they are the ones we ultimately admire.

Dan McCollum is the former mayor of Champaign.