Evaluate environmental impact of current trash hauling system

The great garbage hauling debate cuts to the core of what separates progressives from conservatives. It asks what better serves the community: haulers duking it out free enterprise style, or some form of city oversight. A proposed study before City Council would help answer the question.

Those defending the status quo argue that city intervention would hurt the haulers’ businesses, cost jobs and limit the citizen’s right to choose a hauler.

Proponents of change argue that, currently, as multiple haulers cover the same territory, they do more damage to our fragile streets and burn more diesel fuel than would some form of city-managed plan.

While I don’t dispute the arguments about street damage—actually, reports on street repair cost are quite convincing—I find it a little sad that the debate must focus on concrete. I understand why; City Council is hamstrung without arguments expressed in today’s budget dollars. But, perhaps naïvely, I wish for more visionary thinking.

I’m a diehard believer in the free enterprise system. If you want something done right, you let the markets decide who gets the job. A few ultraconservatives said that God, guts and guns made America great. My list of the top three things that explain America’s greatness includes the brilliance of our founding fathers, glaciers—for creating the richest farmland in the world—and our stalwart belief in capitalism.

The free enterprise system is the right solution for community problems when individuals and businesses can make money doing things that also benefit the community. But when it comes to environmental impact, the normal financial incentives are missing. Right now, a beverage company in Hoboken can fill non-biodegradable plastic bottles with tap water and ship them by diesel truck to San Diego without any financial sacrifice for the greenhouse gases and solid waste produced. Our society is decades away from an economic system that builds into the purchase price of a product the cost of its environmental impact. In other words, when it comes to improving the environment, capitalism won’t get the job done, at least not yet.

There remain a few Dark Agers pontificating that global warming is a hoax, but they will eventually drown in their own stubbornness, not to mention rising seawater. Meanwhile, the growing Reasonable Majority realizes the need for action, and that includes at the local level. That’s why the community, in this case city government, needs to get involved.

At a minimum, we need to understand better the true cost of a system that sends three trucks to do the work of one, emits three times the pollution, and yes, does three times the street damage. Along the way, we need to get serious about recycling if we have a prayer of reaching the 50% diversion goal by 2010. That we currently recycle 25% is embarrassing. I’m skeptical we’ll make real progress when one hauler’s newsletter stresses, “You can choose what, how much and even if your household will participate in recycling.”

I hear so many small arguments. Consumer choice? C’mon, this is trash hauling, not hairstyling. Are we so spoiled? Road repair dollars? Sure, let’s save some money and better fund our schools.

But while we’re squabbling, let’s also look to the horizon and do something to leave a better world for our kids.

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