Trash Technology Progress, Government Style
When I was young I used to take the trash out to the metal garbage cans by the side of the house. I wasn’t enthusiastic about it and I am sure I complained a lot.
Years later, the local garbage company, a regulated monopoly, introduced new, larger plastic trash containers. But to make it easier for the trash collectors, these had to be rolled to the street. At my mother’s house, this meant to the top of a fairly steep driveway.
Now, many years and technological innovations later, the local garbage company, still a regulated monopoly, has provided new plastic trash, recycling, and yard waste containers. These are designed to be easily emptied by their new garbage trucks. But the new trucks can’t make it down the dead-end road to the top of our driveway.
So when I am nearby on Monday evenings, I am back to taking out the trash again. My mother can’t wheel the nifty new garbage containers up the driveway, up the dead-end road, and out on the street.
It’s not hard for me (or for my uncle, when I am not around), especially on sunny days in the summer. And I sometimes see neighbors I knew in childhood. This Monday, Sheri, my sister’s friend, was over at her mother’s house sorting trash and rolling her garbage cans out to the street. We waved as we each took up long-practiced tasks for our parents. And looking down the street, all our neighborhood trash collection customers had accomplished their weekly chore of sorting trash and wheeling trash containers up or down driveways to the street.
So that’s progress in the world of regulated monopolies. It would be handy if my mother could choose a trash collection company that would collect from containers by the house. Today’s streamlined trash collection technology is great for everyone, except customers, particularly elderly ones. But the new system makes it much easier for the trash company and it’s union workers to quickly and easily collect trash. They have become more productive in part by “convincing” their customer to do an ever-larger share of the trash collection work. This technological progess makes it a bit confusing to figure out who is serving whom.
The next “service” advance is scheduled for 2006 when trash collectors will be empowered to review our trash to determine if it has too much wayward recycling content. If so, they can leave it with a note explaining our error and encouraging further sorting.
If that sounds hard to believe, here’s a report: “Seattle’s mandatory recycling law goes into effect with goal of recycling 60% of the city’s waste. Seattle was the first city in the nation to begin curbside pickup of recyclables and it is now adding fines in order to motivate its citizens to recycle. Since its recycling rate dipped to 40% from a high of 44% in 1995, well below its target of 60%, Seattle has added the possibility of losing garbage pickup for those who do not recycle. Though the penalties do not start until 2006, the new effort has shown good results so far.” (http://www.newstarget.com/005161.html)
I remember visiting my sister soon after Seattle’s curbside recycling started. The city raised prices dramatically for trash collection, thus encouraing customers to fill their recycling containers. I was trying to explain some economic concept to my sister, but she was distracted by one child pulling on her shirt while holding the baby in one arm and trying to peel the paper label off a tin can, after washing it (how can I explain economic concepts with all these distractions!). The cleaned tin cans went into one recycing bin, and the paper in another.
I think back to my youth and imagine sitting around the dinner table as my father reads the above news item on mandatory recycling. I don’t think he would have been afraid of “the possibility of losing garbage pickup.” I think he would have been willing to deliver our trash personally to city hall. But now, decades later, we are conditioned to do more and more to prepare our trash for state-regulated service providers. Perhaps someday we will wrap up our trash and tie a bow around it.
What’s on the horizon for trash collection technology? Perhaps we can see Seattle’s trash and recycling future in today’s Japan. Consider a recent New York Times story:
May 12, 2005, Thursday
How Do Japanese Dump Trash? Let Us Count the Myriad Ways
By NORIMITSU ONISHI (NYT) 1353 words
Late Edition – Final , Section A , Page 1 , Column 1
ABSTRACT – Japanese cities increase number of garbage categories in national drive to reduce waste and increase recycling; in Yokohama, which has 10 garbage categories, residents get 27-page booklet on how to sort their trash, with detailed instructions on 518 items; small town of Kamikatsu has 44 garbage categories; in land-scarce Japan, up to 80 percent of garbage is incinerated; country’s long-term push to sort and recycle aims to reduce amount of garbage that ends up in incinerators; in United States, 80 percent of garbage ends up in landfills; experts say environmentally friendlier process of sorting and recycling may be more expensive than dumping, but is comparable to cost of incineration. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F30E1EFD3B540C718DDDAC0894DD404482&incamp=archive:search
Another website has the full NYT article. Here are some excerpts with details on the “future-trash” Japanese system:
“Lipstick goes into burnables; lipstick tubes, ‘after the contents have been used up,’ into ‘small metals’ or plastics. Take out your tape measure before tossing a kettle: under 12 inches, it goes into small metals, but over that it goes into bulky refuse.
Socks? If only one, it is burnable; a pair goes into used cloth, though only if the socks ‘are not torn, and the left and right sock match.’ Throw neckties into used cloth, but only after they have been “washed and dried.”
‘It was so hard at first,’ said Sumie Uchiki, 65, whose ward began wrestling with the 10 categories last October as part of an early trial. ‘We were just not used to it. I even needed to wear my reading glasses to sort out things correctly.’
So here I am decades later still taking out the trash. And still complaining about it.