The discussion of residential trash "conservation measures" at the July 20 City Council meeting caught my attention as one typical of the city's leaders—lacking in backup substance and seeming to rely more on political outcomes than real evidenced-based results.
The issue was whether to apply variable trash pickup rates to residents depending on the size of their selected trash receptacle, and how much that variance would be. The stated object was to encourage homeowners to recycle more of their own refuse, and presumably to send less recyclable material to the landfills. A commendable objective on its face, yet one the council felt does not need rationalization or quantitative analysis.
The difference in pricing that is going to make all of us recycle far more than we are currently is a $4 savings per container per month if you drop from a 64-gallon cart to a 35-gallon cart, and a $4 hike if you move up to a 96-gallon cart. Most of us are currently using the 64-gallon container because that was issued at the last trash program change. Although presently you could swap out for a smaller 35-gallon container if you wanted, without a fee reduction.
Under the new program, if you want a second container, the cost is $4 per month for a 35-gallon cart, $6 for a 64-gallon cart and $8 for a 96-gallon cart. This is in addition to the city's own significant administrative surcharge, which is currently 17 percent of its basic trash fee ($27).
The accompanying staff report says this is an "aggressive fee structure," presumably to comport with the Environmental Task Force's recommendation for a program with an aggressive fee structure.
Frankly, I do not see how such a difference in pricing is going to significantly change behaviors. Nor does the council have any documentation to back up that it will—not a survey, not a comparison to another city, not even a poll of the studio audience.
All the council implies is that "cities with a tiered-rate structure show that some of the ... households will consolidate into one large container, or consciously recycle to reduce their trash volume." No comment as to the differential in the rate structure, no quantification of the nebulous term of "some," and no analysis as to how many will recycle more versus how many merely combine into one container (which hardly seems to provide much benefit).
In fairness, this pricing is in line with the basic service fees charged by cities such as Santa Monica and Thousand Oaks, both recognized as having successful trash diversion programs. And neither of those cities allow the 35-gallon container option (Santa Monica, however, doubles the total trash fee for a second container, which I call a really aggressive pricing strucuture).
I find it hard to visualize that such pricing will have much of an effect, and in fact one of my greener friends mentioned that given the price, he will likely keep the larger container for those few times a year it's needed. I imagine that anyone with normal frugality is already employing good conservation and recycling behaviors.
I can speak only from experience that the amount of non-recyclables our household of three throws away pretty much just covers the bottom of the standard 64-gallon container, or perhaps one-third of a 35-gallon container. And, believe me, we are not aggressive recyclers.
I expect that what is more likely to happen under the new proposal is that those people who are already recycling, like my family, might opt down to the smaller container just for grins, bragging rights or pocket change, and the rest of the community will pretty much continue as it has. And the City Council members will be able to pat themselves on the back because they have deployed yet another waste-reduction strategy recognized by the state's Integrated Waste Management Board, thereby adding to their green credentials.
Yet there are other sides to that coin. First, the city will likely increase its already aggressive administrative charge that is added to the basic monthly fee to capture the new costs associated with additional enforcement, issuing new containers and tracking the billing differences between homeowners. This fee already generates $410,580 per year, without the city doing much more than adding the surcharge to your water bill. Just think of the administrative surcharge when the city has to actually do something.
Also, the 64-gallon containers exchanged for the 35-gallon size are hardly going to be given to another homeowner, so I would expect there is a lot of unnecessary waste generated just by the initiation of the program. There's enough life left in my 64-gallon container that I just might consider paying the additional cost until it's time for it to be replaced, even if the containers themselves are recyclable. What will ultimately save the planet is not just recycling, but a general decline in consumption—and that analysis applies to initiating new environmental programs with additional staff and resources.
But are a significant number of those people who throw away more than my family really not recycling? Both my wife and I work outside Manhattan Beach, so surely a lot of our trash footprint ends up elsewhere, compared with someone with a home-based business. So maybe this is a tax on home businesses. We have only one child, so maybe the extra bin cost is really a tax on large families. Or because older folks generally consume less and don't have kids living at home anymore, maybe this is really more of a subsidy for the elderly. Or maybe this fee is implying that you do not have to recycle if you can afford it.
El Segundo has a significant waste diversion rate, and it does not even charge for trash service. And, in the main, we are an equally educated and environmentally responsible community. Consider before we go to such elaborate straits that we are already well within state recycling targets with our simple single-tiered system.
What would seem more effective is for the council to deploy an actual house-by-house recycling intervention surge, interdicting when it is obvious from the curb that a household has not yet got the message and getting to the real problem. It's not like officials would be intruding on someone's private life—it's out there for all to see.
Gary Osterhout is a certified public accountant and 18-year Manhattan Beach resident. To view his complete profile, click here.