Circular File: Share the Load

Privatization offers local governments flexibility and savings.

In early July, a headline in the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch blared, “Recycling efforts must be controlled, landfill agency says.” The story was about the attempts of a local solid waste authority to ensure that its landfill investment is protected. The authority is concerned that a new recycling or food waste composting technology might render its landfill obsolete too quickly. Understandably, it wants to protect the taxpayers' investment in the disposal facility.

Of course taxpayer money should be protected. But as I read the newspaper story, I remembered the legend of King Canute. Allegedly, Canute, a Viking ruler in England, placed his throne on the seashore and commanded the tide to stop. It didn't. The Ohio officials will experience the same impotence trying to stave off technological progress as Canute did in his futile battle with the sea. In spite of their desire to protect taxpayers, they will be equally powerless to stop new technologies.

Perhaps a better alternative is to privatize. Why not sell the disposal facility to entrepreneurs who will assume all financial and legal risk and compete in the marketplace for refuse that needs disposal? After all, the authority officials rightly point out that landfills will be needed even if most garbage is recycled.

As many news accounts across the country have noted, financial pressures on local governments are causing a significant increase in outsourcing. The newly incorporated city of Sandy Springs, Ga., shows the advantages of well-managed outsourcing. This city of 90,000 came into existence five years ago. All services except police, fire and 911 are provided by private contractors. According to Governing magazine, officials estimate that outsourcing has saved Sandy Springs taxpayers $20 million a year and that savings in the operating budget have allowed the city to invest $72 million in capital improvements since incorporation. Not a bad deal for those taxpayers.

Some people might argue that privatizing solid waste management eliminates public responsibility for ensuring that the public health is protected and that state-mandated recycling goals are met. That is simply nonsense. Seattle and San Francisco have the most aggressive recycling programs and zero waste goals in America. They also have fully privatized solid waste and recycling systems. In both cases, public sector waste managers have the opportunity to see the big picture and set recycling and zero waste goals. The private sector uses its efficiencies and flexibilities to figure out the best way to meet those goals.

Neither city is afraid of new technologies that might increase recycling or food waste composting. Instead they embrace new technologies and work with private contractors to see what does and doesn't work. Public money is not at risk. Entrepreneurs are trusted to figure out how to meet new recycling and composting goals economically, efficiently and with complete protection of public health and the environment.

Near the end of July, the mayor of Columbus announced plans for a ramped up curbside recycling program that would save Columbus $5 million a year in landfill tipping fees. He noted that Columbus residents currently recycle only 5 percent of their waste, 10 percent if you include yard waste. He wants Columbus to do better.

As local governments face continued financial stress, they will find ways to protect their taxpayers. The efficiencies and flexibility of the private sector will be one of their greatest assets.

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Chaz Miller is state programs director for the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C.

Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the National Solid Wastes Management Association or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at [email protected].