Mandatory Garbage

Kentucky haulers were faced with an unusual problem this year. Both the governor and the state's House of Representatives supported a “universal collection” bill that would require all households and businesses to have a garbage hauler.

Supporters of mandatory garbage collection wanted to clean up the 3,000 or so illegal dumps that litter the Bluegrass state. Illegal dumps are a public health problem and a visual eyesore, and they reasoned that if everyone had a hauler, there would not be a need for illegal dumping.

Unfortunately for mandatory collection's supporters, however, the devil was in the details. Rural areas, especially in the mountainous part of the state, posed unique logistical and cost problems.

Worse yet, while the idea of servicing 300,000 new accounts sounds like a good idea to most hauling companies, the proposed bill didn't require that these new customers pay for their hauling service. Most garbagemen know that people usually don't have a hauler because they can't afford the service or because they don't want to pay for it. As a result, haulers and local governments were in a bind. The state was about to give away garbage service for free.

And, as it turned out, some of the Kentucky counties that already required countywide garbage collection were no more successful at eliminating open dumps than were counties that did not require it. One county still had 80 or so illegal sites 19 years after its mandatory collection program began. To make matters worse, only 85 percent of that county's residents actually paid their garbage bills. Honest citizens were subsidizing the people who couldn't afford to pay and the deadbeats who wouldn't pay.

Kentucky has a vigorous program to combat illegal dumping, which includes posting pictures of illegal dumpers on its website, hoping perps are recognized and brought to justice. The number of illegal dumps has declined during the years. But preventing illegal dumps requires more than having a hauler.

As the Kentucky Senate began debating the legislation, opposition picked up steam. Local governments opposed universal collection because they worried about covering the costs of non-paying accounts out of their general revenue fund. They also were afraid this would be another unfunded mandate. Small haulers were nervous about competing with national companies for countywide contracts. Business groups argued that the extra cost of serving accounts in remote mountain areas and subsidizing nonpayers would mean that universal collection would be a hidden tax.

In the end, the Senate didn't support universal collection. The two houses will try to resolve their differences next year. Kentucky haulers will continue to provide cost-efficient and prompt collection services, and guarantee that customers' garbage is sent to permitted disposal facilities. But haulers and the local governments that they contract with need to know that their bills will be paid. Just as there is no such thing as a free lunch, there also is no such thing as free garbage.

The columnist is director, state programs for the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C.

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