GARBAGE COLLECTION CAN BE a noisy business. The clash of metal as containers hit the sides or tops of trucks can be loud. And collection can be especially loud at five in the morning when all you want is more sleep.

For politicians, noise can be a serious issue. Complaints about barking dogs, loud air conditioners and other noise offenders are the biggest cause of telephone calls to the mayor's 311 complaint line in New York City.

As a result, noise is becoming a bigger issue for the garbage and recycling industry. In the past year, Boston, Atlanta and Washington, D.C., all have been the sites of battles over noise allegedly caused by garbage trucks.

I say allegedly because other trucks are noisy too. Several years ago, residents of a housing subdivision in Austin, Texas, insisted their sleep was interrupted by a garbage truck. As it turned out, the offender was a refrigerator truck delivering food to a neighboring convenience store.

In Washington, D.C., solutions to noise and traffic congestion problems recently butted heads. This June, after several downtown hotels complained about noise from early morning trash collection, the District Council considered an ordinance to limit commercial collection to daylight hours. At the same time, the District's Department of Transportation issued a draft study proposing to ease traffic congestion by limiting downtown garbage collection to evening and early morning hours.

If the two proposals went into law, I'm not sure when we could have collected the trash (although the thought of Washington wallowing in its garbage would appeal to some people).

When the National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA) responds to noise ordinances, we note that garbage trucks are big and slow and will create congestion if they can collect business trash only during regular workday hours. We also point out that the resulting congestion will cause traffic to move more slowly and lead to more trucks on the streets to collect the garbage. Higher prices will follow.

If forced to, this industry could figure out how to collect all the garbage in D.C. in one hour a day. But the cost would skyrocket because we'd be using more trucks and more crews.

As part of my work on the D.C. proposal, I toured Washington's downtown alleys. As the business district has evolved, alley access has been reduced and in many cases, truck drivers have to make one or two 90-degree turns in an alley to get to a garbage or recycling container. They have to do this without hitting the sides of buildings, which in many cases form the edges of the turn. They have no room for error. My admiration for their driving skills and their ability to negotiate tight spaces greatly increased.

The D.C. Council decided that congestion is a more serious problem than noise. But I don't expect noise to go away as an issue. Cities are trying to get more people to live downtown. Their new residents will want the excitement and glamour of the big city and the peace and quiet of the suburbs. Then they will have to choose: Do they want suburban quiet or less traffic congestion? They can't have both.

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]

The columnist is state programs director for the National Solid Wastes Management Association, Washington, D.C.