Stepping Up to the Challenge of Competition

Today's intensely competitive solid waste marketplace is forcing both private and public operations to undergo dramatic changes to survive.

In the private sector, some companies are consolidating at a mind boggling rate, while simultaneously, others are rapidly divesting of unprofitable assets.

It is nearly impossible to keep track of who owns who, and citizens and businesses may wonder what color truck will pick up their garbage tomorrow. In the public sector, several billion dollars of solid waste debt has been downgraded due to 1994's Carbone vs. Clarkstown decision.

Local government operations now are facing competition and increasing pressures to cut costs and privatize their operations. However, recent experience has shown that governments can succeed in being competitive if they understand their market and use the range of tools available.

Competition works as well in the public sector as in the private sector, and local governments are learning that the "p" word for the future is "profitability" not "privatization."

The Solid Waste Association of North America's (SWANA) guiding principle is that local governments are responsible for solid waste management policies and programs within their jurisdictions, but not necessarily the ownership and operation of those programs. This principle is the basis for effective public-private partnerships that can survive in this complex and rapidly-changing marketplace.

SWANA's guiding principle is not just wishful thinking but a fact. Solid waste management policy is first and foremost public policy and is an essential prerogative of local government.

While governments can contract out some or all of their solid waste operations, they never can contract out their accountability to protect public health and the environment and to achieve recycling and diversion objectives.

Even with privatization, local governments cannot abrogate their public policy responsibility. Therefore, they must retain control of their destinies and not become captive to any particular mode. It is imperative to keep options open, build flexibility into the system and use competition as a tool to improve operations.